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Diary of a Lost Girl (Blu-ray Review)

2 Nov, 2015 By: Mike Clark

Kino Lorber
$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Louise Brooks, Andre Roanne, Fritz Rasp.

If you think you’ve seen sordid, a characterization meant as a compliment, do not go through your movie life without seeing this second of two masterpieces that were filmed in almost boom-boom fashion by Germany’s G.W. Pabst — both starring misused-by-Hollywood Louise Brooks, whose legend is based near-exclusively on these collaborations. The most you can say against Diary of a Lost Girl is to concede its ranking just a sliver behind the previous year’s teaming on Pandora’s Box — that one about as good as the movies get. But even so, Diary is my favorite film of 1929 (and, yes, enduring movies got made in that transitional year: Hitchcock’s Blackmail, Lubitsch’s The Love Parade, Mamoulian’s Applause and so on).

Even though Hitler had not yet come to power, censors of the day still went to work on this episodic but fluidly delineated saga — immediately upon its release, in fact. Many of the cuts were ultimately restored — but only after an eternity and utilizing multiple prints (some predictably better than others but all showing wear); even now, there is no version that absolutely conforms to Pabst’s intentions. I remember one of the major New York museums showing a reconstituted version — and it was a big deal at the time — when I was in NYU’s Graduate School of Cinema in 1970-71 and being knocked out from the get-go either just before or after I had seen Pandora’s Box projected in William K. Everson’s apartment.

Certainly someone somewhere in Hollywood should have been able to do something with Brooks (whose version of beauty still easily “works” in modern terms), and, actually, William Wellman (Beggars of Life) and Howard Hawks (A Girl in Every Port) managed to do so before the coming of sound. But between the two Pabst films, the actress supposedly balked at performing dubbing duties for Paramount’s The Canary Murder Case when the studio decided to transform it from silent to talkie — and this after she had bolted the studio to go make the Pabst films in the first place. As a result, she got blackballed by the industry, which means that Brooks’s malnourished filmography in the ’30s (long before she reinvented herself as a scintillating writer) was and is humiliating. Her final picture was, of all possibilities, at Republic opposite a pre-Stagecoach John Wayne: Overland Stage Riders, which, semi-amazingly, is available on Blu-ray from Olive Films.

Diary, meanwhile, runs almost two hours but wastes no time getting down to business: Pharmacist dad has impregnated a family maid who will not be long for this world, and daughter Brooks (character name “Thymian” and age 14, though this is a whopper casting stretch) suffers the first part of the same fate when an in-house colleague and even bigger creep (Fritz Rasp) seduces her. Paternal hypocrisy notwithstanding and bourgeois families being what they were, the folks shuttle her off to a “home” after she refuses to marry the child’s father (good judgment there). In addition to a male who looks to be the spawn of “SNL” Coneheads, the joint is housed with authoritative crones who suggest what Oliver Twist might be like if it had a lesbian angle; let’s just say that these are not women that Warren Beatty would have elected to hit on in his prime (though if he had, it would have been interesting). Though there are all kinds of bustle in these scenes and in follow-ups that take place in a brothel and a rowdy nightspot, Pabst keeps the focus on Thymian and is really good at giving us the sense that everything is from her POV.

The story is satisfying — and even powerful — all the way through its crowd-pleasing wrap, though it’s been said that Pabst’s preferred ending would have been for Thymian to end up running the brothel, which would have worked as well. Whatever the culmination, the picture didn’t do well at the time because silents were a tough sell in 1929 when the industry basically turned on a dime. To show us how quickly Brooks’s career declined, Kino’s release includes an 18-minute Brooks short subject titled Windy Riley Goes to Hollywood, which has the added curio factor of having been directed by an even more professionally compromised Fatty Arbuckle (under a pseudonym). It’s the kind of cheapie that you’d almost bet someone found in a dumpster but is certainly instructional for showing that the actress’s voice registered well enough when the industry rap against her said otherwise. Visually, I have a slight preference for the Diary rendering to be found on the Region B Masters of Cinema release, but it’s no deal-breaker. Mostly, one is grateful that the picture even exists in watchable form. Very watchable.

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