Brooks illuminates the screen


January 17, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Hollywood never knew what to do with Louise Brooks. Luckily, German director G.W. Pabst did.

The 22-year-old Brooks, possessed of the sort of astonishing beauty the camera loves and the sort of stubborn willfulness the movie studios hate, had already stalled in her film career when Pabst chose her (over Marlene Dietrich, an early favorite for the role) to star in his 1929 adaptation of Frank Wedekind's scandalous 1904 play, Der Buchse der Pandora. The result, released in this country as Pandora's Box, was a classic of the silent cinema, one of the most erotic movies ever made (anyone who thinks the silent cinema was sexless will faint after seeing this). And it made a film goddess, if not exactly a star, out of the luminous, irrepressible Brooks.

Even 74 years later, the movie, playing at noon tomorrow as part of the Charles' Saturday revival series, is a revelation. Brooks' performance is nearly without parallel, Pabst's direction is an impressionistic delight (the interplay of light and shadow almost deserves a spot on the cast list), and the sexual subject matter is handled in a manner for more frank than the film's vintage would suggest.

FOR THE RECORD - In yesterday's Today section, a phone number for information about the Enoch Pratt Free Library's "African American Film Pioneers" lecture series, which begins tomorrow, was listed incorrectly. The correct number is 410-396-5430.
An article in Thursday's editions on the first layperson being appointed to lead a parish in the Archdiocese of Baltimore failed to identify the Rev. Patrick M. Carrion, director of the Division of Clergy Personnel, as a priest. The Sun regrets the error.

Brooks, whose impossibly long neck and lithe dancer's body were never used to greater effect, is the guileless Lulu, a woman of irresistible charms and indiscriminate morality who is both blessed and doomed by her own beauty. She's blessed because the combination proves a tonic for men, who bend to her will without even being asked; cursed, because that sort of allure tends to bring out the worst in a guy. Like the Pandora of Greek mythology, who opened the box that let evil into the world, she's destined to be the pawn of forces not entirely under her control.

In the course of the movie, Lulu breaks up the marriage of the socially respectable Peter Schon (who is caught passionately embracing her by his fiancee); causes the despairing man to commit suicide; is convicted of his murder but (after turning the charm on both the judge and the prosecutor) sentenced to only five years in prison; escapes with the help of the dead man's besotted son, Alwa; drives Alwa to the brink of despair and moral destruction; and has a fateful encounter with Jack the Ripper on the streets of London.

Pandora's Box displays an eroticism that never lets up, and at its center is Brooks, who exudes sexuality without ever trying to. Pabst, unlike other directors who had worked with her, made no effort to douse the actress' effervescence. Nor did he try to leaven the movie's decadence. At the wedding reception where she unwittingly snares the doomed Schon, Lulu has sexually charged encounters with no less than four suitors: the groom, his son, a withered old coot named Schigolch (who's her pimp in all-but-name) and a wealthy countess, who's definitely enjoying the encounter. When her financial straits became especially dire, Lulu's "sold" to the owner of an Egyptian brothel -- a fate that horrifies but does not repulse, her.

If all this sounds pretty risque for the 1920s, in the United States, at least, it was. Prints shown in theaters here include a tacked-on ending that brings the Salvation Army on to right the moral compass a bit. The effect is pretty laughable but hardly ruins this extraordinary film.

Library lecture

S. Torriano Berry, author of The 50 Most Influential Black Films: Movies That Changed the Way We See America, will present a slide-illustrated lecture on "The Influential Impact of Black Films" at the Enoch Pratt Free Library's main branch Sunday. The free lecture is scheduled for 2 p.m. in the library's Wheeler Auditorium, and will kick off the Pratt's four-week Sunday afternoon film series, "African American Film Pioneers."

Future afternoons will spotlight the work of director Oscar Micheaux (Jan. 26), actor and native Baltimorean Clarence Muse (Feb. 2) and director Spike Lee (Feb. 9).

Information: 410-396-1441.

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