Monday, April 7, 2014
Monthly Muse: Louise Brooks
When Louise was 9 she was sexually abused by a neighbour. This event had a major influence on Louise life and career, causing her to say in later years that she was incapable of real love. When Brooks at last told her mother of the incident, many years later, her mother suggested that it must have been Louise's fault for "leading him on".
Louise started her career as a dancer joining the Denishawn modern dance company in Los Angeles in 1922. In her second season Louise took the starring role. However after a long standing feud between Louise and one of the founders of the troop Ruth St. Denis, she was abruptly fired in 1924. St Denis told her "I am dismissing you from the company because you want life handed to you on a silver salver" and Louise took these words to heart as when she drew up an outline for a planned autobiographical novel in 1949, "The Silver Salver" was the title she gave to the tenth and final chapter.
Thanks to her friend Barbara Bennett Louise found work almost straight away as a chorus girl in George White's Scandals, followed by an appearance as a featured dancer in the 1925 edition of the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway. As a result of her work in the Follies, she came to the attention of Paramount Pictures producer Walter Wanger, who signed her to a five-year contract with the studio in 1925. She was also noticed by visiting movie star Charlie Chaplin, who was in town for the premiere of his film The Gold Rush. The two had an affair that summer.
Louise made her screen debut in the silent The Street of Forgotten Men, in an uncredited role in 1925. She soon got the lead roles in a number of flapper films. She was noticed in Europe for her pivotal vamp role in the Howard Hawks directed silent "buddy film", A Girl in Every Port in 1928. In an early sound film drama, Beggars of Life (1928), Brooks played an abused country girl on the run with hobos Richard Arlen and Wallace Beery whom she meets while riding the rails. Much of this film was shot on location, and the boom microphone was invented for this film by the director William Wellman, who needed it for one of the first experimental talking scenes in the movies. Soon after the film Beggars Of Life was made, Brooks, who loathed the Hollywood "scene", refused to stay on at Paramount after being denied a promised raise, and left for Europe to make films for G. W. Pabst, the prominent Austrian Expressionist director.
Paramount attempted to use the coming of sound films to pressure the actress, but she called the studio's bluff. It was not until 30 years later that this rebellious move would come to be seen as arguably the most savvy of her career, securing her immortality as a silent film legend and independent spirit. Unfortunately, while her initial snubbing of Paramount alone would not have finished her in Hollywood altogether, her refusal after returning from Germany to come back to Paramount for sound retakes of The Canary Murder Case (1929) irrevocably placed her on an unofficial blacklist. Actress Margaret Livingston was hired to dub Brooks's voice for the film, as the studio claimed that Louise' voice was unsuitable for sound pictures.
Once in Germany, she starred in the 1929 film Pandora's Box, directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst in his New Objectivity period. The film is based on two plays by Frank Wedekind (Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora) and Brooks plays the central figure, Lulu. This film is notable for its frank treatment of modern sexual mores, including one of the first screen portrayals of a lesbian. Brooks then starred in the controversial social drama Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), based on the book by Margarete Böhme and also directed by Pabst, and Prix de Beauté (1930) by Italian author Augusto Genina, the latter being filmed in France, and having a famous surprise ending. All these films were heavily censored, as they were very "adult" and considered shocking in their time for their portrayals of sexuality, as well as their social satire.
When she returned to Hollywood in 1931, she was cast in two mainstream films: God's Gift to Women (1931) and It Pays to Advertise (1931). Her performances in these films, however, were largely ignored, and few other job offers were forthcoming due to her informal "blacklisting".
Despite this, William Wellman, her director on Beggars of Life, offered her the female lead in his new picture, The Public Enemy starring James Cagney. However, Brooks turned down the role in order to visit her then-lover George Preston Marshall in New York City, and the part instead went to Jean Harlow, who began her own rise to stardom largely as a result.
For the rest of her movie career, she was cast in bit parts and roles in B pictures and short films. One of her directors at this time was a fellow Hollywood outcast, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, working under the pseudonym "William Goodrich". Brooks starred in Arbuckle's Educational Pictures comedy short, Windy Riley Goes Hollywood (1931).
Brooks retired from the screen after completing one last film, the John Wayne western Overland Stage Raiders (1938), in which she played the romantic lead with a long hairstyle that rendered her all but unrecognizable from her Lulu days. She then briefly returned to Wichita, where she was raised. "But that turned out to be another kind of hell," she said. After an unsuccessful attempt at operating a dance studio, she returned East and, after brief stints as a radio actor and a gossip columnist, worked as a salesgirl in a Saks Fifth Avenue store in New York City for a few years, then eked out a living as a courtesan with a few select wealthy men as clients.
Louise had been a heavy drinker since the age of 14, but she remained relatively sober to begin writing about film, which became her second career. During this period she began her first major writing project, an autobiographical novel called Naked on My Goat, a title taken from Goethe's Faust. After working on the novel for a number of years, she destroyed the manuscript by throwing it into an incinerator.
In the early 1950's French historians re-discovered Louise films proclaiming her as an actress who surpassed even Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo as a film icon, much to her amusement. It would lead to the still ongoing Louise Brooks film revivals, and rehabilitated her reputation in her home country.
James Card, the film curator for the George Eastman House, discovered Brooks living as a recluse in New York City about this time, and persuaded her to move to Rochester, New York to be near the George Eastman House film collection. With his help, she became a noted film writer in her own right. A collection of her writings, Lulu in Hollywood, was published in 1982. She was profiled by the film writer Kenneth Tynan in his essay, "The Girl With The Black Helmet", the title of which was an allusion to her fabulous bob, worn since childhood, a hairstyle she helped popularize.
She rarely gave interviews, but had special relationships with film historians John Kobal and Kevin Brownlow. In the 1970s she was interviewed extensively, on film, for the documentaries Memories of Berlin: The Twilight of Weimar Culture (1976), produced and directed by Gary Conklin, and in the Hollywood series (1980) directed by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill. Lulu in Berlin (1984) is another rare filmed interview, produced by Richard Leacock and Susan Woll, released a year before her death, but filmed a decade earlier. Author Tom Graves was allowed into Brooks' apartment for an interview in 1982, and later wrote about the at times awkward and tense conversation in his brief book "My Afternoon With Louise Brooks."
On August 8, 1985, Louise was found dead of a heart attack after suffering from arthritis and emphysema for many years. She was buried in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Rochester, New York.
As with many of her contemporaries at the time a number of Louise films are said to be lost however her key films survive particularly Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl.
Louise Brooks quotes:
♥ The great art of films does not consist of descriptive movement of face and body but in the movements of thought and soul transmitted in a kind of intense isolation.
♥ There is no other occupation in the world that so closely resembled enslavement as the career of a film star.