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Lovely Lousie Brooks

Lovely Louise Brooks (November 14, 1906–August 8, 1985 ) – dancer, showgirl, and silent film actress!

She is best remembered for her scorching performance in the German silent classic Pandora’s Box, directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst in 1929.

They sure don’t make em like Lulu anymore!


Louise Brooks made few films which are seldom seen, and by most accounts was difficult, a snob and a gossip. She exists in our minds as fragments, never whole, for she turned her life into a basis for speculation and conjuring. And yet, despite what little she left for us, her magical and ethereal presence continues to exert a hold on all who have ever glimpsed her on the big screen.

(Mary Louise Brooks)
b. Cherryvale, Kansas

In her last years, Louise Brooks did all that an often bedridden old woman could manage to secure her enigmatic reputation. She had been a recluse in Rochester, New York, it was said. Her passions were arthritis and emphysema. But she had ended up there largely because of the admiration of James Card, curator of films at Eastman House. And she could still draw men to upstate New York: Kenneth Tynan went there to write an affectionate and very influential essay for The New Yorker; Richard Leacock went to film her. And there were others. Before she died, Lulu in Hollywood was published (with a William Shawn introduction). That gathering of essays was intelligent, fascinating, cryptic, chilly, and certainly more than most movie stars would think of trying. But reliable, complete, honest? She had once written an autobiography, it was claimed—Naked On My Goat—but only bits survived after the book had been thrown into an incinerator—by its author, of course.

After her death, Barry Paris wrote a careful, very useful biography in which lacunae were wonderfully bridged by breathtaking stills. (Brooks made stills that were thirty years ahead of their time.) But Paris was attempting to net a very elusive butterfly, as well as a woman who had brilliant instincts about modern publicity and cult obsession. Actress? Fleetingly. Playactor? Totally. She was also one of the first stars whose creativity was morbid, or self-destructive: she had a hunch that might last better than simple success.

In Parade’s Gone By, Kevin Brownlow told a delicious story of how Louise Brooks regretted the way Lotte Eisner had clarified an early description of her. In the first edition of Ecran Demoniaque, Eisner had written:

“Was Louise Brooks a great artist or only a dazzling creature whose beauty leads the spectator to endow her with complexities which she herself was unaware?”

Years later, Eisner had altered that passage to:

“Today we know that Louise Brooks is an astonishing actress endowed with an intelligence beyond compare and not only a darling creature.”

Louise Brooks

Yet Brooks had rather preferred the earlier mystery.

She was by then in Rochester, quoting Proust to eager interviewers, still seductive, still difficult, a snob and a gossip, and a connoisseur of her own mystique. She exists in fragments that do not make a tidy whole. Just as she made few films, most of which are seldom seen, so she turned her life into a basis for speculation and conjuring. For example, for years Brooks alleged that she was concealing William Paley as her ex-lover and later patron—yet the cheerfully vain Paley was bursting to be named as one of her conquests. The very rich man was magically the servant to the lost lady.

At the age of fifteen she became a dancer, first with Ruth St. Denis, then in George White’s Scandals and the Ziegfeld Follies. Paramount saw her and gave her a tiny part in The Street of Forgotten Men (25, Herbert Brenon). She made a flurry of comedies in which she was a capricious femme fatale playing with a reserve that unfailingly monopolized attention amid so much mugging: The American Venus (26, Frank Turtle); A Social Celebrity (26, Malcolm St. Clair); It’s the Old Army Game (26), a W. C. Fields film directed by Edward Sutherland, to whom she was briefly married; The Show-Off (26, St. Clair); Just Another Blonde (26, Alfred Santell); Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em (26, Tuttle); Evening Clothes (27, Luther Reed); Rolled Stockings (27, Richard Rossen); The City Gone Wild (27, James Cruze); Now We’re in the Air (27, Frank Strayer); A Girl in Every Port (28, Howard Hawks); and Beggars of Life (28, William Wellman).

There then occurred one of the few instances of an American going to Europe to discover herself. G. W. Pabst saw A Girl in Every Port and fixed on Brooks as the actress to play Wedekind’s Lulu in Pandora’s Box (29). Paramount objected but, undaunted, Brooks abandoned her contract and went to Germany. She has described the way Pabst protected her from xenophobia and obtained so animated a performance from her. His hunch that this American girl (only twenty-three) might understand the psychological truths of sexual alertness was fulfilled—even if it would be twenty-five years before the performance was fully appreciated. Today, Brooks in close-up gives a sense of vivacious, fatal intimacy that enormously enriches Lulu’s tragedy. Pandora’s Box is still among the most erotic films ever made—and it was more than Pabst would ever dare again. Immediately, she played in Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl (29) and then returned to America.

She had offended Paramount, but the excursion had had much more serious effects on her. The studio asked her to dub The Canary Murder Case (29, Tuttle and St. Glair), which had been made before her departure. She declined and went to France to make Prix de Beaute (30, Augusto Genina). Back in Hollywood, her position had so deteriorated that she played in a two-reeler, Windy Riley Goes to Hollywood, directed by Fatty Arbuckle. It is by no means clear how she had fallen from grace, but in 1931 she managed only supporting parts in It Pays to Advertise (Turtle) and God’s Gift to Women (Michael Curtiz).

She resumed her dancing career, only to make a blighted comeback in the late 1930s in which she was wasted in small parts: Empty Saddles (36, Lesley Selander); When You’re in Love (37, Robert Riskin); King of Gamblers (37, Robert Florey); and Overland State Riders (38, George Sberman).

She made no more films and went gradually into a retreat from which she was recovered two decades later, by movie enthusiasts, her own articles in film journals, and the tribute to her made by Godard and Anna Karina in Vivre Sa Vie (62). Why is it that she exerts such influence still? In part, it is a cult superbly handled by the lady herself—so much more ingenious than the attempt Norma Desmond makes in Sunset Boulevard. But than that, she was one of the first performers to penetrate to the heart of screen acting. That original doubt of Lotte Eisner’s applies not only to Louise Brooks but to all the great movie players. Quite simply, she appreciated that the power of the screen actress lay not in impersonation or performance, in the carefully worked-out personal narrative of stage acting, “but in the movement of thought and soul transmitted in a kind on intense isolation.” An actress had fully to imagine the feelings of a character. And perhaps it was in imagining the self-consuming rapture of Lulu that Louise Brooks laid in store her own subsequent isolation.

July 18, 2008 Posted by | Lousie Brooks, OTHER_CINEMA, _BABE | 1 Comment