Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Francis Lederer

Franz (or Francis) Lederer, Louise Brooks co-star in Pandora's Box, is one of two actors who star in two films at this year's San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

As this year's centerpiece program, the Festival will screen Pandora's Box (1929) in what is being described as a frame-by-frame digital restoration. This new and true restoration has only been shown twice before in the world, once in Los Angeles (where funder Hugh Hefner was present) and once in London at the BFI.

The other Lederer film which will be screened at the 2012 Festival is also from 1929, The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna. Directed by Hanns Schwarz (1888 - 1945), and set in Czarist St. Petersburg, The Wonderful Lie is the story of the mistress (Brigitte Helm) of an upper class general who gives up her pampered life for the love of a lowly lieutenant (played by Lederer). Here is a still from that film. Lederer stands in the street, while Helm looks down from the window above.

I saw this film when it was shown at Cinecon in Hollywood the 1990s. Lederer, though very old, was there, and he took questions from the audience about his career - including a couple about Louise Brooks. I even got his autograph on my Cinecon program and had a snapshot taken with the both of us in it.

At the time The Wonderful Lie was released, both Helm (Metropolis) and Lederer were major stars in Europe. Hanns Schwarz, though little known today, was an Austrian film director of note who would go on to direct twenty four films (both in English and German) between the years 1924 and 1937. His last film was the 1937 British thriller Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel. He died in California in 1945.

The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna is considered Schwarz's masterpiece. Superb in every way, the film is sometimes called “Ophülsian,” after the film director Max Ophüls, who is known for his distinctive smooth camera movements, complex crane and dolly sweeps, and tracking shots which influenced later directors from the young Stanley Kubrick to contemporary Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood).

Lederer came to America in 1931, and with the worsening situation in Europe, decided to stay. According to Wikipedia: "Lederer's first American movies were fairly light fare in which he played the leading man, in films such as Man of Two Worlds (1934), Romance in Manhattan (1934), opposite Ginger Rogers, The Gay Deception (1935), opposite Frances Dee, and One Rainy Afternoon (1936). He won the lead opposite Katharine Hepburn in the 1935 film Break of Hearts, but the producers replaced him with Charles Boyer. It was Irving Thalberg's plan to make Lederer "the biggest star in Hollywood" but the death of Thalberg ended that, and Lederer never really caught on as a star in the American mode."

"Although he continued to occasionally play leads – notably when he was a playboy in Billy Wilder's Midnight with Claudette Colbert and John Barrymore in 1939 – in the late 1930s Lederer began to expand his film acting repertoire with offbeat character parts, even playing villains. Edward G. Robinson praised Lederer's performance as a German American Bundist opposite him in Confessions of a Nazi Spy in 1939, and he earned plaudits for his portrayal of a Fascist in The Man I Married (1940) opposite Joan Bennett. He also played a vampire for The Return of Dracula in 1958."

Later films include parts in The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1944), and in films such as Jean Renoir's The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946), Million Dollar Weekend (1948) and later television shows such as The UntouchablesMission: Impossible and That Girl. His final television appearance occurred in a 1971 episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery. I have seen Lederer in Confessions of a Nazi Spy and The Return of Dracula and liked him in both, though both were lesser films.

The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna screens at the Castro Theater on Friday, July 13. Further information about the San Francisco Silent Film Festival can be found on their website at www.silentfilm.org. The Festival takes place July 12 – 15th.

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