Sunday, March 25, 2012

Pandora's Box - An American history of Lulu

Today, Pandora's Box will be shown in Atlanta, Georgia (at 6pm at the Callanwolde Fine Arts Center). To mark the occasion, here is a brief history of its reception in the United States.

Pandora's Box made its world premiere in February of 1929 at the Gloria–Palast in Berlin. German reviews of the time were mixed.

When Pandora’s Box opened at a small art house in New York City in December of that same year, American newspaper and magazine critics were also ambivalent, even hostile. Despite poor reviews, the film did well at its American debut. The New York Sun reported that Pandora’s Box “ . . . has smashed the Fifty-fifth Street Playhouse’s box office records. It will therefore be held for another week.”

It has long been believed that Pandora’ s Box fell into obscurity and was not shown again in the United States until June 1958, when James Card screened the film at the Eastman House in Rochester, New York. However, documents uncovered in the last few years (by the Louise Brooks Society) reveal the film was exhibited on at least one occasion prior to 1958. The Little theater in Newark, New Jersey showed the Pabst film in 1931. Advertisements and newspaper clippings from the time note the film was shown at the Little – today’s equivalent of an art house, with English titles and synchronized sound effects. (The origin of these titles, and the nature of the sound effects, is unknown.) It was also advertised for "adult only."

And a year later, Moviegraphs – the exchange that handled distribution of Pandora’ s Box in New York state – applied for a new exhibition license with the intention of screening the film again. Records of later screenings, however, have yet to be found – and the fuller early history of Pandora’s Box in America remains obscure. It is known, however, that in 1943, Iris Barry, the pioneering curator who started the Museum of Modern Art film department, rejected Pandora’s Box for its collection – stating that the film had no lasting value.

Things changed since then. The film has been screened numerous times since the early 1980's. In 2006, when a new 35mm print of the film was shown at Film Forum in New York, Pandora’s Box was reported to be the week's second highest grossing independent film in the United States.

 Here are some excerpts from early American reviews of Pandora's Box.

“At that the picture is above the average of the usual foreign-made production shown in this type of theatre. It has a fast tempo which in itself is unusual. Undoubtedly Louise Brooks, who is starred, is largely responsible for this. -- Motion Picture News

“Louise Brooks is ideally suited to the role of Lulu.” -- Irene Thirer, New York Daily News

“Louise Brooks, especially imported for the title role, did not pan out, due to no fault of hers. She is quite unsuited to the vamp type which was called for by the play from which the picture was made.” -- Variety

“The management, in a program note, says that the picture, based on Wedekind’s dramas, Erdgeist and The Box of Pandora, has been prevented by the board of review of the Motion Picture Division of the State of New York from being shown here in its entirety, ‘and for the rather saccharine ending that has been added we crave pardon’. . . . Louise Brooks acts vivaciously but with a seeming blindness as to what it is all about.” -- Marguerite Tazelaar, New York Herald Tribune

“But not even the censors may be blamed for all the film’s deficiencies – the acting, for instance, and the rather absurd melodramatic story. . . . Unlike Anna May Wong, and other Hollywood actresses who have blossomed into skilled players under European influence, Miss Brooks doesn’t seem to have improved since her departure. She is comely as ever, but her pantomimic abilities are sadly limited. . . . The picture is one of the less deserving efforts and was received with apathy by the audience.” -- Regina Crewe, New York American

“It was the privilege of a few reviewers to see Pandora’s Box shortly after it was received by its American exhibitors and before the New York censors got at it. In the beginning it appeared to this one to be a rather harmlessly lewd little exhibition with misery and murder and a touch of abnormalcy along other lines, but at that time, at least, it told a sort of story. Now, it is recommended principally, if at all, for its striking photographs of Miss Louise Brooks, the American actress. At least, the persons who have charge of our film morals have seen fit to leave Miss Brooks’s back, legs, and haircut as they pictured at the outset. Miss Brooks, therefore, retains all of her original charms. . . . Miss Brooks is being pursued by a very determined young woman who wears mannish clothes. I am of the opinion that the young woman in mannish clothes is not selling magazine subscriptions to pay her way through college. It does occur to me that Miss Brooks, while one of the handsomest of all the screen girls I have seen, is still one of the most eloquently terrible actresses who ever looked a camera in the eye.” -- Quinn Martin, New York World 

“Louise Brooks, the American actress, has the part of an exotic girl who attracts men and women alike. It is too sophisticated for any but art theater audiences.” -- Harrower, Film Daily

“This feature spent several weeks in the censor’s board’s cutting room: and the result of its stay is a badly contorted drama that from beginning to end reeks with sex and vice that have been so crudely handled as not even to be spicily entertaining. Louise Brooks and Fritz Kortner are starred, with Miss Brooks supposed to be a vampire who causes the ruin of everyone she meets. How anyone could fall for la belle Brooks with the clothes she wears in this vehicle is beyond imagination. . . .  This is a silent production that has no business playing anything but guild theaters.” -- J. F. L., Billboard

“The little theaters continue to lead their own lives. There are nice eighteenth-century sets in Figaro, at the Little Carnegie, and a subdued Kraft-Ebing overtone in Pandora’s Box, at the Fifty-fifth Street Playhouse, for the benefit of the Wedekind group.” -- J. C. M., New Yorker

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