Fritz Kortner and Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box (G.W. Pabst, 1929)
By Thomas Gladysz.
Louise Brooks has been described as a “cult actress”…. But as both the Melbourne and Zurich retrospectives show, there is a good deal more to this singular performer.”
Last October, the Melbourne Cinémathèque in Melbourne, Australia put together a retrospective titled “Enduring Modernity: The Transcontinental Career of Louise Brooks.” The seven film retrospective concentrated on Brooks’ silent films, anchored by the three European works for which the actress is best known today, Pandora’s Box (in which she famously played Lulu), The Diary of a Lost Girl, and Prix de beauté. The first two are German films, the latter French. The Australian retrospective also included four American silents, the increasingly significant Beggars of Life, as well as A Girl in Every Port, The Canary Murder Case, and the surviving fragment of Now We’re in the Air. For the latter, its showing was the first in Australia in 90 years, as the film was thought lost until a fragment turned up a few years ago in Prague at the Czech Republic’s National Film Archive.
The Australian retrospective was an ambitious undertaking for the all-volunteer cinémathèque. Typically, film societies might screen one or two Brooks’ films in order to showcase her iconic performances in Hollywood or Europe, or her collaborations with important directors such as Howard Hawks, William Wellman, or G.W. Pabst. “Enduring Modernity” offered a somewhat different take, couching the series in terms of an aesthetic readjustment. In an interview, Eloise Ross, co-curator of the Melbourne retrospective, put it this way:
Louise Brooks’ appeal speaks for itself in the film community, and even beyond it – there’s so much more breadth to her than is commonly recognised. We wanted to highlight that. She’s essential to film history and her modern influence is broad. She is such a beguiling performer that people often don’t realise quite how powerful her image is…. Brooks is iconic for her role and her look in Pandora’s Box, but we wanted to highlight her work beyond this to see how she worked, and how key directors saw her, in the United States as well as in Europe. It also gave us the chance to screen a few things that had been recently restored – the fantastically rich Prix de beauté that I had seen at Il Cinema Ritrovato, and a fragment of the aviation comedy Now We’re in the Air, from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Although many of these films are almost a century old, there is, as indicated by our season title, something enduringly modern about Brooks’ presence.”
Compared to her better known contemporaries like Mary Pickford or Clara Bow, Brooks had a relatively brief career, appearing in just 24 films, and starring in only four. After her retirement from the screen in 1938, she fell into obscurity, only to be rediscovered and celebrated anew in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s. By then, as the program notes for the Melbourne Cinémathèque state, “Aesthetic tastes had caught up to her onscreen persona, and Brooks was finally recognised as a magnetic screen presence and, in the words of French critic Ado Kyrou, ‘the only woman who had the ability to transfigure no matter what film into a masterpiece’.” Kyrou was a Greek-born critic associated with the Surrealists, and his declaration is certainly hyperbole, but one not out of tune with others made during the peak of the Brooks’ revival. Early on, Henri Langlois, the founder of La Cinémathèque française, famously declared “There is no Garbo, there is no Dietrich, there is only Louise Brooks.” A little later, the English critic Kenneth Tynan declared Brooks “the most seductive, sexual image of woman ever committed to celluloid.” Kevin Brownlow, the only film historian to be honored with an Academy Award, stated Brooks was “One of the most remarkable personalities to be associated with film.” There were others.
Every generation defines its heroes anew. And hyperbole or not, such past statements laid the groundwork for the emergence of a new, 21st century Louise Brooks. The program notes of the Melbourne Cinémathèque conclude, “Now recognised as an icon of the Jazz Age, Brooks’ intense femininity, flapper style and coyly ambiguous sexuality have made her one of the era’s brightest and most enduring stars.”
Last year’s retrospective in Australia is now being followed by an even more impressive retrospective at FilmPodium, in Zurich, Switzerland. This 15 film series, originally set to take place earlier this year but postponed due to the worldwide Coronavirus pandemic, runs through November 18, 2020. Notably, each of the in-person screenings of silent films will feature live musical accompaniment; FilmPodium, however, will likely have to do without the talents of English musicians set to play in Zurich due to the two country’s quarantine rules. Instead, the series expects to feature other Swiss and German musicians.
The FilmPodium series includes ten of Brooks’ silents – all of the films shown in Melbourne, as well as seldom screened works like It’s the Old Army Game (paired with the surviving fragment of Now We’re in the Air), The Show Off, and Love Em and Leave Em. Unusually so, the series also includes both the silent and sound versions of Prix de beauté, two Brooks’ talkies, and again usually so, a documentary, and a recent cinematic homage.
The FilmPodium retrospective is impressive because it is expansive, and like the Melbourne screenings, goes beyond Brooks’ “greatest hits.” Zurich has shown Brooks films like Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl in the past, but wanted more. In an interview, FilmPodium head Michel Bodmer stated “I felt that I was not alone in wanting to see and know more of Brooks’ work, given her endlessly fascinating combination of innocence and experience and her daringly modern acting style. I grew even more interested when I started reading about her and discovering her own sharp writing on Pabst and other people she’d worked with, so I set about tracking down other films for a retrospective that would show her progress as an artist, including the rather sad end of her career.” Echoing some of the reasoning put forth by Melbourne, Bodmer said he also felt the timing was right. “It’s the centenary of the Roaring Twenties, and Brooks was certainly an icon of that era.”
It has likely been decades since It’s the Old Army Game, The Show Off, and Love Em and Leave Em have been shown in Switzerland, let alone in much of Europe. These three films are among Brooks’ least screened surviving films. (Five of her films are considered lost, while three others survive in incomplete form.) Nevertheless, each is worth viewing in their own right, and each prove themselves enjoyable movies.
It’s the Old Army Game (1926), which stars the one and only W.C. Fields, is a fine example of the comedian’s early work. And Brooks’ too, for that matter. The eccentric comic and the dancer-showgirl had worked together the previous year in the Ziegfeld Follies, and they accepted one another. He was notoriously shy of beautiful women, but not Brooks, who laughed at his jokes and sat on his lap. The older Fields did not judge Brooks’ inexperience or live for the moment attitude – and she looked past his drinking, bulbous nose, and skin condition. It’s the Old Army Game is a faintly topical comedy, but also a tender, even endearing work of longing which hints at Cyrano de Bergerac and is brought off by the chemistry between the film’s two stars.
The Show Off (1926), based on the hit stage play by Pulitzer Prize winner George Kelly, is a witty, satirical look at American life and an American type – namely the blow-hard a la Donald Trump. In this first film version of Kelly’s drama, the now forgotten Ford Sterling plays the loudmouth braggart, a role played by Spencer Tracy in 1934, and Red Skelton in 1946. Despite what is only a supporting role, Brooks shines as the girl next door.
Love Em and Leave Em (1926) is also a small gem, a film I would much rather watch and chuckle over than the better known and better regarded A Girl in Every Port. In the former, Brooks plays Janie Walsh, a live for the moment salesgirl who tries to steal her older sister’s boyfriend. Complications ensue. For a time in the 1920s, Brooks was sometimes compared to “It” girl Clara Bow, and for good reason. As Love Em and Leave Em shows, Brooks also had a large dose of “It.” When Love Em and Leave Em debuted, Variety wrote, “The cast has three featured members – Evelyn Brent, Lawrence Gray and Louise Brooks. It would have been just as well to reverse the order of the names, for Louise Brooks, playing an entirely unsympathetic role of the flapper sister of the saleslady, runs away with the picture.”
Now We’re in the Air (1927), which is showing in Zurich for the first time in nearly a century, is another lighthearted film. Some 23 minutes survive of this World War One comedy, which stars future Oscar winner Wallace Beery and the once popular character actor Raymond Hatton. Brooks is featured in two supporting roles. The actress plays twins, one raised French, one raised German, and the love interests of Beery and Hatton, two goofy American fliers mixed up in military intrigue. The surviving footage, regrettably, only includes Brooks in the role of the French twin, a carnival work deliciously dressed in a short, dark tutu.
The films that followed in 1928 and 1929 marked a turning point in Brooks’ career. The lighthearted dramas and comedies fell away, and the actress took on more serious characters folded into darker storylines.
In Howard Hawks’ A Girl in Every Port (1928), Brooks plays a Marie, also named Mademoiselle Godiva, a gold-digger who comes between two male buddies. The film has been inexplicably well regarded in France (a la Jerry Lewis) ever since it debuted alongside surrealist fair in small Parisian theaters and proved to be a hit. In fact, it was such a popular film Jean-Paul Sartre took Simone de Beauvoir to see the film on one of their first dates. Years later, writing in Cahiers du Cinéma, Henri Langlois stated, “It seems that A Girl in Every Port was the revelation of the Hawks season at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For New York audiences of 1962, Louise Brooks suddenly acquired that ‘Face of the century’ aura she had had, many years ago, for spectators at the Cinema des Ursulines. . . . That is why Blaise Cendrars confided a few years ago that he thought A Girl in Every Port definitely marked the first appearance of contemporary cinema. To the Paris of 1928, which was rejecting expressionism, A Girl in Every Port was a film conceived in the present, achieving an identity of its own by repudiating the past.” Personally, I have always been a bit baffled by A Girl in Every Port and its large reputation. To me, it seems little more than a glorified programmer, an early example of a typical Hawks’ buddy film. Brooks is fine in her part, a run-of-the-mill supporting role to stars Victor McLaglen and Robert Armstrong. But why the heaps of praise, and the large reputation? Is it Brooks’ singular presence among so many beautiful women (including a hard-to-spot Myrna Loy, Sally Rand, Leila Hyams, etc…) that transforms or transfigures this film into some sort of masterpiece?
Brooks’ next role was anything but run-of-the-mill. In William Wellman’s terse Beggars of Life (1928), Brooks plays Nancy, a young woman who kills her abusive step-father and goes on the run dressed as a young man. It’s a grim film, part harsh realism and part moody melodrama. It also proved a challenge for critics of the time. Louella Parsons, writing in the Los Angeles Examiner, stated, “I was a little disappointed in Louise Brooks. She is so much more the modern flapper type, the Ziegfeld Follies girl, who wears clothes and is always gay and flippant. This girl is somber, worried to distraction and in no comedy mood. Miss Brooks is infinitely better when she has her lighter moments.” Parsons’ cross-town colleague added to a drumbeat of disdain in the Los Angeles Evening Herald, “Considered from a moral standpoint, Beggars of Life is questionable, for it throws the glamour of adventure over tramp life and is occupied with building sympathy for an escaping murderess.” Never mind she was escaping a man who sexually abused her. Brooks’ unconventional role touched a nerve.
Critics in New York and elsewhere were also divided on the merits of Beggars of Life, with many of them instead focusing on Brooks’ unconventional, cross-dressing appearance. In the New York Times, Mordaunt Hall noted, “Louise Brooks figures as Nancy. She is seen for the greater part of this subject in male attire, having decided to wear these clothes to avoid being apprehended. Miss Brooks really acts well, better than she has in most of her other pictures.” The Morning Telegraph stated,
Louise Brooks, in a complete departure from the pert flapper that it has been her wont to portray, here definitely places herself on the map as a fine actress. Her characterizations, drawn with the utmost simplicity, is genuinely affecting.” While Quinn Martin of the New York World wrote, “Here we have Louise Brooks, that handsome brunette, playing the part of a fugitive from justice, and playing as if she meant it, and with a certain impressive authority and manner. This is the best acting this remarkable young woman has done.”
It’s known that, as a girl, Brooks was sexually abused on at least a couple of occasions. In Beggars of Life, she plays a victim of sexual abuse and in doing so brings an internal intensity to her portrayal of Nancy (as she does later to the role of Thymiane in Diary of a Lost Girl, another victim of abuse). Beggars of Life, which was first released on DVD just a few years ago, is by far Brooks’ best American film, and one in which she delivers her best American performance.
In her next film, The Canary Murder Case (1929), Brooks plays Margaret Odell, a gold digging showgirl and the titular Canary. It was the first of three films in which her character is murdered. Based on the once popular murder mystery by S.S. van Dine, the film is a bit of a mess. Famously, Brooks fled the scene of this cinematic crime after the silent version of the film was finished, but before retakes were shot which adapted it into a sound production. Brooks was off working in Europe, and her refusal to return led the studio to get another actress to double her onscreen and to dub her voice. The results were less than stellar, and the studio, Paramount, never forgave her.
Brooks’ brief time in Europe resulted in the three films for which she is best remembered today, Pandora’s Box (1929), The Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), and Prix de beauté (1930). Together, they form a kind of trilogy. Pandora’s Box and The Diary of a Lost Girl are both German productions based on well known literary texts; the former was based on Frank Wedekind’s notorious 1904 play, which later served as the basis for Alban Berg’s 1936 opera, while the latter was based on Margarete Bohme’s 1905 “novel,” one of the bestselling German books of the early 20th century. [Bohme’s controversial book was published as a real diary, but was actually a novel, an early example of faked memoirs.] Pandora’s Box and The Diary of a Lost Girl were both directed by G. W. Pabst, a director of near equal standing to Lang, Murnau, and other greats. They stand as two of his best films. Prix de beauté is a French production based on a story idea by Pabst and the famed French director René Clair, who was first set to direct the film until funding fell through and an Italian, Augusto Genina, took over. All three films share a number of themes.
Much has been written about Brooks’ two German films, each of which is now regarded among the highpoints of German silent cinema. In Pandora’s Box, Brooks plays Lulu, a live for the moment showgirl and kept-women who accidentally kills her new, socially prominent husband in a struggle on their wedding night. Lulu is put on trial, but escapes and flees to London, where she ends up turning tricks until she falls into the hands of Jack the Ripper. In The Diary of a Lost Girl, Brooks plays Thymiane, a teenager raped by her Father’s business partner. A cover-up ensues, and Thymiane is forced to give up her child and is thrown out of the family home. Eventually, she ends up in a house of ill repute, but is saved when she ends up marrying the rich uncle of a family friend. Now a member of society, Thymiane visits the cruel reformatory where she had been sent at the beginning of her downward spiral. The film’s final scenes point a damning finger at society.
Both Pandora’s Box and The Diary of a Lost Girl fared poorly when first released, with critics complaining about their unsettling plot points and disjointed storylines. Those complaints, however, had more to do with the fact that both films were heavily censored because of what was seen as their salacious content – sparked, as it were, by Brooks’ intense performances. In 1938, an Italian critic wrote of The Diary of a Lost Girl,
the banality of the plot, an exploitive sentimentality, the easy contrast between hypocrisy and the straightforward, and the generosity that a lost woman can have would make the film ridiculous if the acting were mediocre, or simply good enough. Instead, it is truly exceptional. Under the direction of Pabst everyone plays well, and the very average Louise Brooks, misunderstood and misdirected by her fellow Americans, becomes a revelation in this film. . . . From imperceptible thrills, from a delicate play of glances, her thoughts are guessed. She is a lost woman, beautiful and immobile. She suffers and remains impassive. And this is precisely what counts most: with an almost total ‘absence of acting’, she was able to create an atmosphere full of intense emotions around herself.”
Compared to Pandora’s Box and The Diary of a Lost Girl, much less has been said about Prix de beauté. In it, Brooks plays Lucienne, a typist who enters a beauty contest against the wishes of her controlling boyfriend. She wins, is crowned Miss Europe, and is thrust into a glamorous new life until her boyfriend appears and demands she return home. Prix de beauté is a film about relationships, desire and longing, expectations, and the gender roles we assume and assign others. Some have seen it as a proto-feminist film. It may be that, unintentionally.
The film, originally conceived as a silent drama with a sound effect in the final scene, was shot by Genina without sound and subsequently dubbed, which required cropping cameraman Rudolph Maté’s imagery to make space for a soundtrack. The famed ending of Prix de beauté depicts Lucienne watching her film debut in a screening room when she is shot dead by her jealous boyfriend. As others have rightly suggested, Lucienne’s collapsed body stretched out under the image of her singing on screen symbolizes both the immortality given by the moving image as well as the death of silent cinema. It also has a sudden, spiritual quality. Notably, Maté prior film was a visual masterpiece of the silent cinema, The Passion of Joan of Arc.
Unusually so, Zurich’s FilmPodium is screening both the sound and less seen silent version of Prix de beauté. For those who have seen both, the silent version may well be the better film, despite the advantages sound and a beautiful theme song give the more familiar “talkie version.” [When first released in 1930, both the silent and sound versions were issued in four different languages. In August of this year, Il Cinema Ritrovato released the silent Italian version of the film, marking the first ever DVD release of the any silent version.]
When Brooks returned to the United States, her career was in shambles. The roles offered her from then on were never more than secondary characters or bit parts. The sound era had arrived, talkies were all the rage, and reportedly the word went out that this one time silent film star had a voice that didn’t record well. But in fact, it did record well. In God’s Gift to Women (1931), one of the two talkies being shown in Zurich, Brooks is merely one of a number of beauties who fawn over the film’s now forgotten male lead, Frank Fay. (Today, he’s best remembered as the first husband of Barbara Stanywyck.) Nevertheless, Brooks sounds and looks splendid in the film, a pre-code farce from the legendary director Michael Curtiz.
In the 1930s, Brooks made a scant seven films over a period of seven years. Most all of them are forgettable, like It Pays to Advertise (1931). The fading silent film star appears in only the first five minutes of this early Carole Lombard farce, a part cast to fulfill Brooks’ contract with Paramount. There is also Windy Riley Goes Hollywood (1931), a poverty row short directed under a pseudonym by another star in celebrity exile, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. And a dull, muddled Western with Buck Jones, Empty Saddles (1936). And a enjoyable musical with Grace Moore and Cary Grant, When You’re in Love (1937), though anyone would be hard pressed to spot Brooks, whose bit part has her in a chorus line wearing a mask which covers much of her face. The underrated director Robert Florey liked to cast down-on-their-luck actors in his films. And that’s how Brooks landed a role in what is arguably her best film from the 1930s, the proto-noir gangster film, King of Gamblers (1937). The only problem is her character was cut from the film before it was released in the United States.
FilmPodium is also showing Brooks’ last film, Overland Stage Raiders (1938), one installment in a series featuring the Three Mesquiteers. In this prosaic B-western, Brooks plays the love interest of the film’s male lead, a young John Wayne, who was then on the cusp of stardom. Brooks was a bit older, and no longer sported her signature bobbed hair, but still, she looks and sounds quite good. Suggesting she could have and should have had a real career in the sound era.
What might have been is lamented in Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu (1998), an Emmy nominated documentary by Hugh Munro Neely. FilmPodium is pairing it with Overland Stage Raiders as one half of a kind-of coda to the retrospective. Among early film star documentaries, Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu is a masterpiece. Narrated by Brooks’ admirer Shirley MacLaine and penned by Barry Paris (author of the definitive biography of the actress), this documentary tells the story of the onetime dancer who stumbled in and out of a film career only to reinvent herself later in life as a writer. Brooks’ voluminous correspondence with film historians, along with her insightful essays in Sight and Sound, Positif and other film journals (later collected in Lulu in Hollywood) helped spur her post WWII rediscovery.
It’s a little unusual for a film retrospective to include a documentary about an actor, but with such a brief career, half of the Brooks’ story is about her legend – her rise and fall and rediscovery, or in the words of the original suggestive subtitle to the Barry Paris biography, “Her Life, Death, and Resurrection.” FilmPodium’s Michel Bodmer thought showing a documentary would introduce the actress anew: “I decided to include the documentary because it gives a shorthand version of Brooks’ life, which enriches the understanding of her art.”
The other half of the FilmPodium coda is another unusual selection. To close the retrospective, Zurich is showing The Chaperone (2018), the PBS Masterpiece film whose plot revolves around the summer the 15-year-old Brooks (brilliantly played by Haley Lu Richardson) left her Kansas home to study dance in New York City. The film is based on Laura Moriarty’s 2012 novel of the same name, which in turn is based on real incidents in Brooks’ life.
The Chaperone film came about through the efforts of a handful of individuals associated with hit television series Downton Abbey, including Julian Fellowes (who scripted both productions), Michel Engler (who directed both), and Elizabeth McGovern (who starred in both). Bodmer felt The Chaperone offered “insight into the early days of Brooks’ career,” and would draw fans of the TV series, which according to Bodmer was popular in Switzerland. The Chaperone film, Bodmer also noted, was not shown theatrically in that country.
Louise Brooks has been described as a “cult actress.” It has also been said that no other actress has such a large reputation based on such a small body of work. If Brooks had only played Lulu in Pandora’s Box, one might understand such claims. For a long time, Brooks’ reputation rested solely on the Pabst film, a highly regarded film, even a masterpiece, but just one film. But as both the Melbourne and Zurich retrospectives show, there is a good deal more to this singular performer. Both make the case for an actress of varied achievement.
FilmPodium link: https://www.filmpodium.ch/reihen-details/57745/louise-brooks
Now We’re in the Air link: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/long-missing-louise-brooks-film-found_b_58dc8258e4b04ba4a5e250ca
Louise Brooks Society link: https://www.pandorasbox.com/
Thomas Gladysz is the author of numerous articles on early film, as well as four books, the most recent being Louise Brooks: the Persistent Star (2017). In 1995, he founded the Louise Brooks Society, and this year marks its 25th year online. Gladysz is currently working on a two volume book, Around the World with Louise Brooks, which surveys the actress’ career from an international perspective.