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Film Notes

G. W. Pabst’s interest in the work of playwright Frank Wedekind dated back to at least the immediate post–World War I period, when the director, then living in Prague, staged productions of Wedekind’s King Nicolo (König Nicolo) and Earth Spirit (Erdgeist). By the mid-1920s, Pabst had not only entered the world of cinema but had also secured a lofty position within the German film industry, at the time second only to that of the United States in terms of artistic excellence and international box office.
Having achieved his first success with 1925’s The Joyless Street (Die freudlose Gasse), Pabst wished to flex his muscles by adapting Wedekind, a turn-of-the-century enfant terrible whose plays had quickly become staples of the German theatrical canon. Wedekind was synonymous with controversy. Although the Hungarian filmmaker Arzén von Cserépy had already mounted a 1921 German production of Pandora’s Box (Die Büchse der Pandora), Wedekind’s most famous work, Pabst found himself rebuffed by Phoebus-Film when he suggested his own cinematic adaptation; the story of the ruinous yet childlike Lulu, the centripetal force of both Pandora’s Box and Earth Spirit, was simply too lurid for the production company to consider financing it.

Enter Seymour Nebenzahl, the New York–born, German Jewish cofounder of Nero-Film and the future producer of some of the most significant movies of the Weimar era, including People on Sunday (1930) and M (1931). In 1928, Nebenzahl took a chance on Pabst’s Pandora and, though Nero-Film typically backed midbudget productions—what the Germans call Mittelfilme—he agreed to allot extra funding to the ascendant director so that Pabst might realize his singular vision. According to scholar Pamela Hutchinson, in her 2018 BFI Film Classics monograph on Pandora’s Box, all those involved in the film attested that Nebenzahl never once told Pabst how to craft it. Pabst worked with Hungarian screenwriter Ladislaus Vajda on the film (the third of nine they would collaborate on), which combined elements of Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box. (Wedekind originally envisioned these two plays—which chart Lulu’s rise and fall as a “kept woman” whose irresistible sexuality spells doom for many, including herself—as a single work.) However, Pabst and Vajda’s interpretation would irk German critics, who considered it scandalous. Deemed especially questionable was the jettisoning of most of Wedekind’s verbose, poetic dialogue, a decision that should have made perfect sense given that Pabst’s film is silent. Once the script was complete, Nebenzahl rounded up $75,000 for a five-week production at Staaken Studios, a zeppelin hangar turned soundstage on the outskirts of Berlin. Additional shooting took place at the EFA (Europäische Film-Allianz) Studio in Halensee, a Berlin locality.

The casting of Pandora’s Box would generate animosity both on and off the set, focused almost exclusively on the beautiful, fast living Louise Brooks, who stars as Lulu. In what is now cinematic legend, Pabst conducted a wide-ranging search for his leading lady (one newspaper reported auditions for sixteen hundred would-be Lulus) but found not a single satisfactory candidate. After seeing her performance as an alluring, amoral circus entertainer in the Howard Hawks comedy A Girl in Every Port (1928), Pabst longed to work with Brooks, but Paramount refused to loan her out. So, when he received word that Brooks had split with the studio, he immediately contacted the actor—even as Marlene Dietrich sat in his office, on the verge of signing on to the production. The partnership was a coup for both: Brooks was looking to escape Hollywood’s stifling conventionality and brutal rumour mill, while Pabst hoped to startle audiences with a relative unknown in a role that demanded equal parts innocence, carnality, and guile.
Pabst’s unorthodox choice would ultimately make Pandora’s Box a classic, but some of Brooks’s co-stars bristled at performing alongside a second-class actor known primarily for her saucy “flapper” roles in light comedies. (It didn’t help that Brooks was the highest-paid cast member, even though she couldn’t speak German.) Fritz Kortner, who plays Dr. Schön, was especially incensed. Like many, Kortner viewed Brooks as a frivolous celebrity rather than a genuine performer, a prejudice that was further inflamed when Pabst consistently favored Brooks for close-ups. While shooting a key scene in which Dr. Schön jealously manhandles Lulu during their wedding reception, Kortner was more than a little overzealous in expressing his character’s anger, perhaps channeling authentic rage at what he perceived as Brooks-the-upstart. Describing Brooks as uninterested in the script and unwilling to study the Wedekind plays, Hutchinson claims that Pabst coached a career-defining performance out of her with individualized, scene-to-scene direction. While this method won over Brooks, the other thespians weren’t as pleased.
Despite these tensions, the production of Pandora’s Box was otherwise peaceful. Per Hutchinson: “The director kept a disciplined, quiet, and amiable set. He was always sure of the way he wanted to film a scene, but was prepared to listen to suggestions from any member of the crew, and to change his course if he thought they were right.” Essential to realizing Pabst’s visual ideas were Austrian cinematographer Günther Krampf and Russian-born art director Andrej Andrejew, both of whom helped Pabst to evoke the film’s hothouse atmosphere of lust, envy, and violence. And while Joseph Fieseler has been widely credited as the film’s editor, Hutchinson presents convincing evidence that Pabst himself was the one responsible for cutting Pandora (or else enlisted someone else to follow his instructions to the letter). As the head of New York City’s successful 55th Street Playhouse, Fieseler was more likely instituting drastic revisions to the U.S. prints of the film, which included an opening title card apologizing for its bowdlerization. Fieseler was an advocate of free speech who, two years before, had published an anthology of naughty jokes—one can imagine the pained reluctance with which he expurgated Pandora’s “sins.”

Yet this neutering of Pandora’s Box, replete with a ludicrous happy ending in which Lulu joins the Salvation Army instead of meeting her fate at the hands of Jack the Ripper, destroyed its credibility with reviewers and sabotaged its run in the American market—ironic, as one reason Brooks had been brought on board was to increase its chances there. France and the United Kingdom received their own butchered Pandoras—which, among other changes, reframed the lesbian-coded Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts) as Lulu’s childhood friend—and, in both countries, the film was received with incomprehension and repudiation. But even in Germany, where it was released in January 1929 in the version that Pabst intended, Pandora’s Box failed to win over critics and audiences. Though Brooks had been greeted with hosannas by the press upon her arrival in Germany—she graced the cover of no fewer than three major magazines—they turned on both her and Pabst’s dream project when they saw the finished product, taking exception to an American’s portrayal of the iconic, quintessentially German Lulu. Another point of contention was Pabst’s supposed softening of Wedekind: whereas the plays depict Lulu as an unrepentant femme fatale, Pabst sympathetically renders his heroine as a victim of her libidinal energies, misplaced within the exploitative, hypocritical world of bourgeois morality. Miraculously, Pandora’s Box underwent a major reevaluation in the 1950s, when the film was rescued from relative obscurity. At Paris’s Cinémathèque française, film historian Henri Langlois is said to have proclaimed Brooks supreme among the glamorous actresses of her time. Underappreciated in her own era, Brooks and her ineffable amalgam of naive charm and sultry recklessness seemed revelatory to the burgeoning generation of New Wave critics and filmmakers who would soon revolutionize the industry. And the movie itself stunned new audiences, who found its fervent yet naturalistic portrait of a self-immolating web of desire as forward looking as the other towering works of German expressionism’s heyday. Film Notes courtesy of Janus Films
A Review from the Silent Volume Blog by Chris Edwards
Tod Browning’s film career spanned both the silent and sound era of films. While his best-known films were both talkies (Dracula & Freaks), his output in the teens and ‘20s were his most productive. He would draw on his early life in the circus and carnival worlds in numerous films, including West of Zanzibar, to bring depth and a sense of mystery tot he stories.
After leaving his wife, he “renamed” himself for his professional life from Charles to Tod---tod being the German name for death--the shape of things to come.
He performed in carnivals and vaudeville acts in his youth and at the relatively late age of 29 turned to film acting. But low and behold, he started out not in dramas or crime films but in comedies, starring in over 50 one or two reelers. Hired by D W Griffith at Biograph, he continued acting and left for California when Griffith did. By 1915, he had made his directorial debut (The Lucky Transfer).
Then a crucial turning point in his life occurred. While drunk, he drove his car through a railway crossing and hit a train. He was gravely injured as was his passenger, George Siegmann. However, his other passenger, his friend, actor Elmer Booth was killed. That tragedy haunted Tod for the remainder of his life, he was never the same and his film work took a different direction entirely. His films became dramas, dark, complex with layers of moral ambiguities, obsessions, revenge and crime that swept away his previous comedies.
“Fixated on human disfigurement and underworld figures, the films are marked by a stark, obsessive aesthetic and themes of compulsion…His compulsive preoccupation with themes of moral and psychosexual insinuation, interchangeable guilt and patterns of human repulsion and attraction.” Stuart Rosenthal
One could only think that his 10 collaborations with the “Man of a Thousand Faces” was nothing less than a match made in heaven. “In the screen personality of Lon Chaney, Tod Browning found the perfect embodiment of the type of character that interested him…Chaney’s unconditional dedication to his acting gave his characters the extraordinary intensity that was absolutely essential to the credibility of Browning’s creations.” Stuart Rosenthal

West of Zanzibar was based on Kongo-a hit Broadway play just a couple of years old. That play was inspired the travels throughout the Congo of writer Chester De Vonde. Unfortunately, De Vonde brought home more than ideas, he also contracted a tropical disease which would kill him in a few years.  Knowing he was dying; his final days were spent trying to bring his work to film. His fate would have him die literally just hours before MGM bought the rights for $35,000 on January 10, 1928.
The powers that be at MGM knew that Browning was the director to call upon to mold this story for the screen. But changes had to be made for it to pass the censors. Skirting the silent era censorship regime was a full-time job for studios. “The Formula” kept a list of “salacious” play titles that were considered taboo and Kongo was definitely on that list. A title change was the first order of business, but other content followed. Altering titles, character names and a few “gone too far” details could often get studios a bit of a pass. The daughter in the play was turned from someone suffering from syphilis to an alcoholic in the film (was anyone fooled? We think not).
Browning also added the prologue of Phroso’s stage magician background which was not in the play (Browning came by this knowledge of circuses and carnivals honestly due to his extensive experiences when he was younger). He also added another signature element—that of the con, working the crowd for a few coins. A couple of scenes which were originally filmed but cut before release are intriguing. The most famous was Chaney’s scene dressed as a sideshow “duck” was cut but was obviously close to Browning’s heart because an almost identical scene had Cleopatra turned into a sideshow chicken at the conclusion of Freaks.
Browning and Chaney were on the same page when making films together and Zanzibar is no different. Chaney, as always, owns the film. He often said there was no Chaney off screen, he lived for his characters. Chaney dug deep into Phroso’s psyche, pulling out every flaw, every strength and channelling it all into a the making of Dead Legs, a Conradian demigod hellbent on wringing every drop of revenge he could from his nemesis. In the midst of this, is all the Colonial arrogance, cultural and racial stereotyping all too well known for that era.
Browning's eye for stylization, love of the bizarre and talent for the eerie has carried forward to influence directors David Cronenberg, David Lynch, and Guillermo del Toro.
West of Zanzibar turned out to be quite profitable for MGM but as expected there were rumblings.  The Harrison’s Reports was particularily vocal: “This piece of filth is the stage play Kongo. And upon this play the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer picture West of Zanzibar has been founded. How any normal person could have thought this horrible syphilitic play could have made an entertaining picture, even with Lon Chaney, who appears in gruesome and repulsive stories, is beyond comprehension.”
In the decades since, Tod Browning’s stature has been elevated by horror fans but his best films gave voice to tormented and afflicted souls. The films with Chaney were essentially horror dramas– precursors to the supernatural horror genre of the following decade. It was refreshing that MGM, known for their slick upscale productions, would give Browning such a free hand to put his personal stamp on his pictures.

Swish! Swish! Swish! It could only be the mark of Zorro!! And with those 3 short, sharp marks, Douglas Fairbanks changed the direction of his career and set the tone for adventure movies for decades.
As there’s a new Zorro ready to stream and make fresh fans this year, it’s the perfect time to revisit and celebrate the original screen Zorro and reacquaint ourselves with the incredible feats of the first King of Hollywood, Douglas Fairbanks. This films’ success, his fourth for United Artists, buoyed the coffers of UA, changed Fairbanks, and moved the bar for future action heroes.  
But Fairbanks gave us did something more, especially for modern audiences, for we get to revel in the almost lost art of real time, in-camera stunt work that embodies all the energy, drive, and creativity of the early 20th Century filmmakers. Douglas Fairbanks established the double role of Zorro and the foppish Don Diego, combining action with comedy in a romp that established the tradition of the masked superhero-a tradition that resonates down through today with such icons as Superman, Batman, and Spiderman.

Fairbanks was already a highly popular light comedian with highly entertaining physicality, so one would not think that he was taking a big risk with this transition to costume action star. But it was and he was worried. So worried that he took precautions just in case of failure; he filmed The Nut  in his old style. For Zorro he was savvy enough to include his trademark charisma, charm, and humour and make it part of his character’s. It was a smart move, as audiences readily embraced his new persona as an action-adventure hero. While we may not remember The Nut, or in fact have anything but superficial knowledge of his light comedy rolls, Mark of Zorro does stands out. It proved a massive hit, and its success bolstered his confidence leading to some of his most ambitious works-the classics Robin Hood, Thief of Bagdad, and the Black Pirate. Fairbanks never looked back during the remainder of his silent film career. His name became so linked to big costume adventure epics that it’s difficult to believe he did anything else.

Zorro also turned out to be the perfect showcase for his style of daring athletics, joyful exuberance, and mischievous comedy. All later versions of Zorro on film, radio, television, video games, and comic books are based on the archetype that Fairbanks created, right down to the signature Z. One could go a step further and note the influence with more other well-known superheroes likes Batman, who one of the co-originators, Bob Kane, had publicly acknowledged the Fairbanks' influence (alter ego/mask/cape/lair/signature) right up to Indiana Jones (soft spoken scholar vs dynamic athletic hero).
Of course, Fairbanks was always well known for his action work and with Zorro he increased the intensity and it really shows. From the Z mark, (a pure invention of Fairbanks) to exemplary swordplay, the actor was completely in-tune with how action translates to audience reaction. As a highly trained athlete, he worked out all his own stunts and worked for months with a trained swordsman to sharpen his skills. The precision with which he nailed every stunt, even ones seemingly simple is a testament to his dedication to the screen art. When he leaps onto a table without even a glance, it’s because he’s repeatedly practiced it and ascertained by careful measurement the height of the table. Hidden handholds were placed to make his climbs look graceful and almost, but not quite, superhuman. “Doug always received dozens of letters from irate mothers after such a picture. It’s doubtful if any man has been responsible for more broken arms and legs.”-Ralph Hancock
After previews, critics were only lukewarm in their praise leaving Doug deflated with fears of failure. Despite his public persona as a bon vivant, he was racked by insecurities in private. Mary Pickford consoled him, saying that the film was great and to wait for the public to see it. The public did. The avalanche of fan mail and the monies that poured into the box offices were proof that Fairbanks made the right decision and he had found his immortality.
Your movie factoid: “zorro” is the Spanish word for “fox”. The Spanish also have an expression: “hacerse uno el zorro” –roughly translating to, “to play the fox with someone”—which means to pretend to be stupid.

Thoughts From Programmer Chris Seguin
We can watch films on our phones, ipads etc. so why watch it on a big screen-what makes a live cinema event in a theatre a great viewing experience especially for comedy?
For me, it’s twofold. Most importantly, it’s the contagious effect of an engaged audience. Laughter begets more laughter; I imagine people *might* laugh out loud while watching Chaplin on TV or YouTube, but when you get caught up in the whirl of a crowd laughing, it just multiplies and multiplies. I remember we had an audience for a Laurel & Hardy film where the laughter was so loud that people out on the streets were wondering what the noise was. Name a current comedy that’s had that effect on an audience.
The best laughter, of course, is from kids — I’m amazed by what they catch (especially in a world they can’t relate to, full of candlestick phones, Murphy beds and Model Ts), but comedy is comedy and they get it immediately… and can’t stop themselves. The greatest sound during a silent comedy screening is the sound of kids.
Also, comedy plays better when it’s big. Whether it’s a massive pie fight or the subtle lift of an eyebrow in a Buster Keaton reaction shot, it just isn’t the same on a phone. These filmmakers knew what they were doing, and the films still work in the environment they were designed for 100 years later.
Secondly, silent films are unique in that music plays a huge role. “Silent films” is a misnomer. Yes, the films themselves are technically silent — but the experience isn’t. No two live screenings are ever the same. Music can elevate or kill a comedy, so a great accompanist can take the humour to the next level. Jordan Klapmann has an innate feeling for comedy, he brings sensitivity and energy to his playing and always does the films justice. He deserves the applause he gets at the end of every show.  
There’s a lot of surrealism ingrained in silent comedy, what made Charley Bowers stand out for you that you’d include him?
What I love about Charley Bowers is that he started out as a cartoonist and animator, and he sees the world that way. He lives in a place where anything can happen, just because he says so. If Model T’s can lay eggs that hatch out baby Model T’s, or pussycats can grow from pussywillow trees, there you go. He doesn’t need an explanation; he doesn’t bookend what we’re seeing as a dream (as Keaton does in Sherlock Jr.). It just is what it is.
But then there’s the character he plays — it’s borderline Buster Keaton, he possesses the same ingenuity and vague wariness/world-weariness that Buster brings to the table. He’s not a natural comedian, but he has a likeable presence that allows us to sit back and enjoy his weird little world.
Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. is truly one of those enthralling, immersive films. If you try to pick it apart it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but the film works in a big way. Why do you think Sherlock Jr. works as well as it does?
Keaton was so way ahead of his time in so many ways. He was a creative soul with the mind of an engineer. Sherlock Jr. is the ultimate manifestation of that. It swings for the fences imagination-wise, but Keaton had the technical ingenuity to make it all happen. So not only is he inspired by the work of Georges Méliès (which he no doubt saw as a kid travelling in vaudeville), he applies remarkable — and to this day baffling — technical skill to make his vision happen. Check out the scene where he leaps from the audience into the movie screen, and is buffeted by a number of absurd edits as his reality shifts once he becomes a flickering image in the film within the film. He did this with practical effects and surveyor’s instruments, not a rear projection to be seen and definitely not a byte of computer wizardry. In Sherlock Jr. he’s a filmmaker who’s literally inside his own film.
The film itself isn’t really designed to make sense. Unlike Charley Bowers, Buster makes a point right up front of telling us it’s all a crazy dream. So, it gives him a lot of latitude, and you accept it or you don’t. If you don’t accept it, you’re at the wrong movie.
Why does it work as well as it does today? Because I think people really are in awe of what he was able to do 100 years ago, without today’s technology. Anyone who thinks of silent comedy as something primitive automatically goes, “Woah! Did you see that?” Not only what Keaton does with film, but what he does with his body — no stuntmen, no tricks, nothing. (And yes, he really did break his neck making this film — you can see it happen — but the cameras kept rolling. If that doesn’t impress you, nothing will.
Uncommon or little-seen comedians have been a bit of a specialty for your programme over the years. Outside of the big 3 or 4 comedy stars, what are you looking for  in a silent comedian that you like the best to include them?
One word: PERSONALITY. It’s a mistake to fall into the common misconception that all silent comedy is slapstick: Keystone Cops chases, falls off cliffs, pie fights, etc. Sure, there’s a lot of that, but what plays best now — and what exhibitors back in the ‘1920s said played back then — was personality-driven comedy. Chaplin, Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy… they all had it. That’s why they’re remembered today and Billy Bevan and Snub Pollard aren’t. Larry Semon is a comedian who was hugely popular in the 1920s, rivalling Chaplin, but his films were largely huge car crashes and big barrels of tar falling on people. It’s funny because it’s outrageous, but not necessarily because of Larry Semon. He didn’t have the staying power because dropping bigger barrels of tar onto bigger and heavier people didn’t get funnier than the last dozen times.
Of the “secondary” comedians, Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle never fails. His comedy is ingenious but his personality is irresistibly charming. Kids, especially, love him. I’ve never seen an audience consistently react to someone the way they do with Roscoe. Part of it is because he’s big and round and funny to look at, but his smile radiates off the screen. He has “it”.
Charley Chase is another; he’s an ordinary fellow caught up in slightly extraordinary situations. He doesn’t jump in the air and make goofy faces, but he has a great physicality that makes him just sideways enough to be human but funny. The more modern equivalent I can think of (even though it’s a 60-year-old reference) would be Dick Van Dyke. Maybe Steve Martin in the ‘80s. I’m stymied when it comes to a 21st century comparison, in all honesty. Kramer? Mr. Bean? Somebody help me out here!
Oh, then there’s Mabel Normand. People cheered for her at the end of our screening of THE NICKELHOPPER. She won over the audience through her charm, so they naturally rooted for her when she triumphed in the end. It kind of took me by surprise, the film that followed Mabel’s at that screening ended up paling in comparison. I learned a really valuable lesson with that!
© Toronto SILENT FILM Festival 2010-2021
© Toronto SILENT FILM Festival 2010-2021
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