Where I went to college, the movie poster for Pandora’s Box was pretty common among the drama and film students I knew. One of my roommates even had a copy – Louise Brooks, in the act of unveiling her heavy bangs and huge brown eyes, watched over me from a dorm wall through my senior year. A second copy of the poster was on permanent display at the Angelika movie house on Houston Street, one of my regular movie spots; similar copies probably grace other movie houses to this day.
That poster, I’ve realized, doesn’t actually say anything about the plot of the film itself – it showcases Brooks, and Brooks alone. Anything else about the film – the plot, the other cast, the director – is incidental. We get it, the studio seemed to say – we know why you’re going to see this, and it’s for Louise. Period. They kind of have a point, too – Brooks is far and away the most striking thing about this film.
The plot is a pretty run-of-the-mill cautionary tale of a Girl Gone Wrong – Brooks plays Lulu, a flirty showgirl, who starts out living in a luxury apartment as the kept mistress of Herr Schon, a wealthy older publisher. However, Lulu is prone to flirting with other guys as they catch her eye. She also maintains slightly-warmer-than-normal friendships with other men, like Schigolch – who may be her pimp, or may be her father, or may be both – and Schon’s son, Alwa, a theatrical producer. There’s a countess who also seems to be pining for Lulu’s affection as well, and a chance to start a vaudeville act with a guy named Rodrigo.
The vaudeville act gives Schon the perfect out – he’s been getting uneasy with Lulu, and is preparing to marry a much more respectable society woman in an attempt to go straight. When he arrives to cut things off with Lulu, he softens the blow by offering to ask Alwa to feature her act in his next stage show. She accepts, Alwa also loves the idea, the Countess gets all caught up in designing the costumes, and everyone’s happy – until opening night, when Schon brings his fiancée backstage with him when he goes to wish Lulu luck, and she throws the mother of all temper tantrums and locks herself in a broom closet, vowing that she “will not dance for that woman!” Schon goes into the closet to talk her down – and somehow ends up getting manipulated into ditching his current fiancée and marrying Lulu instead.
Lulu is her usual outre self at the wedding reception – dancing intimately with the Countess, then getting up to some titillating hijinks in the master bedroom with Schigolch and Rodrigo – and Schon has his own tantrum, kicking everyone out and then ordering Lulu to kill herself to spare him his honor. But somehow Schon himself is the one who gets killed. Lulu’s tried for manslaughter, but her entourage – Alwa, the Countess, Rodrigo and Schigolch – stage a diversion and smuggle her away. The last third of the film sees our band of fugitives poorly treated indeed – hiding out in boats, losing money at gambling tables, getting sold into Egyptian bordellos (with a last-minute rescue), and various members getting arrested or killed, until finally it’s just Alwa, Schigolch, and Lulu living near the London docks; Schigolch is drinking himself to death, Alwa considers running off to join the Salvation Army, and Lulu is turning tricks in their apartment to make ends meet, until the night when one of her johns has a more violent fantasy in mind.
Director G. W. Pabst wanted Brooks as Lulu from the first. She initially wasn’t available, though, and Pabst reluctantly looked elsewhere for his Lulu, to the point that he had drawn up a contract to give Marlene Dietrich the role. But legend has it that as Dietrich was about to sign, Pabst got word that Brooks was available for the part after all; so Pabst tore up Dietrich’s contract, raced to meet Brooks with an armful of roses and begged her to be his Lulu after all. It’s a wise choice – Dietrich’s Lulu would have been all “bad girl”, seductive heavy-lidded stares and manipulative looks.
Brooks, meanwhile, plays Lulu as a seductress with some innocence to her; she likes sex, and she’s going after what she wants, but she simply is driven by her own id, and doesn’t know any better. Where Dietrich would have played the part with a sly smile, Brooks instead excels in wide-eyed trusting looks and childlike radiant smiles – this is how love is, in her experience, and that’s all she’s trying to do, is find love. Brooks’ performance is what makes what could have been a cliché about a bad girl getting her comeuppance into a sympathetic tale of a young woman whose luck simply ran out.