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Movie review: 'Pandora's Box'

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4 stars (out of four)

Few movie goddesses can break your heart like saucy, black-banged Louise Brooks, whose centennial comes this year and whose best film and performance, as Lulu in G.W. Pabst's "Pandora's Box," plays this weekend at the Music Box Theatre, in a new print.

If you've never seen Brooks--or "Pandora's Box"--you've missed one of the most extraordinary personalities and films of the silent movie era. Brooks' life story is remarkable in itself. She was an American actress and dancer from Kansas who had starred for directors Howard Hawks and William Wellman by the time she was 22, then became famous and scandalous in Germany for her two films with Pabst ("Pandora's Box" and "Diary of a Lost Girl"), only to see her Hollywood star career collapse at the dawn of the sound era. A few decades later, when her career was over and the films were revived, she achieved and then held her present legendary status. She died in 1985.

How did Brooks survive the buffets of fate and fame? She was no careerist obviously. But she was a stunner--one of those personalities who can explode off the screen, with a piquant energy and dazzling smile that, in the end, broke down all defenses. As Lulu, the girlish, wanton temptress of Pabst's 1929 picture--a playful German seductress who casually enslaves and destroys good men while arousing and provoking bad ones--Brooks radiates a sexuality and flawed humanity so potent that one never questions why the males around her so easily fall apart.

One look at Brooks' curving helmet-like bangs, soft dark eyes and hyperactive dancer's body, and you know why the well-respected editor Peter Schoen (Fritz Kortner) sacrifices himself to pursue her, and why his son, Alwa (Franz Lederer, who became "Francis Lederer" when he emigrated to Hollywood), throws away his life to flee with Lulu when she's convicted of manslaughter in his father's death. You know also why she enslaves women like the chic lesbian Countess Anna Geschwitz (Alice Roberts), and why even London's Jack the Ripper (Gustav Diessl) falls for her.

"Pandora's Box," showing Friday and Sunday, was regarded in its day as shocking and immoral. But it's actually one of the most socially acute, sophisticated films of its era, a prime example of the urbane, knowing German-Austrian film tradition that also produced Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder. With his brilliant staging and visual mastery of the rich, shadowy blacks and whites that would later mark American film noir, Pabst re-creates the rigid, mercenary society around Lulu. Then he shows how her impish beauty throws open its doors.

In life, beauty is ephemeral. But in the movies, it can become seemingly immortal. Brooks lost a career--due, it's said to sound, to American dismissal of her foreign stardom and to her refusal of some key Hollywood mogul advances. But she won a legend afterward comparable to that of '30s superstars Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich (Pabst's second choice for Lulu)--and Henri Langlois, master film collector of the French Cinematheque, ranked her above the latter two, insisting: "There is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! There is only Louise Brooks!" Watching "Pandora's Box" now, one can see why bad-girl Lulu remains in our eyes and hearts, why Louise Brooks still lives.

mwilmington@tribune.com

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'Pandora's Box

Directed by G.W. Pabst; written by Ladislaus Vajda, based on Franz Wedekind's plays "Erdgeist" and "Pandora's Box"; photographed by Gunther Krampf; edited by Joseph Fliesler; art direction by Andrei Andreiev; produced by George S. Horsetzky. A Kino International release; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. Running time: 1:50. "Pandora's Box" will be accompanied on the theater organ by Dennis Scott at 8:30 p.m. Friday and by Jay Warren at 2 and 5 p.m, Sunday. No MPAA rating (parents cautioned for implied sexuality and perversion, drug use and violence).

Lulu - Louise Brooks

Dr. Peter Schoen - Fritz Kortner

Alwa Schoen - Franz Lederer

Schigolch - Carl Goetz

Countess Anne Geschwitz - Alice Roberts

Jack the Ripper - Gustav Diessl

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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EntertainmentMoviesTheaterLouise BrooksJobs and WorkplaceMusic Box TheatreDeath
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