Monday, February 27, 2012

Napleon not to be missed

When Kevin Brownlow's first restoration of Abel Gance's epic silent film, Napoleon (1927), played at the 6000 seat Radio City Music Hall in New York City in 1981, it sold out. As a matter of fact, it sold out again and again and again as additional screenings were hastily added for what was then described as the "movie event of the year."

Now, Brownlow's second major restoration of Napoleon is set to play in Oakland, California in what is being described as the "cinema event of a lifetime." Hyperbole? Not really. Bigger and better than ever before? Decidedly yes.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is presenting Gance's masterpiece – unseen in the United States for nearly 30 years – for four performances only on March 24, 25, 31 and April 1. This exclusive engagement marks not only the U.S. premiere of what is being billed as a complete restoration by Brownlow – an Academy Award honoree in 2011 – but as well the U.S. premiere of an original score by acclaimed composer Carl Davis, who is coming over from England to conduct the Oakland East Bay Symphony.

According to Brownlow and those involved in putting together this monumental undertaking, there are no plans for the film to show anywhere else in the United States – due in part to the extraordinary costs and technical challenges of mounting this "live cinema experience." And, should you be wondering, there are no plans for many of the same reasons for the film to be shown on television or to be released on DVD or Blu-ray. In other words, this really is a "cinema event of a lifetime."

If you love silent film, or if you love the movies in general, and if you are not yet convinced that you need to see this rarely screened masterpiece, here are ten reasons why you shouldn't miss Napoleon.

10) BACKGROUND: For Brownlow, it’s personal. The English film historian, who will be on hand for the event, first came across a fragment of Gance's 1927 masterpiece as a film-obsessed teenager more than 50 years ago. He was wowed. Since then, he has spent much of his life piecing together this lost masterpiece which had been dismissed, neglected, cut up, reworked, and scattered by the winds of time.


 9) KEVIN BROWNLOW: In 2010, this author, documentary filmmaker, and preservationist became the first film historian to win an Academy Award. In an industry which is always looking forward and very seldom backward, that is something special. Brownlow's reputation is legendary. He has authored a handful of classic texts including The Parade's Gone By (1968), a book which helped shape a generation of film scholars and film buffs. [It includes a note of thanks to Louise Brooks and acknowledgement of a debt to the actress "for acting as a prime mover in this book's publication."] The Parade's Gone By is still in print after more than forty years. Brownlow has also made more than a dozen extraordinary documentaries including the 13-part television series, Hollywood  (1979), which aired to great acclaim on both the BBC and PBS. It set the standard for every serious film documentary which followed. [It too includes footage of Louise Brooks.]  Brownlow has, as well, been involved in the restoration of a number of other landmark films, among them The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse  (1921), The Thief of Bagdad  (1924), King Vidor's The Crowd  (1928), and nearly two dozen others including the first film to win an Oscar, Wings  (1928). In the March issue of Vanity Fair, Martin Scorsese wrote "If you love silent movies, Kevin Brownlow should be your hero."

8)  SETTING: It's said that a theater can enhance a film experience. That’s true for the Oakland Paramount, a 1931 Art Deco movie palace designed by the celebrated Timothy L. Pflueger. Still gorgeous after all these years, the 3,000 seat Oakland Paramount has gone through its own restoration and is today entered into the National Register of Historic Places. Thanks in part to this historic venue – a temple to the motion picture experience, movie-goers who attend Napoleon  should expect to find themselves spellbound in darkness, as were those who attended the film's premiere at the Paris Opera in 1927.

7)  MUSIC: The eminent British composer and conductor Carl Davis will lead the Oakland East Bay Symphony (whose home is the Oakland Paramount) in Davis' own score for Napoleon. Written over 30 years ago, it is a marathon and masterful work of film scoring which has twice been expanded to keep up with newly found footage.


 6)  CARL DAVIS: Since 1961, this American born artist has made his home in the UK, where he serves as a conductor with the London Philharmonic Orchestra while regularly conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Carl Davis has written music for more than 100 television programs and feature films, but is best known for creating music to accompany silent films, including key Brownlow restorations. Davis has also assisted in the orchestration of the symphonic works of Paul McCartney, been given a Honorary CBE from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and won a BAFTA Award for Best Film Music.

5) BIGGER AND BETTER:  This current and perhaps final restoration, completed in 2000 but not previously seen outside Europe, reclaims more than 30 minutes of additional footage discovered since the earlier restorations while visually upgrading much of the film. This unique 35mm print, made at the laboratory of the BFI’s National Archive, uses traditional dye-bath techniques to recreate the color tints and tones that enhanced the film on its original release, giving a vividness to the image as never before experienced in this country.

 4) GREATEST FILM EVER MADE: Over the years, many films have been said to be the greatest film ever made. For reasons of film history, for reasons having to do with its own history, and for reasons of artistic achievement, this may be the one film most deserving of the claim. Here is what Vincent Canby had to say in 1981 in the pages of the New York Times. "As one watches Napoleon, one suddenly realizes that there once was a film that justified all of the adjectives that have subsequently been debased by critics as well as advertising copywriters. Napoleon  sweeps; it takes the breath away; it moves (itself as well as the spectator); it dazzles."

3)  POLYVISION: There are few movies so innovative, so daring and so hugely ambitious as Napoleon. In a way, it is a cinematographer's textbook, and what's more, Gance repeatedly broke new ground in this seminal film. To involve the viewer with the drama on the screen, Gance employed rapid cutting and swirling camera movements and put the camera where it had not gone before – like freely hanging from a balloon or handheld on horseback. And suddenly, you are there in history. One of Gance's great innovations was Polyvision. For thefinale, the screen expands to three times its normal width – a kind of triptych – while showing panoramic views and montages of images. There really hasn't been anything else like it, not even Cinerama, which was developed 30 years later. To present Polyvision at the Oakland Paramount, three projection booths equipped with three perfectly-synchronized projectors will be specially installed, along with a purpose-built three-panel screen which will fill the width of the auditorium.

2)  VALUE:  As movie tickets go, these are expensive tickets. They range between $45.00 and $120.00 dollars per person. However, for a five and a half hour movie (the length of three contemporary films) accompanied by a live symphony orchestra (a concert ticket too), the ticket prices to Napoleon are – when everything is added up – rather inexpensive.

1) EXPERIENCE: This presentation of Napoleon is likely the closest we will ever come to experiencing Gance's masterpiece as the director intended it. According to on-line message boards, film goers are flying in from all over the United States and Europe. In ten or twenty or thirty years, when this screening of Napoleon is only a memory, film lovers will ask – were you there? "Did you see the Napoleon at the Paramount in 2012?"


 Kevin Brownlow’s restoration of Abel Gance's Napoleon is being presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in association with American Zoetrope, The Film Preserve, Photoplay Productions, and BFI (British Film Institute). Each screening of the 5 1/2-hour epic will begin at 1:30 in the afternoon and will be shown in four parts with three intermissions, including a dinner break. Local restaurants are creating special Napoleon-themed menus for the event, which is expected to end by 9:30 pm. Further information and ticket availability here and at http://www.silentfilm.org

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Boards of Canada score a bit of Diary of a Lost Girl

Boards of Canada (commonly abbreviated BoC) are a Scottish electronic music duo consisting of brothers Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin. Their music is reminiscent of the warm, analogue sounds of 1970s media and contains themes of childhood, nostalgia and the natural world. Mike and Marcus have mentioned the documentary films of the National Film Board of Canada, from which the group's name is derived, as a source of inspiration. Here, their music accompanies a passage from the 1929 Louise Brooks film, Diary of a Lost Girl.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Beggars of Life celebrated in New York City

Seemingly, it's Jim Tully week in New York City. On Monday, Film Forum screened Beggars of Life, the 1928 Louise Brooks film based on Tully's novelistic memoir of the same name. According to Bruce Goldstein, who heads the NYC film venue, the screening was a complete sellout.

I had written an article about the event which was published on Huffington Post. And, I had noticed a lot of Twitter activity linking to the article and referencing the screening. Among the tweeters was Roger Ebert, a fan of Brooks.

How cool! Wouldn't it be great if Kino or Milestone or Criterion or Flicker Alley released Beggars of Life on DVD. And wouldn't it be even more cool if they paired it with Louise Brooks' unavailable first film, The Street of Forgotten Men, from 1925. I for one think they would go well together - both are dark tales and both cast Brooks in an unusual, dramatic role.

Jim Tully week continues today when Tully biographers Paul J. Bauer and Mark Dawidziak speak about the author at New York University's Ireland House at 7 pm. I received an email from the biographers, and they mentioned that they will also speak a bit about Beggars of Life and Brooks' role in the film. I wish I could be there.

Their biography of the author, Jim Tully: American Writer, Irish Rover, Hollywood Brawler (Kent State University Press), is really, really good. The book includes a forward by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns (yes, that Ken Burns - of PBS fame) who calls it "hugely important." You should check it out, as Tully led an interesting life and worked a lot in Hollywood.

Here is the press release from New York University's Ireland House:
Biographers Mark Dawidziak and Paul Bauer present the remarkable life of Jim Tully (1886-1947), the Irish-American vagabond and hard-boiled writer who rocked Hollywood during the Roaring Twenties. 
 The son of an Irish ditch-digger, Jim Tully spent most of his teenage years in the company of hoboes. After six years on the road, he jumped off a railroad car with wild aspirations of becoming a writer. While chasing his dream, Tully worked as a chain maker, boxer, newspaper reporter, and tree surgeon. All the while he was crafting his memories of the road into a dark and astonishing chronicle of the American underclass.

After moving to Hollywood and working for Charlie Chaplin, Tully began to write a stream of critically acclaimed books mostly about his road years, including Beggars of Life, Circus Parade, Blood on the Moon, Shadows of Men, and Shanty Irish. He quickly established himself as a major American author and used his status to launch a parallel career as a Hollywood journalist. Much as his gritty books shocked the country, his magazine articles on movies shocked Hollywood. Along the way, he picked up such close friends as W. C. Fields, Jack Dempsey, Damon Runyon, Lon Chaney, Frank Capra, and Erich von Stroheim. He also memorably crossed paths with Jack London, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, and Langston Hughes.

Mark Dawidziak is the television critic for the Plain Dealer newspaper and has been a theater, film, and television reviewer for thirty years with many nonfiction books to his credit. He is also a novelist, playwright and Mark Twain scholar. Paul Bauer is the owner of Archer's Used and Rare Books in Kent, Ohio, and is the co-author of Frazier Robinson's autobiography, Catching Dreams: My Life in the Negro Baseball Leagues.

Introduction by Linda Dowling Almeida, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Irish and Irish-American Studies at NYU, who teaches Irish-American history and literature.
Free admission to Members of Glucksman Ireland House and to all students / faculty with a valid NYU I.D. card. For non-members: $10 donation at the door for the general event series. In order to ensure a seat at events, please RSVP to 212-998-3950 (option 3) or email ireland.house@nyu.edu

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Louise Brooks in the New Yorker

Christopher Isherwood, author of the Berlin Stories - which became Cabaret, had a thing for Louise Brooks' neck. He raved about it. Film critic David Denby has a thing for Louise Brooks' back.



Writing in the current issue of the New Yorker magazine, Denby has authored a long piece celebrating the silent film era and Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist. Louise Brooks' back plays a central role in Denby's piece, and, she is pictured more than once. Denby's four page article is well worth reading. Check it out here.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Beggars of Life: a review of reviews

Beggars of Life will be screened on February 20th as part of Film Forum's Wellman Festival taking place in New York City. It is a great opportunity to see a rarely screened film not readily available on DVD. Back in 1928 and 1929, the film was screened widely and just as widely reviewed. Here are extracts from some of those reviews.

“Wallace Beery plays the lead, with Richard Arlen and Louise Brooks. All of these stars outdo themselves in this picture. Wallace Beery talks in this picture, sings a hobo song and ends with an observation about jungle rats in general.” -- Kelcey Allen, Women’s Wear Daily

“Of these three pictures it is the only one weakened by a conventional plot, a plot for which I see no reason except that it gives Louise Brooks a chance to wear boy’s clothes and to jump a freight, both of which she always does, however, with an imperturbable maidenliness, generally to the synchronized accompaniment of sentimental music.” -- J. C. M., New Yorker

“Miss Brooks looks attractive, even in men’s clothes, and scores in the two or three scenes where she is placed on defensive against male attackers.” -- Mori, Variety

“Louise Brooks, in a complete departure from the pert flapper that it has been her wont to portray, here definitely places herself on the map as a fine actress. Her characterizations, drawn with the utmost simplicity, is genuinely affecting.” -- P. G., New York Morning Telegraph

“Louise Brooks figures as Nancy. She is seen for the greater part of this subject in male attire, having decided to wear these clothes to avoid being apprehended. Miss Brooks really acts well, better than she has in most of her other pictures.” -- Mordaunt Hall, New York Times

“A great deal of the charm which is contained in Mr. Tully’s realistic tales of hobo life has been brought to the screen in Paramount’s picture made from Beggars of Life. . . . Here we have Louise Brooks, that handsome brunette, playing the part of a fugitive from justice, and playing as if she meant it, and with a certain impressive authority and manner. This is the best acting this remarkable young woman has done.”  -- Quinn Martin, New York World

“Richard Arlen’s juvenile vagrant, so delightfully played on the stage by James Cagney, is an excellent piece of work, while Louise Brooks’s delineation of the girl fugitive is so good as to indicate that Miss Brooks is a real actress, as well as an alluring personality.” -- Richard Watts Jr., New York Herald Tribune

“Richard Arlen and Louise Brooks also capture honors for their sincerity and a poignant, moving quality they infuse into their roles without seeming to act at all. Miss Brooks, who has hitherto qualified as a particularly provocative figure, now establishes herself as a real actress.” -- Norbert Lusk, Los Angeles Times

“I was a little disappointed in Louise Brooks. She is so much more the modern flapper type, the Ziegfeld Follies girl, who wears clothes and is always gay and flippant. This girl is somber, worried to distraction and in no comedy mood. Miss Brook is infinitely better when she has her lighter moments.” -- Louella Parsons, Los Angeles Examiner

“Considered from a moral standpoint, Beggars of Life is questionable, for it throws the glamour of adventure over tramp life and is occupied with building sympathy for an escaping murderess. As entertainment, however, it has tenseness and rugged earthy humor. . . . It is a departure from the wishy-washy romance and the fervid triangle drama.” -- Harrison Carroll, Los Angeles Evening Herald

“Louise Brooks does her best trouping: she is absolutely convincing.” -- Weekly Film Review

“Beery with his coarse humor and Miss Brooks with her simplicity are exceedingly good. The direction is admirable. Vitaphonic sounds lend some extra force. Beery is heard singing.” -- Frank Aston, Cincinnati Post

“The picture is a raw, sometimes bleeding slice of life. . . . Both Arlen and Miss Brooks appear as effectively as I have ever seen either of them. They are a couple of babes in the ‘jungles’ and they understand their characters. Miss Brooks, considering her record, does surprisingly well.” -- W. Ward Marsh, Cleveland Plain Dealer

“The American tramp receives his glorification on the Michigan screen this week. . . . Louise Brooks, who always looks gorgeous in beautiful clothes, suffers a bit from the man’s garments called for by the role, but she does well.” -- Harold Heffernan, Detroit News

“Wallace Beery, Richard Arlen (also playing in Wings) and Louise Brooks play the featured roles. All do praiseworthy work. By the way it is a sound picture and Wallace Beery speaks a few lines and sings a song. His speaking voice is splendid.” -- Peggy Patton, Wisconsin News

“Another good bit was a scene where Louise Brooks describes a murder. It is much the same way in which Victor Seastrom showed thoughts in Masks of the Devil. Miss Brooks’ face was superimposed upon the action which took place during the murder, and thus the audience got her reaction to everything. It was very interesting.” -- Donald Beaton, Film Spectator

“Beggars of Life was recognized as one of Paramount’s major productions of the year, even aside from the sound feature. With sound feature, it is overwhelming in its power.” -- Hollywood Filmograph

“The story which has been something of a screen sensation is said to be based upon the life and adventures of its author who before he took ‘his pen in hand’ saw most of America from ‘side door Pullmans’. . . . the cast includes Louise Brooks as Nancy and Richard Arlen as Jim.” -- Manly Wade Wellman, Wichita Beacon

“Louise Brooks is interesting, with a cold, half-insolent beauty of face and figure masking a hidden fire. It is a new Louise Brooks.” -- W. J. Bahmer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



“Louise Brooks essays the difficult role of a girl tramp escaping from police who seek her for murder. She is a star of no little amount of personality - the sort she would have to have to enable her to carry the type of role she has in this picture through successfully and that she does. If her career in pictures is further enhanced through her work in Beggars of Life, it will not be underserved.” -- J. O. C., Memphis Commercial Appeal

“Louise Brooks, as the girl who murdered her guardian to save herself, and turns hobo to escape the vengeance of the law, is an actress who will bear watching. She has a vivid personality. Her attempts to walk like her ‘adopted’ pal, Jim, so her masculine disguise will not be discovered: her emotional reactions finely restrained as she lies beneath the stars with a haystack as a roof, and knows ‘that all she wants is peace and a home,’ give her opportunity to disclose some very effective acting in a subtle manner.” --   Ada Hanifin, San Francisco Examiner

“The Great Unshaven appear in numbers, and at the same time there is a well-sustained romantic theme most admirably interpreted by Louise Brooks and Richard Arlen. Accompanied by a synchronized musical score of more than average excellence, the picture provides an hour and a half of film entertainment radically out of line with the general run of cinema drama. It is pungent, powerful, appealing, masterfully directed and superbly acted.” -- San Diego Union

“In Beggars of Life, Edgar Blue Washington, race star, was signed by Paramount for what is regarded as the most important Negro screen role of the year, that of Big Mose. The part is that of a sympathetic character, hardly less important to the epic of tramp life than those of Wallace Beery, Louise Brooks and Richard Arlen, who head the cast.” -- The Afro-American

“Sordid, grim and unpleasant, it is nevertheless interesting and is certainly a departure from the usual movie. Its salient features are excellent acting on the part of Mr. Berry, Richard Arlen, and Louise Brooks, distinguished direction and photography and undeniable sincerity of intention. . . . Sound effects add to, rather than detract for once, and Wallace Beery sings a rollicking ditty somewhat self-consciously.” -- Picture Play

“Louise Brooks is cute in her little trousers, and not so cute in the final feminine sun bonnet. . . . This is rough, romantic, tender, dramatic and very good indeed.” -- Motion Picture

“ . . . one of the most entertaining films of the littered season.” -- Musical Courier

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Pandora's Box screens twice in Cardiff

Pandora's Box- the once controversial and heavily censored 1929 German film which introduced the screen's "first unequivocal lesbian," is set to screen twice in Cardiff, England.  

The two screenings, sponsored by Chapter Cinema, are set to take place on February 19 and 21 at Cinema 1. Additionally, each showing of the classic silent film will include a post-screening discussion by Lavender Screen, Cardiff’s lesbian and bisexual movie club.

Pandora’s Box tells the story of Lulu, a lovely, amoral, and somewhat petulant show-girl whose flirtations lead to devastating encounters. Lulu is played by Louise Brooks, an American actress who was recruited for the iconic German role.

Close Up, an English film journal of the time with a keen interest in adventuresome German film, noted "The long search at last is ended. Lulu has been found. . . . Having literally searched the whole of Europe for a suitable type for Lulu in The Box of Pandora (adapted from the book by Wedekind), having interviewed hundreds and tested scores, in Germany, France, Sweden, Austria, Hungary, G. W. Pabst has at last found, in America, the type for which he had been seeking in vain. Lulu will be no other than Louise Brooks, the well-known junior Paramount star. The search for Lulu has been almost the principal topic of interest in Germany for a couple of months. Everywhere one went one heard ‘What about Lulu?’ ‘Is Lulu found yet’ . . . Lulu is found. And now, after long delay, Pandora will be filmed by Nero Film."

In another piece, Close Up observed, "Louise Brooks is not chosen because she is Louise Brooks but because, for whatever reason, she looks likely to find it easier than anyone else might, to sink into and become a visual expression of Lulu in Pandora’s Box."

The film was based on two turn-of-the-last-century plays by Frank Wedekind, a German writer not without troubles brought about by his writings. Wedekind's other major work is Spring Awakening, which recently has been transformed into a rock musical which has also drawn its own share of raised eyebrows.

Lulu has been described, variously, as a vamp or femme fatale, but in fact she is a kind of innocent. As one writer put it, her “sinless sexuality hypnotizes and destroys the weak, lustful men around her.” And not just men, as the Cardiff group points out. Lulu’s sexual magnetism knows few bounds, and this once controversial and heavily censored German film features what is described as cinema's first lesbian character. The Countess Anna Geschwitz, a lesser character covertly in love with Lulu, is played by Alice Roberts, a Belgian actress.


The film made its world premiere February 9, 1929 at the Gloria–Palast in Berlin. German reviews of the time were mixed. The same held true when the film played in various European capitals. A large part of the critical disregard for the film stemmed from the fact that it was censored - due to its provocative subject matter. The poet Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), writing in Close Up, stated the film “ . . . passed by the German censors after a stormy discussion of several hour duration.”

When Pandora’s Box opened at a small art house in New York City in December of 1929, American newspaper and magazine critics were also ambivalent. Photoplay, one of the leading American film magazines, noted “When the censors got through with this German-made picture featuring Louise Brooks, there was little left but a faint, musty odor. It is the story, both spicy and sordid, of a little dancing girl who spread evil everywhere without being too naughty herself. Interesting to American fans because it shows Louise, formerly an American ingénue in silent films, doing grand work as the evil-spreader.”

Another English film journal of the time, The Bioscope, echoed those sentiments. "The picture starts well. Then comes the scene when Lulu refuses to go on the first night of the revue. This is unconvincing. . . . Louise Brooks does all that is possible in the role of Lulu. Her performance, combined with the masterful characterization of the wealthy man by Fritz Kortner, makes the early scenes definitely dramatic and effective."


After more than a few decades of obscurity, Pandora's Box is now regarded as one of the great masterpieces of the silent era. Ticket availability and further information about the Cardiff screening of Pandora's Box can be found at http://www.chapter.org/25868.html

Friday, February 17, 2012

Louise Brooks in Beggars of Life screens in New York City

Beggars of Life is a film whose reputation is picking up steam.

Directed by William Wellman the year after he made Wings (the first film to win an Academy Award), Beggars of Life (1928) is a gripping drama about a girl (Louise Brooks) dressed as a boy who flees the law after killing her abusive stepfather. On the run, she rides the rails through a male dominated hobo underworld in which danger is always close at hand. Picture Play magazine described the film as "Sordid, grim and unpleasant," though added "it is nevertheless interesting and is certainly a departure from the usual movie."

Beggars of Life will be screened on February 20th as part of Film Forum's Wellman Festival. It is a great opportunity to see a rarely screened film not readily available on DVD.

Beggars of Life is based on the 1925 novelistic memoir of the same name by Jim Tully, a once celebrated "hobo author" whose own reputation is also on the rise. Kent State University Press in Kent, Ohio (Tully's one-time hometown) has launched an ambitious program of reissuing the author's books, including Beggars of Life -- his best remembered work. They have also recently published an excellent biography of the author called Jim Tully: American Writer, Irish Rover, Hollywood Brawler. The book includes a forward by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who calls it "hugely important." 

Coincidentally, Tully biographers Paul J. Bauer and Mark Dawidziak are speaking about the author at New York University's Ireland House on February 23 at 7 pm. More info here.

Though shot as a silent, Beggars of Life has the distinction of being considered Paramount's first sound film: a synchronized musical score, sound effects, and a song were added at the time of its release. Early advertisements for the 1928 film even boasted "Come hear Wallace Beery sing!" The gravel-voiced character actor and future Oscar winner plays Oklahoma Red, a tough hobo with a soft heart. Richard Arlen, who the year before had starred in Wings, plays Brooks' romantic interest. 

Beggars of Life is a film about the desperate and the downtrodden. And in some ways, it anticipates films made during the Depression, which was just a few years off. Among them is Wellman's own Wild Boys of the Road, from 1933. It too is included in the Wellman Festival.


2012-02-17-Beggars_Life_1928_301_sil70.jpg
Richard Arlen and Louise Brooks in Beggars of Life.

In 1928, Beggars of Life was named one of the six best films for October by the Chicago Tribune, and, it made the honor roll for best films of the year in an annual poll conducted by The Film Daily. Nevertheless, it is little known today and its grim story set among disheveled tramps drew mixed reviews upon release. One Baltimore newspaper said it would have limited appeal, quipping, "Tully tale not a flapper fetcher for the daytime trade."

Louella Parsons, writing in the Los Angeles Examiner, echoed the sentiment when she stated, "I was a little disappointed in Louise Brooks. She is so much more the modern flapper type, the Ziegfeld Follies girl, who wears clothes and is always gay and flippant. This girl is somber, worried to distraction and in no comedy mood. Miss Brooks is infinitely better when she has her lighter moments." Her cross-town colleague, Harrison Carroll, added to the drumbeat of disdain when he wrote in the Los Angeles Evening Herald, "Considered from a moral standpoint, Beggars of Life is questionable, for it throws the glamour of adventure over tramp life and is occupied with building sympathy for an escaping murderess. As entertainment, however, it has tenseness and rugged earthy humor." 

Critics in New York were also divided on the merits of Beggars of Life, so many of them instead focused on Brooks' unconventional, cross-dressing role. Brooks, it should be noted, was something of a local celebrity in the 1920s. The actress had lived in New York in the mid-twenties while appearing with the George White Scandals and Ziegfeld Follies. And, more often than not related to some outrageous behavior or a scandal, she also managed to get her name or picture in the paper on more than a few occasions. 

Mordaunt Hall, in the New York Times, noted, "Louise Brooks figures as Nancy. She is seen for the greater part of this subject in male attire, having decided to wear these clothes to avoid being apprehended. Miss Brooks really acts well, better than she has in most of her other pictures."

The New York Morning Telegraph penned, "Louise Brooks, in a complete departure from the pert flapper that it has been her wont to portray, here definitely places herself on the map as a fine actress. Her characterizations, drawn with the utmost simplicity, is genuinely affecting." While Quinn Martin of the New York World wrote, "Here we have Louise Brooks, that handsome brunette, playing the part of a fugitive from justice, and playing as if she meant it, and with a certain impressive authority and manner. This is the best acting this remarkable young woman has done."

Indeed, it was Brooks' best acting and her best silent film prior to her heading off to Germany to star in Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl (both 1929). It is on those two films, each directed by G.W. Pabst, that Brooks' reputation rests.

Girls dressed as boys, pastoral life gone wrong, the mingling of the races, desperation depicted among the glitz and glamour of the twenties -- there is a lot of friction and a lot going on in Beggars of Life. It's a more than worthwhile film and one well worth watching. And, until a few years ago when the George Eastman House blew-up its sole surviving 16mm print to 35mm, Beggars of Life had been little seen. 

Wellman was one of the great directors -- and he made a lot of great movies; among them are Wings (1927), The Public Enemy (1931), A Star is Born (1937), Beau Geste (1939), Roxie Hart (1942), The Ox Bow Incident (1943), and Battleground (1949). Actor and author William Wellman Jr., who has recently completed a biography of his father and is introducing some of the movies at the Wellman Festival, stated via email, "Beggars of Life was one of my Father's favorite silent films. He loved it. He talked about it a great deal with appreciation and GUSTO." 


Beggars of Life will be screened on February 20th as part of Film Forum's William Wellman Festival. Start time is 8:35 pm. Musical accompaniment will be provided by Steve Sterner. Film Forum is located at 209 West Houston St., west of 6th Ave.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

And the Oscar for best hair goes to Louise Brooks

According to the New York Times, and according to Ted Gibson - who has been campaigning for a "Best Hair" award, none other than Louise Brooks should have won the first Oscar for "Best Hair." In "Hairstyles Worthy of an Oscar Nod,"  Catherine Saint Louis stated
“The Show Off” (1926), starring Louise Brooks (it actually predates the first Oscars in 1929). “Women then weren’t wearing haircuts — they wore sets, waved hair,” he said, but her straight haircut with bangs to her cheekbones “changed the course of how women wear their hair, it introduced women to a new way of thinking.”
Louise Brooks is also pictured in the article. Check it out here.

Monday, February 13, 2012

100,000 and counting

I just took a look at the stats for the Louise Brooks Society blog and see that nearly 100,000 people have visited this blog over the last couple, three years. Wow! That is gratifying. To date, there have been nearly 400 entries here on Blogger.  Thank you for your interest.


This blog is authored by Thomas Gladysz, the founding Director of the Louise Brooks Society. It is a continuation of the old blog at LiveJournal. Please send comments or questions to silentfilmbuff {AT} gmail DOT com.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Those without a time machine need not despair

Had you been alive and living in Charleston, West Virginia in mid-November of 1928, you could have gone to a local movie theater and taken in not only Abel Gance's Napoleon but also William Wellman's Beggars of Life, starring Louise Brooks. Regrettably, the Gance film was being shown in a severely truncated version - cut down from six hours to 80 minutes by MGM, its American distributor. Which version of Beggars of Life was being shown is not certain. Perhaps it was the silent version or perhaps it was the version with added sound effects and a musical score including Wallace Beery croaking out a version of the once popular theme song. Beggars of Life has the distinction of being Paramount's first sound film.

The newspaper page shown below includes Albert Dieudonne as Napoleon depicted in the upper right. Beery, Richard Arlen and Brooks are depicted in a scene from Beggars of Life in the middle left. The Brooks film is also noted as a future attraction in the lower right.


Those without a time machine need not despair! Beggars of Life will be screened in New York City on Monday, February 20, 2012 as part of the Film Forum's ongoing William Wellman tribute. Musical accompaniment will be provided by Steve Sterner. More info on this event can be found on this webpage.

And, on March 24, 25, 31 and April 1, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is presenting Kevin Brownlow's epic restoration of Abel Gance's epic masterpiece Napoleon (1927) in a as-complete-as-it-will-ever-be five and one-half hour version with its original three screen finale and live musical accompaniment by Carl Davis leading the Oakland East Bay Symphony. More info on this extraordinary event can be found on this webpage.

Oh, and in case you are curious, here is a copy of the newspaper advertisement for Napoleon which ran on November 14, 1928 - which also happened to be Louise Brooks' 22nd birthday. At the time, the actress was in Berlin filming Pandora's Box.

Friday, February 10, 2012

"Berlin," a song about Louise Brooks by Gosta Berling

I received an email today from Damon Anderson, a rock musician and fan of Louise Brooks who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. He wrote to tell me about a song his band, Gosta Berling, has recorded which is about the actress.

Damon wrote, "I am a card carrying member of the LBS and a member of the local band, "Gosta Berling". We have a song about Louise Brooks and I just thought you might appreciate it. We are not well-known but we are a working band and play gigs in the Bay Area every month or so. We are nerds about the silent film era and old movies in general so it was natural to start writing about that stuff when we started playing music. I love that there is a Louise Brooks Society and that it's here."

I like the song, and think Gosta Berling has a great sound. I encourage everyone to check out their accompanying video as well.



The description on the song's YouTube page reads, "The song "Berlin" by Gosta Berling was inspired by the life of Louise Brooks. It focuses specifically on the period when she left Hollywood in 1928, burning many bridges, to travel to Germany for her greatest starring role, as Lulu in Pandora's Box. Her story and iconic image have inspired many tributes - songs, books, plays and movies. The fascinating and frustrating saga of her life is captured in the biography "Louise Brooks" by Barry Parris - which I devoured while writing the words to this song. The images for this video were all scanned from the book "Lulu Forever" by Peter Cowie. This song is on our first EP, Everybody's Sweetheart (2007)."

I hope to catch their live act sometime soon. In the meantime, you can check them out at their website at http://www.gostaberling.com/ and on their Facebook page.
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