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Lovely Louise Brooks

August 26, 2008 Posted by | Louise Brooks, _BABE | Leave a comment

The miracle of Louise Brooks

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The Miracle of Louise Brooks

by R. Dixon Smith

from moviemail-online.co.uk/

She was less overtly sensual than her principal screen rivals, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. The name Garbo suggested allure, mystery, beauty, and charisma; Dietrich’s sexual magnetism and callous, insolent eroticism made her the screen’s supreme sex goddess. What, then, was Louise Brooks? She was cool, ethereal, and stunning. Her friend Kevin Brownlow called her “one of the most remarkable personalities to be associated with films.” She was a phenomenon that film historian Lotte Eisner simply called “the miracle of Louise Brooks.”

The camera loved her more than perhaps anyone else in the history of cinema. Even people who have never seen one of her films recognise her trademark hairstyle, that shiny black helmet that is as copied today as it was eighty years ago. And yet she only managed to make one major Hollywood film –William A. Wellman’s gritty road picture, Beggars of Life (1928). Paramount Pictures never understood what an asset she could have been, squandering her abilities in secondary roles supporting such stars as WC Fields (It’s the Old Army Game) and Ford Sterling (The Show Off). Frank Tuttle’s Love ‘em and Leave ‘em and Howard Hawks’ A Girl in Every Port (the picture that convinced director G. W. Pabst to cast her in Pandora’s Box) gave her more screen time, but even these failed to make full use of her talents.

In 1928, after making The Canary Murder Case, Brooks quit Paramount and went to Berlin to make Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box, 1929), an adaptation of two Frank Wedekind plays, in which she starred as Lulu, tragic woman of the streets. As Lotte Eisner put it, Pabst brought out “the erotic power of this singularly ‘earthy being’ endowed with animal beauty, but lacking all moral sense, and doing evil unconsciously.”

After completing Pandora’s Box in November 1928, Brooks returned to America but six months later rejoined Pabst in Berlin for Das Tagebuch einer Verlorenen (Diary of a Lost Girl, 1929), the story of another beautiful young woman (Thymiane Henning) with problematic morals, who, having been seduced, has an illegitimate child that dies, is sent to a brutal reformatory run on relentlessly regimented, militaristic lines, only to wind up escaping and working in a brothel.

“Louise Brooks, always enigmatically impassive, overwhelmingly exists throughout these two films,” wrote Lotte Eisner. “We now know that Louise Brooks is a remarkable actress endowed with uncommon intelligence, and not merely a dazzlingly beautiful woman.” Brooks’s biographer, Barry Paris, argues that the actress was never more erotic than in the bordello scenes, “dancing, drinking champagne, arching her swanlike neck in full sexual submission.”

Not surprisingly, the censors had a field day with Diary of a Lost Girl and wielded their cutting shears with a vengeance. Although severely mutilated, the picture was premiered in Vienna in September 1929 and in Berlin in October. It was not well received. What killed the film was its timing, for talkies were now widely available, and that’s all audiences wanted. Critics largely ignored it, and what notices it did receive were uniformly negative. Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl were both casualties of the all-talking craze in America as well. Diary of a Lost Girl received no serious critical attention until the 1960s, when the picture was finally restored, as close as possible, to what Pabst had intended audiences to see. Today it is regarded, as is Pandora’s Box, as a late-silent masterwork.

After finishing Diary of a Lost Girl, Louise went to Paris, where, under the tutelage of René Clair, she made one more scintillating screen appearance, in Augusto Genina’s masterfully crafted early talkie, Prix de Beauté (1930). Brooksie’s return to Hollywood soon thereafter was far from triumphant. She had always been her own worst enemy; her morals had been loose ever since she’d left Kansas and danced her way to fame as a Ziegfeld showgirl, she had a surprisingly foul mouth, she was temperamental, and she made a number of enemies along the way. Blacklisted for refusing to overdub dialogue onto her scenes in Paramount’s The Canary Murder Case, she found herself reduced to accepting parts in B-westerns. She finally had had enough of the Hollywood studio system, quit the film capital forever, and eventually settled in New York, where she lived in relative obscurity for decades. “Your life is exactly like Lulu’s,” Pabst had told her in Berlin, “and you will end the same way.” She very nearly did, but in March 1956 she moved to Rochester, New York, to be close to the film archive of the George Eastman House. There, encouraged by its director, James Card, she made a comeback as a writer, producing a remarkably perceptive series of essays about the film industry in which she once had played, however briefly, such an important role. Lulu in Hollywood, a collection of these essays, appeared in 1982.

French film critics rediscovered her in the 1950s and called her cinema’s greatest icon. “There is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! There is only Louise Brooks!” proclaimed Henri Langlois, head of the Cinémathèque Française, in 1955.

The free spirit known as Louise Brooks was one of the most important naturalistic actors of the silent cinema. Her troubled career ended long before her equally troubled life ended in 1985. On screen she represented an unattainable ideal, but her personal life – though independent, intellectually daring, and sexually liberated – was tempestuous. In Amour et érotisme au cinéma (1957), French critic Adou Kyrou wrote: “Louise Brooks is the only woman who had the ability to transfigure no matter what film into a masterpiece…Louise is the perfect apparition, the dream woman without whom the cinema would be a poor thing. She is much more than a myth, she is a magical presence, a real phantom, the magnetism of the cinema.”

R. Dixon Smith is the author of Ronald Colman, Gentleman of the Cinema: A Biography and Filmography (1991). He has written DVD documentaries and essays for many releases of silent film, including Diary of a Lost Girl.

July 18, 2008 Posted by | Louise Brooks, OTHER_CINEMA, _BABE | Leave a comment