It was quite the celebration for both Louise Brooks fans and silent cinéastes in general when the 17th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival presented a restored print of Pandora’s Box last month. G.W. Pabst’s ever engrossing and eminently stylish examination of pure sexuality and the uninhibited nature that can lead to personal ruination was a must see on everyone’s list.
There were more than a few women holding onto their pearls like delicate essence and coiffing her signature black bob. Not noticing her devoted fan celebration at the festival is like saying you don’t notice the neon lights when you go to Las Vegas. It’s too palpable to ignore. But if any star deserved such allegiance, Brooks is at the top of the list. Only 21 at the time of filming, she gave a performance of such enigmatic maturity, free of campy stares and broad gestures, that her acting still looks contemporary. Also, the compilation of her essays Lulu in Hollywood just turned 30 this summer, yet it’s still a captivating read for most film students today.
Not that you need to convince Thomas Gladysz much of this. As the Director of the Louise Brooks Society, an internet-based archive and international fan club devoted to the silent film star, Gladysz has contributed to numerous books on the star, organized exhibits and offered commentary in countless appearances on television and radio. Naturally, he was at the festival and sat down with us for a chat.
Tell us about your first attraction to Louise Brooks?
I came across Brooks by accident in the early 1990s. It was a Friday night, and not having anything to do, I decided to rent a movie. I guess that dates this story? Well, anyways, I was browsing the classic films selection when I came across Pandora’s Box. I hadn’t heard of the film, let alone its star. I guess what caught my eye was the image of Louise Brooks on the cover. I thought she looked rather striking; and too, the cover of the VHS said something about it being an erotic film. I knew it couldn’t be that sexy, since it was an old silent film. I figured I’d give it a chance. I watched Pandora’s Box that night – and was wowed. So much so, I got up the next morning and watched it all over again. And, I was wowed again. Louise Brooks floored me. It is as simple as that. There was something electric about her. Something singular. Something appealing. Something erotic. She had so much personality. I had never seen anyone like her before on the screen. I had also never had such a strong reaction to a film – and I still haven’t. It was like love at first sight. By the way, Video Wave – where I rented Pandora’s Box, is still in business, and they still carry VHS tapes along with DVDs and BluRay. And, remarkably, they still have that tape on their shelves. That particular version of Pandora’s Box has the Stuart Oderman accompaniment. It’s my favorite soundtrack.
How did you get the ball rolling with the Louise Brooks Society?
After having seen Brooks in Pandora’s Box, I wanted to find out more, and just as importantly, I wanted to share my enthusiasm and talk to others about what excited me. I remember going to the library and looking through a directory of fan clubs, but found nothing. For a few years, I had to be content with reading whatever I could find, like Brooks’ own Lulu in Hollywood, and the outstanding Barry Paris biography. Back then, finding a new article, or a still, or even a reproduction lobby card was a big deal. All that changed with the internet. The world wide web was just getting going in 1995. That’s when I started the Louise Brooks Society. I launched a website as a means of reaching out to others. I started a fan club – an international fan club actually, and started to gather material and form my own archive. Remarkably, individuals from all over the world started sending me material – like scans of articles and pictures and stills which I had never seen before. People wrote to me from Argentina and Australia, and from Singapore and Italy. Everywhere really. That’s when I discovered just how big of a following Brooks has all around the world. I also heard from film scholars and film historians and family members of the actress, as well as poets and professors and rock stars.
What exceeded your expectations about the new print of Pandora’s Box? Specifically, anything about the allure of Brooks or details that enhanced the narrative for you?
I have seen Pandora’s Box – either on the big screen or on VHS or DVD, numerous times. Nevertheless, I was looking forward to seeing this new restoration. I had not seen it prior to its showing at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. After the film, a number of people came up to me asking what I thought. What I said then was that I had seen things in that print that I hadn’t ever seen before, like the dark hairs on Brooks’ arm, or the name on the drum kit of the jazz combo who played during Lulu’s wedding reception. Those are just two small details among many. For me, this restored print was a revelation. More than ever before, Pandora’s Box emerges as a visually rich film, full of symbolism. I was also able to better appreciate the film’s consistently great cinematography. Before, one had to make allowances for certain lapses in the film. It now seems to hold together much better.
By the way, the restored version runs 143 minutes, some ten minutes longer than the Criterion DVD, for example. This restored version is not supposed to contain any new material, though it seems to. The longer run time is explained by those who did the restoration as being the result of a corrected projection speed.
What surprises you (or not) about the celebrity fans of silent films and to a specific extent, idols like Brooks?
I think a lot of the celebrities who are fans of silent film, or of Louise Brooks, have been fans for a long time. But now, it’s fashionable or popular to identify oneself with the great old movies. I recently happened to meet the English actor Paul McGann, who’s best known for his roles in Withnail & I and Doctor Who. He was on hand to narrate a couple of films.
Did the SFSFF do the proper job of appealing to scholars and devoted fans of Brooks & Pabst with proper literature and introduction?
I would have to say yes, in that I wrote the program essay on Pandora’s Box! I also supplied the slides for the pre-screening slide show, which helped “set the stage” for what followed. Of course, a lot more could be said about Pandora’s Box. It is a big film, with a long and complicated history. When I was given the assignment to write the program essay, I was asked to concentrate on the film’s material history and critical reception – which meant delving into how the film was presented, censored, cut up and considered over the years. As one of the great films of the silent era, it deserves a book.
What is it about Brooks’ that still fascinates us?
That’s a question I’m asked often. Its answer, I think, lies at the heart of the legend that has grown up around the actress. Its answer also lies in Brooks’ own story – the story of her rise and fall and reemergence – not only within the annals of film history, but within popular culture and the even larger realm of public awareness. When Barry Paris wrote his outstanding 1989 biography of the actress, he originally titled it Louise Brooks: Her Life, Death and Resurrection. I think that title suggests something extraordinary and even mythic.
Today, I think it’s fair to say Brooks is among the most popular silent film stars in the world. Her renown has even eclipsed that of many of her better-known contemporaries. I find those who don’t know her name at least know her image, or the character she played in Pandora’s Box, Lulu. Today, Brooks is better regarded than she was at the height of her fame.
The recent success of The Artist and Hugo has reignited interest in silent film. Do you see that interest spilling over onto your studies of Brooks and other silent stars?
Yes, without a doubt. There seems to be growing interest in the silent era – both among the public and in the media. I see screenings and festivals popping up just about everywhere, and in unlikely places. With those screenings come newspaper and magazine articles which reference The Artist and Hugo to explain these old films to their readers.
On top of all that, there is a Pickford bio-pic in the works, and a Chaplin musical on Broadway, and a play about Buster Keaton in Los Angeles. One of the big books of this summer was The Chaperone, by Laura Moriarty. It told the story of the woman who chaperoned the 15-year old Louise Brooks to New York City in 1922. And too, I see a lot of buzz on the internet. There are new websites and blogs and Facebook pages and Twitter streams devoted to early Hollywood springing up all the time. It is all good.
What influence do you think Louise Brooks has had on contemporary cinema?
That’s an interesting question. I don’t think she has had all that much influence – either on contemporary cinema or contemporary acting. Did Clara Bow, or Garbo for that matter? Not really. Each were singular personalities, and in the case of Brooks, she had been pretty much forgotten for decades. If anything, Brooks’ influence has been in broader terms, as an icon or symbol of something extra-cinematic. And as such, she has been paid homage in many films, from Singing in the Rain to Something Wild and most recently, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.
Any tidbits on what’s on the horizon for Brooks’ fans?
A couple of years back, the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York unlocked Louise Brooks’ diaries. There’s been speculation ever since about their publication. There is also talk about The Chaperone being made into a film. Elizabeth McGovern, who played Cora in Downton Abbey, reads the audio version of the book. According to author Laura Moriarty, McGovern loved it so much she optioned the film rights with the hope of playing the title character, who also happens to be named Cora. We’ll see if it gets made, and who might play Louise Brooks! I have also heard of a couple of other proposed films, and a couple of novels in the works. There’s talk, as well, about reviving Lulupalooza, the 2005 Louise Brooks film festival, which took place in Richmond, Virginia. If only one of these materializes, then it will be big news.
I am also working on a couple of books. One is Louise Brooks A to Z, an encyclopedia style work, and the other is a Louise Brooks’ reader, an anthology of writings about the actress. And as well, I am revising my “Louise Brooks edition” of The Diary of a Lost Girl, from 2010. I plan on releasing it as an e-book within a few months.
Michael T. Toole is a film journalist and filmmaker. He spent ten years writing for the Turner Classic Movies website and is currently working on a book on Harry Rapf. He is also the author of a Las Vegas travel guide, Las Vegas on the Dime (Johnston Associates International, 2001).
Read also: Dan Callahan, “Louise Brooks: The Martyrdom of Lulu”