Thursday, 29 March 2018

Three oustanding vintage screen classics: Pandora's Box, Wings, and Young Mr. Pitt

Pandora's Box (1929). The American film actress Louise Brooks travelled to Germany to star in this silent drama as Lulu, a flighty, feckless, young hedonist who unwittingly lures everyone who falls under her spell to their doom. I'm not surprised  director GW Pabst was so keen for her to play the part that he ditched Marlene Dietrich when he heard that Ms Brooks had become available - she gives a blazingly brilliant performance. Not only is she so beautiful and so alluringly sexy that we can almost understand her siren-like effect on those who fall in love/lust with her, we genuinely feel sorry for the silly, selfish, destructive little  trollop when she's murdered by a Jack the Ripper figure in the slums of the East End, ...

...Her chic "look" - hairstyle, clothes, figure, make-up etc. - is so decadently European, so utterly Weimar Berlin cabaret, it's hard to believe she hailed from Cherryvale, Kansas. Louise Brooks was only 22 when she made Pandora's Box, but, despite the film being a masterpiece, it was poorly received and heavily censored (I'm not surprised!), and it pretty much marked the end of her career as a star.
Here's a modern trailer:
Louise Brooks made two more films in Europe before returning to the States, where (as she later admitted) she successfully managed to sabotage her career in films. Despite being unofficially blacklisted (she only became available to play Lulu by flouncing out of Paramount over a salary dispute), she was offered the part of James Cagney's girlfriend in The Public Enemy (1931) - and turned it down (Jean Harlow got the part). After that, she appeared in one silent short before being declared bankrupt the following year. Apart from a brief attempt to revive her acting career between 1936 and 1938, she made a living as, variously, a dancer, a sales assistant at Sax Fifth Avenue, and as a "courtesan" (a case of life imitating art, apparently). French film critics "rediscovered" Pandora's Box in the '50s, and, after reappraising Louise Brook's career, decided she was an even greater film icon than Dietrich or Garbo (well - she should have been). An American film curator discovered her living as a recluse in New York, coaxed her out into the sunlight, and she spent the next thirty years writing about films.
There's a decent full-length print of Pandora's Box - with English titles - available on YouTube:  it has Spanish subtitles, but they're not too distracting.

Wings (1927) is a whole different kettle of silent fish. It's the story of two rivals-in-love (and the girl they both love - and the sweet girl the hero really should love) who end up fighting alongside each other as WWI US pilots. It's worth watching for three reasons: the first is the aerial combat sequences, which are - even now - quite stunning (the footage would be re-used in other war movies for years to come); Gary Cooper, who appears in a small role, but whose sheer presence blasts the two male leads off the screen; and the performance of Clara Bow, the wildly sexy, round-faced, curvy little actress who plays the warm-hearted girl-next-door in love with the hero  (and who the hero is really in love with, only he doesn't know it, the sap).

Miss Bow was, undoubtedly, the peppiest little pepster who ever pepped her way pepfully across a cinema screen - this threatens to become wearing, but she's so damned cute, you can't help liking her. She had a rough upbringing in Brooklyn - but here she's playing the sort of girl who should have been brought up in Cherryvale, Kansas.
Peppy enough for you?
There's only one part of Wings where it rubs shoulders with Pandora's Box. In the latter, one of Lulu's admirers is a brazenly lesbian countess, while Wings features a bizarrely homoerotic death scene, in which one of the ever-so-manly, girl-crazy pilot heroes practically drools over his expiring pal, and actually kisses him at one stage. It's all a bit... weird. The film isn't available on YouTube, unfortunately, but it does get shown on TV - worth looking out for. Here's a trailer, to be getting on with:

"Upstairs, second on the left."
Young Mr. Pitt (1942) is available on YouTube (albeit a crappy print of it). I watched it earlier today, and I can't imagine why I haven't seen it before now. It's splendid. Carol Reed directed it, and Robert Donat played young Billy Pitt - and they both did a great job. Robert Morley, as Pitt's rival, Charles James Fox, gives his best-ever performance,  Herbert Lom does a convincing turn as Napoleon, Raymond Lovell is an amusing George III, and John Mills is in dependable form as Billy's earnest chum, William Wilberforce.

It's a sprightly piece of morale-boosting propaganda, with Pitt standing in for Winston Churchill (there are endless references to Pitt's love of the bottle, and the impassioned speeches Donat delivers could, with minor alterations, just as well have been about Nazi Germany) and a megalomaniacal, Hitleresque Napoleon. It could all have been a bit worthy, but I found it entertaining and exhilarating. Apart from an oddly laconic Nelson, and too much guff about Pitt being too busy saving the country to marry Phyllis Calvert (Billy doesn't seem to have had any interest whatsoever in women, if you get my drift), it's absolutely perfect Sunday afternoon (or, indeed, Thursday afternoon) viewing.

As I warned, the print is rough - but here's the whole of Young Mr. Pitt:


  1. Had a great time watching "Young Mr Pitt" via your link. Thanks. The talent on display from casting, acting, writing and directing is exceptional.

    I thought Herbert Lom's "convincing turn" as Napoleon was much more than that. He was born to play the Gallic Monster [the 1956 Hollywood version of "War and Peace", for example]. The 1970 epic "Waterloo" would have been a far better film with him as the star [he was only 8-years older than the mannered Steiger], but he lacked pulling power in the US market. We don't talk about Brando in "Désirée", I guess!

    1. "Young Mr Pitt" was Lom's first English language film. I'd always assumed he was Hungarian, but he was a Czech, real name: Herbert Charles Angelo Kuchačevič ze Schluderpacheru! Dozens and dozens of dramatic roles - including some really impressive performances (he was never bad), and yet he'll only be remembered for The Ladykillers and the Pink Panther films. Might have been different if the Americans hadn't refused him a work permit after the war (for "political" reasons), when he'd been offered a seven-film Hollywood contract.

      No, we certainly don't talk about "Desirée".