The theme of birthday celebration echoed at Saturday’s presentation of the silent film Pandora’s Box as part of this season’s San Diego Symphony sponsored Fox Theatre Film Series. In November of 1929, exactly 90 years ago, the entrepreneur William Fox and local developer Philip Gildred opened their glamorous movie palace on B Street, which became the symphony’s home in 1986. To give this birthday celebration the right flavor, JD Smith, curator of silent films for the symphony, chose Pandora’s Box, a film released in 1929. Russ Peck, the series’ regular silent film organist, provided his reliably exhilarating and beautifully tailored accompaniment to this classic silent film.
Based on the two Lulu plays by the controversial German playwright Frank Wedekind—Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box—the film directed and written by G. W. Pabst celebrated the life of Lulu, a prostitute who flourished in Weimar Germany’s high society but ended up destitute in London, where she is killed by her first John, none other than Jack the Ripper.
When Pabst’s movie hit the U.S. in 1929, the movie censors were so shocked by its sexual themes, they cut it to shreds, making the plot indecipherable. In one “cleaned up” American version, the censor had Lulu and her accomplices join the Salvation Army rather than being murdered by Jack the Ripper. Fortunately, by the 1950s a print of the complete original Pabst film circulated in art houses, drawing respect from a wide circle of astute critics.
If Americans were not ready for this story in the 1920s, Europe was infatuated by Wedekind’s Lulu. The first silent film about Lulu appeared in Germany in 1921, and by 1928 the Austrian composer Alban Berg had completed the libretto of his opera Lulu, first staged in Zürich, Switzerland, in 1937, although the composer’s untimely death left the final act incomplete.
The film’s unmistakable American connection, however, is Louise Brooks as Lulu. Pabst was about to sign Marlene Dietrich to play the role, but when he discovered his first choice Brooks had finally extricated herself from her Paramount contract, he chose Brooks over Dietrich because he wanted a more wholesome, less jaded actress to embody his Lulu.
Since there is no score for Pandora’s Box, Russ Peck assembled a masterful collage of musical sources, drawing on the ample colors and sonic brilliance of the hall’s Robert Morton theater organ to keep the audience engaged in Pasbt’s epic telling of Wedekind’s Lulu. From Peck’s regular use of “Stride la vampa,” Azucena’s aria from Verdi’s Il trovatore, as Lulu’s special theme, to English carols for the film’s eerie nocturnal Christmas street processions in London to cascading diminished seventh chords to signal imprending crisis at any time, Peck’s selections brought the perfect emotion and apt color to every scene.
The San Diego Symphony presented G. W. Pabst’s silent film “Pandora’s Box” with organ accompaniment by Russ Peck on November 23, 2019, in the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall. The next offering in the Fox Theatre Film Series is slated for December 13, 2019: “Mary Poppins” with the orchestra performing the score.