“He’s the only one who wants nothing from me.”
Pandora’s Box–in glorious black and white–was filmed in 1928 and is set in Berlin. As the title suggests, the film explores the unleashed excesses of the human vices. It’s the story of a vaudeville performer, Lulu. She is in the middle of a passionate affair with newspaper tycoon, Schoen. He wants to terminate the relationship due to the small matter of his engagement to someone else. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to know that once Lulu has her charming talons in a man, he’s not going anywhere. Schoen often looks narcotized when he gazes at Lulu–he just can’t help himself. He is just one in a series of men that Lulu ruins–one way or another. Lulu is surrounded by men (and one woman) who are obsessed with her. In one scene, men literally pass each other on the stairs.
Louise Brooks stars as Lulu. Pandora’s Box was the first time I’d actually seen her in a film, and she was simply amazing to watch. This actress doesn’t need words–she uses her face instead. She conveys every thought running through Lulu’s mind with just a slight change of mood in her eyes, a self-satisfied little smile, or a miniscule shift in body language.
Several of the scenes involved large numbers of people (I call them mob scenes)–and the best of these scenes is one that takes place behind the set of a Revue. Everything was so well choreographed. The set is at once so busy–complete madness and mayhem–yet at the same time, the scene is very tightly controlled with expert precision. It’s just an amazing sequence.
The music accompanying the action is appropriate and timely. Many characters have their own signature tune–Lulu’s theme, for example, conveys a certain languid, seductive, discordant eroticism. In spite of the film’s age, the quality of the film was good, and the story seems surprisingly fresh. From director G.W. Pabst
“Unmistakably a lady of the horizontal profession.”
Queen Kelly–written and directed by Erich von Stroheim–was never completed, so all that we have is about half a film and a handful of fragments, but even so this is marvelous stuff for silent film fans. It’s a fairly simple story: Decadent Queen Regina V (Seena Owen)–the last of her line–rules her kingdom with an iron fist. She intends to marry playboy Prince Wolfram (Walter Byron), and he’s trying his best to avoid the final commitment of marriage, but that’s a little difficult as he’s both her ‘subject’ and an occupant of her opulent palace.
The film quickly establishes that both Regina and Wolfram are a dissipated pair. She’s drunk when she wakes up in the morning, and he races until dawn with a group of madcap acquaintances. Regina’s displeasure at Wolfram’s antics results in her demand that he marry her the next day and that he spend his last day of bachelorhood marching around with his men. So Wolfram and his men take to their steeds, and begin maneuvers on a road outside of a convent. Here, Wolfram meets and falls for convent orphan Patricia Kelly (Gloria Swanson)….
When the film went massively over budget, and star Gloria Swanson halted production after objecting to the African brothel scenes, von Stroheim was fired by the film’s financier Joseph Kennedy (Swanson’s lover). Too bad–because the film really is great fun, and I loved the African bordello–including the drooling Jan Vryheid and the prostitute Coughdrops. Everything about this film is over-the top–there’s Regina who’s fond of the whip, and she’s also not averse to tossing her cats around at the appropriate moment. And then there’s Wolfram who will go to whatever lengths are necessary to meet with Patricia Kelly–the girl with the droopy bloomers.
This wonderful Kino edition includes loads of extras, and this at least allows the viewer to piece together the story as it was intended (and we can also see Swanson’s vastly more respectable and comparatively dull ending). DVD extras include: audio commentary by biographer Richard Koszarski, outtake footage, The Kino International restored ending, the “Swanson Ending,” videotaped introduction by Gloria Swanson, excerpt of the original screenplay, production documents, photo gallery, “Man of Many Skins”–a 1952 TV performance, audio clips of cinematographer Paul Ivano, assistant William Marguiles Allan Dwan and Billy Wilder, dossier on Merry-Go-Round with excerpts of scenes directed by von Stroheim, and a note on the film from von Stroheim. Personally, I preferred the von Stroheim naughty version of the story.
“Women fascinate me–just like that Cobra and its victim.”
The silent film Cobra directed by Joseph Henabery is a perfect vehicle for Rudolf Valentino. In the film, Count Torriano (Valentino) is an incorrigible Don Juan who cannot help himself when it comes to relationships with women. Interestingly, Torriano’s moral redemption finally arrives through his friendship with a man.
The film begins in Italy with the father of a young woman seeking recompense against Count Torriani (Valentino). The father mistakenly confronts American antique merchant Jack Dorning (Casson Ferguson) instead, and this leads to a friendship between the Count and Dorning. While Count Torriani bemoans the fact that women won’t leave him alone, Dorning offers him a job in America. Working for Dorning’s antique business will give the impoverished count an income and steer him away from women. Well that’s the idea, anyway.
The film casts Valentino as the victim of a series of rapacious women, and just like anyone with an addiction, he can’t help himself. At one point the Count compares himself to the victim of a Cobra’s hypnotic stare, and the Cobra represents the alluring female sex. The film plays this idea of Valentino as the victim, the crushed misunderstood hero who is used and abused by nasty women, but Valentino could just as well have cast as a heartless seducer who sees women as disposable objects. This is a splendid vehicle for Valentino as the film allows scope him to appear simultaneously heroic and dastardly, and of course, the idea that he can’t help himself when it comes to women certainly adds fuel to the fire. Dorning’s wife Elise (Nita Naldi) plays the serpentine vamp who tests Torriani’s moral fibre. It’s Valentino’s respect and loyalty for Dorning that causes Valentino to make the ultimate sacrifice.
There’s a pervasive sadness throughout the film, and this tone matches Torriano’s sense of regret–a sense that’s delicately hinted at but never explored. Cobra was made just a year before Valentino’s death, and his acting skills are mature and well honed. Valentino’s subtle glances and facial expressions capture Torriano’s sense of lost possibilities, and the film’s strong moral tone underscores the fact that our actions carry consequences.