FROM SF GATE BLOG BY THOMAS GLADYSZ — On Saturday July 14th, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival will show Pandora’s Box. Today, it is considered one of the great films of all time, largely in part because of the stunning performance given by Louise Brooks in the role of Lulu. Saturday’s event marks the second time in the Festival’s 17 year history that G.W. Pabst’s 1929 masterpiece has been shown. However, it is the first time that this very special version of the film has been seen anywhere in the San Francisco Bay Area.
For locals, and for Louise Brooks fans everywhere, this San Francisco screening is a must attend event. That’s because the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is showing a new and true, frame-by-frame, digital restoration of Pandora’s Box. And by all reports, it is gorgeous. Not available on DVD, this restoration has only been shown twice before anywhere in the world. And what’s more, the team responsible for the restoration are local residents Angela Holm, David Ferguson and Vincent Pirozzi. They will be introducing the event at the Castro theater.
Controversial, censored, cut, and critically disregarded when it first debuted, Pandora’s Box is today considered one of great silent films. This restoration, the Festival’s centerpiece event, was funded by silent movie enthusiast and Louise Brooks partisan Hugh Hefner. It may come as close as we will ever get to director Pabst’s original vision – and Brooks’ original luminescence.
This screening is also significant as it marks something of return for the character of Lulu, whose creator was almost born in San Francisco. As most filmgoers know,Pandora’s Box is based on two plays, Earth Spirit (1895) and Pandora’s Box (1904), by the German writer Frank Wedekind (1864 – 1918). Today, he is best known as the author of Spring Awakening (1891), which six years ago was turned into a hugely popular Broadway musical.
What’s little known is that Wedekind’s parents were European immigrants resident in San Francisco in the years following the 1849 Gold Rush. His German father was a physician and progressive democrat whose participation in the Revolutions of 1848 (in the German states) led him to exile in America. Wedekind’s Swiss mother was an attractive singer and actress twenty-three years his junior. This unlikely and unconventional union has led some scholars to speculate that the relationship between Wedekind’s parents could have served as a model for the similar, unconventional relationship between the older and respected Dr. Schon and the much younger showgirl Lulu in Pandora’s Box.
Of course, such things are open to interpretation. However, what we do know is that Friedrich Wedekind and Emilie Kammerer’s second child – the future writer – was conceived in San Francisco, and born in what is now Hanover, Germany. According to Wedekind’s biography, early in the pregnancy the homesick couple risked a return to their homeland, and stayed. And that’s where Benjamin Frank(lin) Wedekind, named for the free-thinking American writer, was born in 1864.
To mark the occasion of the first ever showing of the restored Pandora’s Box in San Francisco, what follows is a brief, discursive history of the film’s reception in the United States and the greater Bay Area.
Pandora’s Box had its world premiere in February of 1929 at the Gloria–Palast theater in Berlin. German reviews of the time were mixed, even dismissive. (See the essay in the Festival program for a fuller account.) Some months later, when Pandora’s Box opened at a single theater in New York City, American newspaper and magazine critics were similarly ambivalent, and even hostile.
In its now infamous review, the New York Times critic stated, “In an introductory title the management sets forth that it has been prevented by the censors from showing the film in its entirety, and it also apologizes for what it termed ‘an added saccharine ending’.” Adding salt to the wound, the Times critic noted, “Miss Brooks is attractive and she moves her head and eyes at the proper moment, but whether she is endeavoring to express joy, woe, anger or satisfaction it is often difficult to decide.” Ouch.
Despite poor reviews, the film drew crowds. The New York Sun reported that Pandora’s Box ” . . . has smashed the Fifty-fifth Street Playhouse’s box office records,” and was held over for another week. With its brief run completed, Pandora’s Box fell into an obscurity from which it barely escaped.
Things have changed since the late 1920s, and the reputation of Pandora’s Box has continued to grow. The film has been screened numerous times in the last few decades, and perhaps nowhere more often than in the San Francisco Bay Area. Chances are if you are still reading this article you saw an earlier print at the Castro Theater in San Francisco or the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, where between those two venues the film has been shown nearly two dozen times since the mid-1970s.
As far as I have been able to document, the first screening of Pandora’s Box in the City of San Francisco took place at the old Surf Theater in January of 1974, as part of a double bill with The Last Laugh. A couple of years earlier, in October of 1972, the Pacific Film Archive had screened it in Berkeley in what could have been one of the film’s earliest East Bay screenings.
One of those early East Bay screenings was likely prompted by film critic Pauline Kael, who was then living in the Bay Area and had a hand in local film exhibition. At that time, Kael was also corresponding with Louise Brooks, who was living in Rochester, New York. On at least one occasion in their exchange of letters, Kael implored Brooks to come to the Bay Area to be present at a screening of Pandora’s Box. But Brooks, who was reclusive, wouldn’t budge.
In all likelihood, the very first screening of Pandora’s Box in the Bay Area took place in 1962, when the Monterey Peninsula College in Monterey screened a print ofPandora’s Box as part of its Peninsula Film Seminar. The event was organized around a visit by Brooks’ early champion and friend James Card, who brought with him a small collection of rare films, including a messy, unrestored version of the Pabst masterpiece.
Card’s print of Pandora’s Box was probably one of the very few prints of the film in the United States. And in all likelihood, Pandora’s Box and the other films shown at the Seminar were works the attendees had only heard of but not seen.
According to newspaper reports of the time, the Peninsula Film Seminar was a big deal in local film circles. And notably, it was attended by Bay Area cognoscenti like Pauline Kael, future San Francisco poet Laureate Jack Hirschman, a few East Bay film promoters involved with the Berkeley Film Guild, and others.
And there, in Monterey, the seeds were first sown for the film’s now large reputation in the Bay Area. Follow this link to see a list of all known screenings of Pandora’s Box in the San Francisco Bay Area. If you know of other early screenings of this historic film, please send an email.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival takes place July 12 through 15 at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. More info, including a compete program of films, can be found at www.silentfilm.org
Thomas Gladysz is a Bay Area arts journalist and early film buff, and the Director of the Louise Brooks Society, an internet-based archive and international fan club devoted to the silent film star. Gladysz has contributed to books on the actress, organized exhibits, appeared on television and radio, and introduced Brooks’ films around the world. He will be signing copies of his “Louise Brooks edition” of The Diary of a Lost Girl following the screening of Pandora’s Box at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival.