In the long last years of her life, Louise Brooks, isolated in Rochester, New York and utterly tired of living, would end telephone conversations with the order, “Bring a gun.” Her friends were shocked by this macabre request, which must have delighted her. Even as an elderly woman, Brooks toyed with sensuality, boasting to Kenneth Tynan that she could still ejaculate across a room, but annihilation was her real passion. And of course she connected sex and death better than any other screen actress.
When she made her films in the roaring twenties, Brooks was at best a second tier star, at worst a non-entity. Yet she is better known today than Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Gloria Swanson and many other silent heavyweights; her failure has lasted much longer than their success. The Brooks cult has spurred many articles, including the famed Tynan profile for The New Yorker, and an extremely seductive biography, Louise Brooks, by Barry Paris.
At a book signing for his third biography, on Audrey Hepburn, Paris all but confessed that there was not much to write about Audrey. When I brought my Brooks book to be signed, his face lit up. “Ah, Louise,” he sighed, like a man who has never gotten over his first love. Paris inscribed my book with his favorite Brooksie quote: “If I ever bore you, it’ll be with a knife.”
In the twenties, stiletto-like Brooks started out as a dancer with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, became a Ziegfeld girl, then made fourteen silent films at Paramount, seven of which are now lost. She flitted to Europe, where she made two silent films for G.W. Pabst, and one French sound movie. When she returned, she was reduced to a two-reel comedy, small parts in two early talkies, and two leads in bottom-of-the-barrel westerns. And then oblivion.
Her most famous film, Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (Die Büchse der Pandora, 1928), where she incarnated Franz Wedekind’s Lulu, was not appreciated until nearly thirty years after its release. When she was resurrected, Brooks wrote an impressive series of articles about her Hollywood experience, and her writing sealed her legend. She seemed to have known or at least met just about everybody (who else can claim to have slept with Chaplin and Garbo?), and she somehow managed to make her own stubborn masochism invigorating. Her life is her art, and the two joined in Lulu, but never converged again.
Almost everyone has seen at least a photograph of Louise. Film fanatics recognize her Lulu as essential viewing. She is seemingly easy in that you really only have to watch one, perhaps two films at most, and then glide across the spare, highly controlled pages of her book of essays, Lulu in Hollywood, and you are left with a powerful impression: she was so modern, so ahead of her time, she read Schopenhauer on sets. Brooks was a beautiful loser. She pioneered the marketing of a special kind of superior loserdom and won everlasting cult love in the process.
Louise Brooks can be seen to have made the most of a raw deal. Undoubtedly, her character, particularly her sexuality, was changed forever when an older man molested her at the age of nine. Louise called her molester “Mr. Flowers” and sometimes “Mr. Feathers.” After he screwed her up sexually, Brooks always looked for some sort of domination that she could violently fight against; this is what makes that moment when she bites her lover’s hand in Pandora’s Box so potent. Boozing also had a major hold on her entire life, so that for Tynan she could be a “drunken whore.” Brooks designated Mr. Flowers as her Rosebud, and who are we to disagree? Surely he preoccupied her, but she was a lady devoted to perverse preoccupations.
Women like Louise Brooks and thirties star Frances Farmer were later cast by themselves and others as martyrs to vague, romantic causes. In Farmer’s case, such an approach is justified, but there is no one system or person to blame for the suffering of her life, certainly not Hollywood, or her breakup with Clifford Odets, or even her destructive mother. Farmer had just as much potential on-screen as Louise Brooks did, and she was just as eerily beautiful. On screen, you can read every thought behind Farmer’s eyes, which, in Howard Hawks’ Come and Get It (1936), gives her a distinctive, if slightly disturbing, vibrancy. Hawks also made the most out of Louise Brooks in A Girl in Every Port (1928), a buddy comedy that was seen by Pabst and helped to win her the part of Lulu.
Farmer’s linkage to Brooks extends not only to their later celebration as victims, but to the fact that Hollywood did indeed misuse them completely. Most of Farmer’s films are programmers; in Rhythm on the Range (1936) she’s beautiful and full of life, nuanced and intense, acting as if a soporific Bing Crosby vehicle were a Chekhov play. She’s an artist caught in a machine, both haughty and vulnerable, like Louise Brooks at her best. In the sub-par films that followed, Farmer lost her vitality by degrees. The gallant observer cannot help but think she is being punished for some reason, and it makes for more drama in the tale of her life, which is the only thing that carries any currency today. One film filled with burning promise, beauty, even genius, is not enough for the coverage that Brooks and Farmer have received.
Farmer’s lurid fame was insured with a high price: years in a hellish mental hospital and a supposed lobotomy. You can hardly get any worse than that, and her tragedy has been exploited by three films, the best of which, Frances (1982; dir: Graeme Clifford) starred Jessica Lange. These are women who make failure seem filled with allure, instead of the unhappy result of bad luck or laziness. The triumph of Louise Brooks is that she took her own failure and exploited her own story to the full.
The Brooks films? Most of her American silents are gone. Of the remaining few, William Wellman’s Beggars of Life (1928) is the best, if only for its opening half-hour. Brooks plays a girl who has killed her lecherous benefactor. In her entrance, she stumbles into the frame explosively; no one moves on screen remotely like Louise Brooks (by contrast, her leading man, Richard Arlen, moves self-consciously).
A flashback of the murder plays over her face as she confesses to Arlen. In Brooks’ wet, black-as-sin, bad seed eyes, we see an abused kid whose purity is still visible but shot through with the first pangs of disillusionment. Watching Brooks on the screen, this is the emotion she does best. Somehow, she has been able to preserve the untouched splendor of a special child, and gives us the life-altering disappointment of the little girl abused by Mr. Flowers.
As late as 1974, when she filmed the one-hour interview, Lulu in Berlin, Brooks still has that quality of having been somehow ruined, stained. She booms flutily, impatient or tipsily internal when interviewer Richard Leacock speaks. Amusement ripples through her rapid storytelling. Her face is unwrinkled, but her mouth has collapsed into a perpetual frown. In repose, her eyes are narrowed, sunken and wasted. In that confession scene in Beggars of Life, you believe her as you seldom believe in actors. “But I was never an actress,” she tells Leacock. “I was never in love with myself.”
In Beggars of Life, Arlen takes her abused girl on the road with him, where she dresses as a young boy and walks like a swaggering stud. This masquerade gives Brooks the opportunity to indulge her spikiest behavior, the idea of herself as a bitch that she so loved. For Beggars of Life, she gets to be a bastard. “The men I liked most were the worst in bed, and the men I liked least were the best. I liked the bastards,” she said. Brooks also claimed that she never loved anyone. Perhaps this is true.
Brooks’ scathing article on the making of Beggars of Life, “On Location with William Wellman,” makes Richard Arlen into an all-around jerk and kiss-ass who told her that she couldn’t act and wasn’t even pretty. Brooks, at this crucial time in her development, needed the people around her to support what she was doing, but everyone made fun of her acting. Her Beggars article paints a grim picture of how little she was valued on sets. Worse than her intellectualism was her sexual freedom, which branded her a whore as well as a snob.
The other extant films from America are nothing to shout about, but Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em (1926, dir: Frank Tuttle) is a good sweet and sour comedy. Sexy Brooks, encased in gleaming black satin, uses expertly stylized gestures as she vamps all the men in the cast. It’s the Old Army Game (1926, dir: Edward Sutherland) is a startlingly harsh W.C. Fields film where Brooksie laughs appreciatively at the Great Man. In one memorable moment, after losing boyfriend William Gaxton, Brooks poses against a tree, throwing her head back and digging up an arresting mixture of laughter and tears.
A scene like this shows what a fine dancer Brooks was (and it also lets us see her debt to Martha Graham, who she knew and worked with in the twenties). Even in her lighter scenes in Army Game, Brooks’ flippant, bird-like movements are deeply charming. In The Show-Off (1927, dir: Malcolm St. Clair), Brooks eyes the over-baked cast with alarm, and even does a nasty parody of star Ford Sterling’s acting in one sequence. “I was supposed to flirt with Ford, and laugh ostensibly at his jokes, in order to satisfy his insatiable ego,” Brooks reported. “I couldn’t play that part.”
Before going to Berlin and Pabst, she made her “fuck you” to Hollywood, The Canary Murder Case (1929; dir: Malcolm St. Clair). Her character is killed off after the first fifteen minutes. In the capricious decision that ruined her career ever after, Brooks refused to come back to America to dub in her own voice (which was poorly dubbed by another actress, Margaret Livingston). Thus, she sealed her fate of poignant squandered potential and grabbed, unknowingly, at her morbid legend in Lulu.
Pandora’s Box is her one legitimate achievement, a film as powerful and compelling in its way as another movie shot in Berlin at that time, Josef Von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel, 1930). While Marlene Dietrich’s Lola was a self-aware seductress and ambiguous destroyer, Louise’s Lulu is the most touching and frightening portrait of unthinking instinctual innocence in cinema.
Lulu enters the film smiling seductively, like a little girl who has learned how to be manipulative. Mr. Flowers turns up in the person of Schigulch (Carl Goetz), her pimp (and, perhaps, her father). Lulu tips over in excitement on seeing him and clutches at her breasts, in a childishly unaware and tactile fashion, and Schigulch cradles her on his lap (as Jack the Ripper will soon enough). Brooks looks at him with her own amusement and irony, pursing her lips slightly as he drinks, the same expression she uses in the Leacock interview when she does her self-deprecation act.
If on film black and white proved to be somehow more realistic than color, then Pandora’s Box somehow seems more realistic because of its silence. There is no glib talk to smooth anything away, or blur what Brooks is doing. When her big meal ticket, Schon (the heavy, Germanic Fritz Kortner) comes in, Lulu lies on her back submissively. They come together, and their kiss has real heat to it.
“Strong!” she says, in English, when she shakes her next john’s hand, and then feels his muscle. The famed Brooks hedonism is visible as she starts swinging on the john’s arm, pulling herself up on his bicep, letting go with a face-squinched-up laugh, like her silvery, “A-HA-HA-HA!” with Leacock. This is truly a woman who, as they used to say, knows no law but her own desires.
When she sees Schon’s son, Alwa (Francis Lederer) Lulu says, “Alwa is my best friend. He is the only one who wants nothing from me. Or do you want nothing from me because you don’t love me?” You see Brooks’ put-on arrogance as Lulu parades her affection for Alwa in front of Schon, a hand on her hip, her chin tilted up in the air (a gesture most psychologists see as protective, not confident). All the men in Pandora’s Box are primarily concerned with sexual gratification, and Brooks saw this as Pabst’s keenest insight. She painted herself as a whore that gives her body, but not her soul, which is precisely what Lulu does, with pleasure.
In the film’s best sequence, Lulu performs on stage, dressed in a mod space age outfit with big wings, as chorus girls come out with swords. The stage show’s bursting outlandishness is like something Sternberg would conjure up for Dietrich, who would have left no doubt as to what those swords were. But Brooks’ real innocence shines like a beacon, even as Pabst’s cut-cut-cutting seems like an editing orgy. The rhythm of the editing resembles rough sex, and Lulu’s scanty costume gives us a direct view of Brooks’ weapon, glory and downfall: her superb body, with its strong, straight back, its graceful shoulders and arms.
When Lulu sees Schon’s wife, her eyes mist, and she refuses to go back on stage. Schon waves a phallic finger at her, but she rejects his machismo ferociously. Brooks was a definite feminist, and she infuses Lulu with her own indignation, which, again, has the quality of a pure child lashing out at injustice. Schon takes her to her dressing room to bully her into going on; there is a mouth-watering close-up of her small, firm breasts as he shakes her violently (Brooks reported she had ten black and blue marks from Kortner’s fingers after the scene was finished). Schon wants to possess her, because he knows he can’t, and will only fall down into Emil Jannings-type masochistic disgrace. But, as Dietrich was to Sternberg, Louise Brooks is worth such trouble. As Pauline Kael said of Brooks in Canary Murder Case: “The men she mistreats are lucky.”
Lulu flings herself down and cuts at the air with her legs, using them like the iconic shark-scissor legs of Dietrich. After a viciously quick cut, Lulu bites Schon’s hand (the triumph of sadomasochism) and they kiss hotly, his hand trembling as he clutches her head. Then comes the money shot of Brooks’ career: Lulu is caught with Schon on the floor, and she looks up with an expression of smeared, gloating power and satisfaction. It’s an unforgettable come-on.
The most touching thread in the film is Lulu’s relationship with the lesbian Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts), a Sapphic study that remains unlike anything else in the cinema. Geschwitz loves Lulu passionately, and, at Lulu’s wedding to Schon, the women dance together closely. Geschwitz closes her eyes, in ecstasy over holding her beloved, and Lulu expresses a unique series of ambivalent emotions that testify to Brooks’ skill, as well as her worldly knowledge of many still unspoken feelings.
Brooks intimated that she had two lesbian encounters, one with Garbo, out of “vanity.” It is this vanity in a straight woman that Brooks puts on the screen wholly and without flinching. Lulu looks amused, shy, exploratory, alarmed but game, as their hands intertwine; the dance is practically a sexual encounter. Later, when Geschwitz hugs her tightly, Brooks does a perfect reaction of smiling vagueness at this affection, as if it came from an unexpected source but was not unwelcome (for Lulu is all instinct, no intellect, unlike her creator).
Schon, reeling with humiliation at her flirtations with Alwa and Geschwitz, gives Lulu a gun (his phallus?) to kill herself. Kortner’s Teutonic masochism is quite overdone, but we understand his trauma. Lulu has become the desire that cannot be quenched, and he must fuck this whore-goddess, possess her or kill her, or, better yet, force her to shoot him (a shot is fired and we only see the merest puff of smoke). Lulu looks old and bewildered when he slumps down dead, and Schon clutches at his desire, of course, before dying.
In court, Lulu’s lawyer proclaims, “She is innocent!” and damned if she isn’t just that, sitting in the witness box in her widow’s weeds, luring us with promises of sex and then death. Geschwitz takes the stand to defend her Lulu, explaining that the crime was caused by a bad upbringing (as we can explain Brooks with Mr. Flowers). Lulu is condemned, but a fire alarm is pulled, and in the ensuing panic she drifts casually from the court.
Brooks herself often took no action, and just let things happen, bad things as it would turn out; she was just as prey to chance and drift as Lulu. After her escape, when Lulu goes back to Schon’s apartment and relaxes, reading magazines, we find the final proof of her unreflective spirit. She flies around Schon’s apartment like a child whose parents have gone away. Lulu is seen as a delightful kid home alone at the scene of a crime.
The film loses a bit of steam in a long gambling sequence, where Lulu is sold as merchandise once again. She looks older, with lines under her eyes, and now Brooks gives us the full impact of her own future disillusionment: the sexual woman reduced to prostitution, the peerless screen beauty landed through her self-loathing into lifelong unemployment. Geschwitz, who is the only person in the film that truly loves Lulu (it is no mistake that she is a woman), gives herself to a man to secure funds for her beloved, and she gets brutalized in the process, eventually killing the john. Thus ends the one true and moving portrait of an adoring gay and a flattered straight in film history.
Lulu winds up walking the streets of London, as Brooks later landed in New York (though not quite on the streets). When Lulu gulps liquor and shudders, we can see proof of Brooks’ imaginative talent, for Louise’s fondness for gin was chronic. Lulu actually finds some real, weary affection with one john, but he turns out to be Jack the Ripper (Gustav Diessl). When he stabs her, all we see is her hand stiffen, then fall like a flower. “It is Christmas Eve, and she is about to receive the gift that has been her dream since childhood,” Brooks wrote. “Death by a sexual maniac.”
It is not hyperbolic to think that, subconsciously, the horror of Pandora’s Box pushed Louise Brooks into a retreat from the world, a lifetime of misery. The film was a flop, and she received withering reviews, for the critics didn’t know how to handle the subtlety of her performance, the fact that she doesn’t “act.” But she achieved the highest level to be attained in screen acting, what she later called, “the movement of thought and soul transmitted in a kind of intense isolation.”
The second film with Pabst, Diary of a Lost Girl (Tagebuch einer Verlorenen, 1929), is even more striking at times but less successful as a whole. Though it has some terrific sequences, especially headmistress Valeska Gert’s “orgasm” during exercise with her reform school girls, censors cut it so that it just doesn’t hang together. As it stands now, Diary is a slow, schematic series of set pieces climaxing with a bad tacked-on ending. But Louise is glowingly convincing as a wholly pure girl ready to be corrupted. Her Thymian does what she is told and is constantly taken advantage of; she finally finds freedom in prostitution, like Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour.
Only one other film had her as its lead, Prix de beauté (1930), directed by Augusto Genina after Rene Clair bailed out. In contrast to the heaviness of Pabst, it has a welcome stylistic lightness. Lucienne (Brooks), an office drone, has a jealous boyfriend (Georges Charlia) that she keeps reassuring, but this is clearly not a woman made for reassurance. She’s filled with restless gaiety, her armored face exploding into frequent smiles. Her sexy hints of submission are nothing but sensual playacting, and her childish abandon can give way to angry glares.
Brooks’ holy trinity is all feminist films. After she wins a beauty contest and becomes Miss Europe, Lucienne’s boyfriend makes her give up on pageants. They marry. Languishing in the kitchen, Lucienne looks at a canary in a cage and identifies with it, then laughs at herself for being so dramatic (this ironic self-reproach is pure Brooks). Marriage makes her wilt, though she clutches at her husband (Brooks has a tragic abandonment when she touches others).
When deciding to leave her marriage in Prix de beauté, Brooks’ face is drenched in anguish, making her more beautiful. Giving in to tears, she is very touching because she never loses her hauteur, or her pride. In the final sequence, Lucienne goes to see a screen test of her. Up on the screen, Lucienne sings; in the audience, she watches herself with childish enthusiasm. Her vengeful husband lurches into the screening room and, in desperation and anger, he shoots her.
After Lucienne falls forward, there is an epochal shot: her corpse is in the foreground, and her image continues to sing on the screen. Then, the light from the projector flickers onto her deathly white face in close-up. This brief series of shots is the most powerful metaphor for her life and career imaginable. Louise Brooks was never to star in another film.
Marlene Dietrich would be unknown to us if Josef Von Sternberg had not played Svengali for her, loved her enough to help her create her legend, and then nurtured her enough so that she could carry on without him. Louise Brooks had G.W. Pabst, but he was not as persistent as Sternberg, nor was Louise as willing a model as the obedient Dietrich. She drank and slept around, and Pabst grew tired of her. Dietrich had to know everything about the films she was making, while Brooks admitted she had no idea what any of her three European claims to fame were about while she was making them. Pabst let her go, and down she went.
When she got back to Hollywood, there was nothing waiting for her. Silent film stars needed to cross that sound divide quickly, and Louise had stayed in Europe too long. She also claimed that Paramount blacklisted her, but the exact reason for her downfall is still somewhat obscure. She stayed on in Hollywood for most of the thirties, trying to get work. Even though she was at the height of her beauty and only in her mid-twenties, she was reduced to an awful two-reel comedy, Windy Reilly in Hollywood (1931; dir: Fatty Arbuckle), in which she doesn’t seem to know what she’s doing, and thereafter played only four small parts.
Brooks has a brief piquant scene at the beginning of It Pays to Advertise (1931; dir Frank Tuttle), but then disappears from the film. She’s tenth-billed in a miserable Frank Fay vehicle, God’s Gift to Women (1931; dir Michael Curtiz). For most of the movie she merely sips drinks and disappears into crowds, little more than a pretty extra, but there are two shots that leave no doubt that the camera is hers to command: one is a long shot as she fixes her stockings in Fay’s bathroom, with her endless legs accentuated in the light. The second shot is a gasp-inducing close-up, the only one she gets in the film. After seeing this close-up, enough to shake or even stop the world, you can’t believe that somebody didn’t have the sense to star her in something.
Brooks took a thankless female lead in a fly-by-night western, Empty Saddles (1936; dir Lesley Selander) and was cut entirely from When You’re in Love (1937; dir Robert Riskin) and King of the Gamblers (1937; dir Robert Florey). Columbia chief Harry Cohn vengefully publicized her aborted “comeback,” because she had rejected a pass he made at her in 1930. Brooks’ last film role was the female lead in another cheap western called Overland Stage Raiders (1938; dir George Sherman), opposite a young, green John Wayne. In her two westerns, Brooks is just a moody journeyman player with a soured face and an affected voice. No one wanted her, and she left Hollywood forever, a broken woman.
Her voice had the distinctiveness of Katharine Hepburn’s twang, or Margaret Sullavan’s famed “liquid gravel,” but she was uncomfortable with dialogue and never got the proper direction to ease her anxiety. She had alienated Hollywood, but, aside from Harry Cohn, Brooks was simply forgotten. We all love a grand conspiracy theory, yet it was simple indifference that did her in. We look at Frances Farmer’s bad films too, and draw up in righteous indignation, as if she were being deliberately punished. Certainly these women’s thorny intellects did nothing to make them popular, but they just didn’t make it, mostly because of lousy luck. “Ain’t nobody can screw up my life the way I can,” drawls Jessica Lange as Frances, proudly, and this seems practically a declaration of masochistic principles.
Perusing Lulu in Hollywood, the reader assumes that the flighty Louise, hating Hollywood, went directly from Europe into her mythic retreat, for there is nary a word about her life after 1930. She does not mention how she tried to secure work all through the thirties and how, finally, in 1940, she went home to Kansas in the role of a disgrace, scrubbing kitchen floors for penance and venting her potent venom at all around her.
In the forties, Brooks went to New York, where her humiliation of herself sunk to its lowest and scariest level, leading to stints as a salesgirl and call girl, until she was an overweight, alcoholic middle-aged flop who “started to flirt with fancies related to little bottles filled with yellow pills.” Luckily, William Paley, an old friend and lover, came to her rescue and began to give her a monthly allowance, which she lived on for the rest of her consummately solitary days.
Around the mid-fifties, the miracle happened. She was acclaimed for Pandora’s Box as a neglected titan of the screen, and, at last, everything fell into place. Brooks looked back at all the years of hell, twenty years of nothing, and her superiority was confirmed. It all made sense: she was a victim of Hollywood and powerful men, and she had left Hollywood to escape from motion picture slavery. Yet outsiders saw her differently. When she sat for artist Don Bachardy, he described Brooks as “a dipsomaniac for sure, probably a nymphomaniac, and certainly a destructomaniac, she is driven to excess and helpless to resist.”
She went about constructing her legend with glee, in a handful of hard, precise, yet evasive essays that cemented her reputation. The best is a lacerating consideration of her best friend, Pepi Lederer, Marion Davies’ cousin. It’s an unsparing look at a failed life that ends with her friend’s suicide and tragicomic funeral, where actress Katherine Menjou, in a white dress with black polka dots, was “waving to everyone as if she were greeting friends at a garden party. She quite stole the scene from poor old Pepi, lying there in her bronze casket.” Brooks, too, committed suicide, then had the joy of seeing other’s reactions while she was still legally alive, knowing that the love and pity for Lulu and her creator would only increase after her actual death.
Louise Brooks was America in the 1920’s, and she was the very idea of Weimar Germany. To paraphrase Stephen Sondheim, in the Depression she was depressed. She is Edna St. Vincent Millay’s candle that burned at both ends. The lovely light of the twenties extinguished, Brooks felt that she was a fuck-up, and her self-loathing turned her into a fascinating recluse who spent the rest of her life in bed with books and booze. We’d all like to link failure to integrity, and she managed that quite well.
Brooks never lost that first disillusionment in adolescence that seems bottomless because there is nothing to compare it to. Frozen in mortification, her face a lasting monument to outraged purity, she learned not expect anything from life. G.W. Pabst, her erstwhile von Sternberg and mentor, finally gave up on her childish fury and aimlessness. “Your life is exactly like Lulu’s,” he concluded, “and you will end the same way.”
Dan Callahan is a film writer based in New York. He’s the former Arts Editor of Show Business Weekly.
This article was originally published in Film International 12, vol. 2, no. 6, 2004.
Don Bachardy, Stars in My Eyes, The University of Wisconsin Press, 2000.
Louise Brooks, Lulu in Hollywood, Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.
Roland Jaccard (ed.), Louise Brooks: Portrait of an Anti-Star, New York: Zoetrope, 1986.
Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies, Henry Holt, 1991.
Kenneth Tynan, Diaries, Bloomsbury, 2001.