by Thomas Gladysz
(Updated May 8, 2023 to inclde photos from the May 6th performance)
On Saturday, May 6, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is set to screen Pandora’s Box at the Paramount theater in Oakland. This legendary silent film, which stars Louise Brooks as Lulu, can rightly be described as a Bay Area favorite. In fact, as exhibition records suggest, Pandora’s Box has been screened more often in the San Francisco Bay Area than anywhere else in the United States.
Pandora’s Box, a German production directed by G.W. Pabst, premiered in Berlin in early 1929. It received poor to middling reviews (read Film Daily, the New York Times, and Variety), and was the subject of censorship in Germany and elsewhere across Europe. Among other things, the film depicts what is widely considered the screen’s first lesbian character.
By the time the film arrived in the United States at the end of 1929, its troubles had increased ten-fold. By then, sound films were coming to dominate American theaters, and there was little interest in a poorly reviewed, foreign-language silent production from abroad – no matter that it starred a popular American actress.
As newly uncovered records reveal, Pandora’s Box was shown less than half-a-dozen times in America in the early 1930s. It played in what would today be called an art house or rep house before staggering into “adults-only” showings and eventual obscurity.
Pandora’s Box was rediscovered in the late 1950s. It debuted in northern California in August of 1962 when it was shown at Monterey Peninsula College as part of the first Peninsula Film Seminar. That Monterey event was organized around a visit by noted film curator James Card of the George Eastman House, who brought with him a small collection of rare films, including a messy, unrestored version of the Pabst masterpiece. Pandora’s Box was the event’s centerpiece.
According to newspaper reports from the time, the Peninsula Film Seminar was a big deal. The Monterey Peninsula Herald reported that film critics, librarians, enthusiasts and film “buffs” were expected from both coasts. The seminar was also a big deal locally. Notably, it was attended by future San Francisco poet-laureate Jack Hirschman, then Bay Area resident Pauline Kael, as well as some of those involved with the Berkeley Cinema Guild, including founder Edward Landberg.
(For context on the local scene, don’t miss this short documentary by Christian Bruno)
Evidently, the Monterey screening inspired Kael. At the time, the soon to be famous critic was already corresponding with Brooks, who was then living in Rochester, New York (near the George Eastman House). On at least one occasion in their exchange of letters, Kael implored Brooks to come to the Bay Area to be present at a screening of Pandora’s Box at the Berkeley Cinema Guild. But Brooks, who was retired and reclusive, wouldn’t budge. Brooks even had family in the area, including a sister… but still wouldn’t come.
(Kael’s request wasn’t the only time Brooks was asked to come the Bay Area. Director William Wellman tried to get her here when the San Francisco Film Festival planned to show Beggars of Life. But again, Brooks wouldn’t travel – and the Festival instead showed Wings.)
Ten years after it was shown in Monterey, and some 43 years after it was first shown in New York City, Pandora’s Box made its Bay Area debut. That October 5, 1972 screening at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley must have proven popular, as the film was shown again just 16 days later at what was billed as a “special matinee.”
Another screening followed just a month later, on November 21, at the old San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Artist & filmmaker Bruce Conner likely attended that event. He had grown up in Wichita, Kansas, and was long intrigued by the actress, as he told me in 2006. That same year, things came full circle when Conner introduced Pandora’s Box before a sold-out crowd at the Castro theater at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
Over the years, and as its reputation grew, at least 60 other Bay Area screenings of Pandora’s Box followed that first showing in Berkeley. The film has returned to the Bay Area time and again – almost annually for a while – and was even shown locally on public television in 1977. That’s notable for an old film few had once heard of.
Along with multiple screenings at the Pacific Film Archive (in Wheeler auditorium and elsewhere) and Castro Theater in San Francisco, Pandora’s Box has also shown a couple times or more at the long-gone Cento Cedar Cinema in San Francisco, Rialto and U.C. theaters in Berkeley, Roxie Theater in San Francisco, and Sonoma Film Institute at Sonoma State University.
Some of the notable one-off showings of the film include the Surf in San Francisco (January 22-23, 1974); Noe Valley Cinema – James Lick Auditorium in San Francisco (May 21, 1977); Noe Valley Ministry in San Francisco (April 11, 1980); Strand in San Francisco (December 15, 1980); Electric in San Francisco (March 10-11, 1982); Avenue in San Francisco (May 6, 1982); York in San Francisco (June 22, 1982); Santa Cruz Film Festival (January 19, 1984); San Francisco Public Library (December 18, 1986); Red Vic in San Francisco (February 13-14, 1990); Towne Theatre in San Jose (June 28, 1996); Jezebel’s Joint in San Francisco (February 10, 2003); Rafael Film Center in San Rafael (November 11, 2006 introduced by Peter Cowie during the Brooks’ centenary); California in San Jose (March 9, 2007); Stanford in Palo Alto (September 23, 2016); and Niles Essanay Film Museum in Fremont (September 12, 2015 and March 23, 2019). A handful of these screenings, including those at the Avenue and Castro, were accompanied by organist Bob Vaughn, who considered Pandora’s Box among his favorites.
One other key individual in the telling of this story is Norman K. Dorn, of the San Francisco Chronicle. Early on, he penned a handful of articles about early film, each of which mentioned Louise Brooks and Pandora’s Box. These articles, which include “Uncovering Lost German Films at the Archives” (9-17-72), “Tales of Love and Death” (1-28-73), and “Legendary Louise Brooks Couldn’t Unbuckle the Bible Belt” (8-24-80), are among the earliest about the actress published in a daily newspaper anywhere in the United States; but what’s more, each helped build a local audience for Pandora’s Box.
For the record, the May 6 screening of Pandora’s Box at the Paramount marks its first ever showing in Oakland. This special live cinema event offers a stunning a restored print on the Paramount’s big screen and will feature live musical accompaniment by the Club Foot Orchestra together with performers from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. More information about the event can be found on the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website.
Read more about Pandora’s Box at EatDrinkFilms.
Editor’s Note: These articles on Louise Brooks would not have possible without the incredible research and work on Thomas Gladysz. Shortly after EatDrinkFilms published the four related articles, Thomas posted the following sad and surprising news on his website. The story behind this is terrible and worthy of an investigative article we are considering.
The Louise Brooks Society™ website was launched in 1995 as a “virtual fan club in cyberspace.” It has been praised in the pages of the New York Times, USA Today, and Wired magazine.
Besides considerable research, numerous articles, thousands of blogs, five books, and help in restoring two of Brooks’ films, this website helped inspire the Emmy nominated documentary, Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu, and,it helped bring both the Barry Paris biography and Brooks’ own Lulu in Hollywood back into print. This site made a difference…. I am proud of what it accomplished.
Unfortunately, due to an ongoing series of fraudulent allegations of trademark infringement, the Louise Brooks Society website will be shutting down.
It has been a great run of 28 years getting to know Louise Brooks fans & scholars from around the world. To stay in touch with the latest regarding all things Lulu, be sure and follow the Louise Brooks Society™ blog at https://louisebrookssociety.blogspot.com/ (as long as it lasts)
Director, Louise Brooks Society™
Thomas Gladysz is the proud owner of a ClubFoot Orchestra / Pandora’s Box t-shirt and oversized poster. He started the Louise Brooks Society website in 1995, and is the author of numerous articles on early film as well as four books on Louise Brooks. The most recent is Louise Brooks the Persistent Star. Due out soon is The Street of Forgotten Men: From Story to Screen and Beyond, with forewords by Robert Byrne and Kevin Brownlow.
The author, pictured in his vintage ClubFoot Orchestra t-shirt, while DJ-ing a
Louise Brooks playlist at KDVS in Davis, California.