A Sexy Silent Scandal at The Strand Theatre: Daring to Reopen Louise Brooks’ PANDORA’S BOX

Posted on: Nov 21st, 2012 By:

PANDORA’S BOX (1929); Dir: Georg Wilhelm Pabst; Starring Louise Brooks, Francis Lederer; with live organ accompaniment by Ron Carter; Sun. Nov. 25 3:00 p.m.; The Strand Theatre

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

Ever since The Earl Smith Strand Theatre found new life on the Square in Marietta, the theater’s event schedule has cast a wide net. In between the usual live events and mainstream film titles, The Strand quietly stands as one of the last venues in Atlanta to regularly seek out and book classic silent films, a callback to its roots as an old movie house. (The Strand’s first ever show was the 1935 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers vehicle, TOP HAT.) Except that by the time The Strand opened, the talkies had already taken hold, so the decision to run silent pictures in an increasingly-noisy age of media strikes me as more than nostalgia. It’s incredibly brave.

And so, fittingly, The Strand has found a brave picture to screen. There are few silents more daring than PANDORA’S BOX (1929), playing Sunday afternoon Nov. 25 at 3 p.m.—even braver!—accompanied by a full organ score. PANDORA’S BOX doesn’t fit the mold of the typical silent melodrama. Louise Brooks stars as Lulu, a young woman whose ambition is eclipsed only by her voracious sexual appetite. She uses sex as a weapon to get what she wants, or who she wants, and the film largely deals with an escalating series of consequences, from murder, to imprisonment, and finally… well, I won’t spoil it, but Lulu’s story crosses with a famous historical figure, and her final reward is a spot in historical infamy.

PANDORA’S BOX is directed by the great Austrian director G.W. Pabst, whose list of leading ladies includes such names as Greta Garbo and Leni Riefenstahl, but he cast no lady as magnetic or iconic as Brooks, whose distinctive flapper style and bobbed haircut are more famous today than her name. Brooks was an American actress who rubbed elbows with names like William Randolph Hearst, but who grew dissatisfied with the American system and fled to Europe, where audiences came out in droves to see her magnetism and sexuality portrayed on screen. Lulu is a part born for Brooks and, although the film met with a fair amount of pushback from concerned censors, eventually made Brooks an international star. Today, her name is inseparable from the film’s title.

I mentioned censors, but it’s important to note that PANDORA’S BOX was a pre-code picture. In fact, the film came to America in December 1929, only three months before the adoption of the Hays Code that put a lid on the titillation and sexual experimentation of the earliest studio pictures. (Even in the ’20s, people knew the truth about film audiences—sex sells tickets.) PANDORA’S BOX contains a litany of elements that would soon disappear from American cinemas, such as frank sexuality and a disrespect for marriage. Just a decade later, Lulu’s actions would have classified her as a femme fatale, and she’d certainly snare a young hero or two to their doom. Here, the reality is a bit more complicated, and although it’s true that Lulu faces retribution for her loose morals, it’s hard to ignore the allure of her behavior, which is what the Hays Code was trying to snuff out in the first place.

Alice Roberts as Countess Anna Geschwitz and Louise Brooks (center) as Lulu in PANDORA'S BOX (1929), directed by G.W. Pabst. Credit: UCLA Film and Television Archive

PANDORA’S BOX is also a landmark film in queer cinema, as it does contain (if briefly) one of the first ever screen representations of a lesbian. Played by Alice Roberts, the Countess Geschwitz enters the film dressed in men’s clothes—a tuxedo—and fawns over Lulu, suggesting that the two have a sexual past. Within a year, even such a minor reference to homosexuality would be strictly outlawed on American screens.

PANDORA’S BOX is widely available online, but as with all films, especially from this era, it belongs on the screen (and trust me when I say that a live organ makes all the difference in the world). The film arrived at the end of the golden period of silent films, the end of the pre-code movies, and even puts a symbolic coda on the decade of decadence that was the 1920s. It stands proud as a threshold between two very different eras of cinema. But its sexuality, its spectacle and the compelling nature of its tragic antihero also remind us of another, sometimes-forgotten fact: what excites and thrills us today is the same as it ever was. We didn’t change—the pictures did.

For more about The Strand’s efforts to screen silents as they should be with live organ scores, read our Kool Kat interview with organist Ron Carter, who will be accompanying PANDORA’s BOX here

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Slim’s Jukebox: A Quintet of Essential Prestige/Riverside Jazz Collections by Five Masters

Posted on: Jul 5th, 2012 By:

By James Kelly
Contributing Music Editor

Imagine my good fortune when a package arrived at my door with five incredible jazz collections, each one by a true legend in the genre. As much as I love country music, every now and then I have to have a good jazz fix. When I was a wee lad, my Dad used to play some old Dixieland jazz records for me – Acker Bilk, Chris Barber and Ottilie Patterson, and many more, so the seeds were planted early. In the ’60s & ‘70s, I was  influenced by Frank Zappa’s jazz odysseys, and I eventually found a path back to the classics through the notorious Weather ReportMahavishnu “jazz fusion” enchantment of my high school years.  So here is a brief summary of five of the most essential artists in the history of jazz, all of whom have brand new compilations on the amazing Prestige/Riverside labels now under Concord Music Group. Please keep in mind that each of these greats has very deep catalogs, and these are mere samples of a certain time span in their illustrious careers.

Sonny Rollins
From 1956 to 1958, tenor sax man Sonny Rollins released a series of tracks that stand as some of the finest cool jazz ever. Joined by a cavalcade of equally talented sidemen including drummer Max Roach (who whips out some stunning solos on this disc) and amazing trumpeter Clifford Brown, Rollins was equally melodic and experimental, combining his own material with classic standards and improvising with other legends such as the Modern Jazz Quartet and John Coltrane, whose duet with Rollins on a 12-minute jam called “Tenor Madness” is jaw-dropping good. Even the funky version of “I’m An Old Cowhand” shines with originality. His rich tone, precision playing and keen ear for great material coalesced into audio beauty, and while he continues to blaze new trails in his 80s, Rollins’ baseline set an incredibly high standard of excellence early on.

The Miles Davis Quintet
Everybody loves Miles. He was a chameleon who followed his internal musical muse in whatever direction it took him, and sometimes he seemed a bit possessed. There is no shortage of great Davis compilations, and these tracks from 1954-1956 have been well documented in the past. The 10 cuts provide some insight into the transition Davis was making from a bebop player to a more mature, stylistically focused band leader. His Quintet at this time consisted of John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, basically a jazz supergroup. Garland’s hypnotizing piano solos permeate and complement Davis’ muted and buttery smooth tone, which eventually became his trademark sound. “’Round Midnight,” My Funny Valentine,” we’ve heard these plenty of times, but they never fail to generate a deep visceral feeling of being in a dark smoky club, whiskey on the rocks in hand, and the best band in the world playing just for you.

Wes Montgomery
A life cut short too soon, Wes Montgomery’s work has been a standard by which all decent and respectful guitarists must compare themselves. His treatments of rock and pop classics on the CTI albums are legendary, and showcased his amazing improvisational skills. But this compilation is a real treasure, as it covers a lot of his lesser known early work on Riverside Records. Montgomery played with his thumb instead of a pick, which resulted in a very smooth tone that became immediately recognizable as his sound. Like his peers, Montgomery utilized the best of the best sidemen, which enhanced his own visibility. With Hank Jones on piano, Ron Carter on bass, the incredible Milt Jackson on vibes (where is Jackson’s “Best Of…” album?), and multiple drummers, Montgomery’s early work is a perfect example of the late ‘50s early ‘60s jazz groove – subtle but confident, melodic but challenging, and manna for the ears.

John Coltrane
He’s the other giant of modern Jazz, standing equally tall as his occasional bandmate Miles Davis. There is no need to elaborate on the importance and influence of Coltrane’s legacy. It permeates most real jazz that has been written and performed since he passed away. Captured here are 10 tracks from 1956 to 1958; each piece is a blast of confident control, a mini musical dissertation on how to make a perfect Jazz record. His time in the trenches with Davis and pianist Thelonious Monk had given Coltrane an education, and obviously inspired a push toward total excellence. With equal parts skill and soul, he blazed through multiple pieces of music, branding each as his own with a rich and powerful command of the saxophone, one that has not really been matched since then. His unique interplay with trumpeter Donald Byrd on “Lover Come Back To Me” is a schoolboy lesson in collaboration and exploration, and simply unforgettable. Fast, slow, jammy or moody, Coltrane could do it all.

Chet Baker
He had it all – the looks, the sound, the charisma, the reputation, and sadly, the taste for dope.  Chet Baker has long been an icon, an incredible trumpet player and vocalist whose life circled down into a tragic tale of wasted talent and untimely death, eloquently reinvigorated in a fawning documentary by Bruce Weber (now almost impossible to find).  But putting aside the drama, Baker was a master, who sang and played like an impressionist painter, delivering the “essence” of a melody in a way that pulls you toward it, and allows you to construct the framework in your own mind. From his early 20s, working with Gerry Mulligan, Baker got noticed immediately by both other players and jazz aficionados, and the 14 tracks on this fine compilation give a fairly comprehensive and profoundly entertaining panorama of Baker’s skills.  His ability to turn standards into his own tunes was remarkable, and each cut is a treat. His tender half tempo version of “How High The Moon” is a prime example. As one of the very few jazzmen who also sang, Baker had a honey smooth voice that oozed sensuality. During these sessions, Baker played with an energy and smoothness that belied his impending battles with the demons of excess and temptation, and while he recorded sporadically in later years, he maintained that magic touch until the end.

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Kool Kat of the Week: Silent No More: Organist Ron Carter Restores the Music to Garbo’s FLESH AND THE DEVIL and More at Marietta’s Strand Theatre

Posted on: Aug 24th, 2011 By:

One might almost think it was the 1920s this week in Atlanta. This city is lucky to have two vintage movie palaces with mighty organs, and both are playing classic silent movies this week with live accompaniment. First at the Fabulous Fox on Thurs. Aug. 25 at 7:30 p.m.  is THE MARK OF ZORRO (1920), one of the final three features in this year’s Coca-Cola Summer Film Festival. Then on Sunday at 2:30 p.m., the Earl Smith Strand Theatre in Marietta presents FLESH AND THE DEVIL (1926), a dramatic romantic gem fraught with passion and betrayal that stars Greta Garbo in her first appearance in an American movie.

And just a few weeks from now on Sun. Sept. 11 at 3 p.m., Callanwolde is going to be hosting PIPES ON PEACHTREE, a program by the Atlanta Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society (ACATOS) on Atlanta’s movie palaces of the 1920s, ‘30s and 40s, and their organs including Joe Patten, Atlanta’s “Phantom of the Fox”; noted organist technician and teacher John Tanner; and John Clark McCall, author of ATLANTA FOX ALBUM and other articles about Atlanta’s theatres. Highlights include a pictorial tour, playing of Callanwolde’s own 60-rank Aeolian residence pipe organ and the opportunity to tour the 1920s Gothic-Tudor mansion.

Inside The Earl Smith Strand Theatre. Photo courtesy of The Strand.

ATLRetro caught up with Ron Carter, who’ll be playing the Mighty Allen Theatre Organ at The Strand on Sun. for a sneak preview of all these upcoming events and why in the digital age, it’s still an amazing experience to see a movie in a vintage venue with live musical accompaniment. And frankly it gives us chills that Ron also be accompanying DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1920), starring John Barrymore, on Oct. 30, at The Strand, closing out what has been a four-film silent series.

Let’s start with your take on what’s so special about seeing a classic movie at The Earl Smith Strand Theatre? Why should people in 2011 want to spend a summer Sunday afternoon watching a silent movie in a vintage cinema?

The Strand is a very unique venue. It was built in 1935 and at that time was the largest neighborhood movie theatre in the Atlanta metro area. Now it is the only neighborhood theatre in the Atlanta area which has been restored (I call it an adaptive restoration) to what it was originally intended to be and more! Our marquee is an exact replica (except for the state-of-the-art digital reader board) of the art deco one with real neon that was installed when the theatre opened in 1935 but then replaced with a “modern” one in 1964 during a remodeling by the Georgia Theatre Company. UGH—it was ugly!

Then when one walks into our outer art deco lobby and views the etched glass above our entrance doors, the ceramic tile floors and granite countertops, and the metal ceiling, you are transported back into a time when a theater was more than just four walls with some curtains hanging to cover up the cement block. Then you reach the inner lobby with its grand staircase, copper-painted ceiling, ornate chandelier and mosaic-covered lighting fixtures. All of this creates an expectation and wonder of what lies beyond the ornate auditorium doors! Samuel Rothafel (aka “Roxy”), who built the largest movie palace in the world in New York’s Times Square (over 6000 seats), had a famous quote. He said “The show starts on the sidewalk.” He felt that the building, the environment, the overall experience  was just as important to the patron as the show on the stage.

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