In Billy Wilder’s 1950 masterpiece Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond famously declares, in reference to silent cinema stars, “We had faces then!” One actress who had the most extraordinary face was Louise Brooks.
The former dancer and Ziegfeld girl was the epitome of the 1920s, with her carefree attitude and extreme bobbed hair. She made several films at Paramount, most notably William Wellman’s gritty 1928 drama Beggars of Life.
But she is forever remembered for the three films she made in Europe - German director G.W. Pabst’s 1929 Pandora’s Box, in which she played a raw, sexual young woman named Lulu; his 1930 drama Diary of Lost Girl; and the 1930 French comedy Prix de beaute.
Hollywood basically turned its back on Brooks, who often was her own worst enemy. She ended up a recluse in New York City, only to be rediscovered in the 1950s and become a well-regarded writer who penned her acclaimed 1982 memoir “Lulu in Hollywood. ‘
And her European films became staples of the art cinema in the 1960s and gained even more fans on VHS, DVD and Blu-ray.
This Saturday at the Egyptian Theatre, the Cinematheque presents the new 2K restorations of Diary of a Lost Girl and Beggars of Life. Before the double feature, the Chapwinds will perform music from Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera and Samuel Barber’s Summer Wind in the courtyard.
Cari Beauchamp, a film historian specializing in women in cinema and authors of such books as Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood, and Thomas Gladysz, author and founder of the Louise Brooks Society, recently discussed the undeniable magic of Brooks.
Why is Brooks still so important in cinema history?
Cari Beauchamp: There is no one from that era who is more modern. You look at her and she could be walking down the street today She continues to fascinate. I just think she has a striking modernity that just radiates.
Thomas Gladysz: In her time, she was just a junior star. She was certainly popular but not as popular as Colleen Moore or Clara Bow. Louise’s reputation is much greater today. She’s one of those rare examples of someone who had a second life.
CB: In some ways, Clara was like the girl next door, even though she was the frisky girl next door. There was always something exotic about Louise.
TG: She was beautiful. She was a sex symbol. That was part and parcel of the revival of interest in her in the ‘60s and ‘70s. There were articles about her in Playboy.
Did Hollywood know what to do with her?
CB: Of course not! She never fit in. I hate to use the world "fault" but it was half Hollywood’s fault ad it half her fault. Louise Brooks wrote her own rules.
TG: I think Beggars of Life is really her best American film. It’s her best acting and it’s her best role. She had to do a screen test and so did [co-star] Richard Arlen. Louise talks about this in her essay about Beggars and William Wellman in Lulu in Hollywood, where there was kind of an animosity she felt between her and Wellman, that Wellman didn’t quite know what to do with her as well, but he managed to get a really great performance from her.
CB: I think in films like Beggars of Life, she’s at the height of her physical beauty. But she couldn’t stand her co-star Arlen. He put her down, he called her all kind of things They made Rolled Stockings together the year before and they didn’t like each other professionally at all. Neither one thought the other could act. Arlen was one of those very full-of-himself actors. He worked with Wellman on Wings, so he thought he had the stuff. For Beggars they were all staying in one hotel. He got drunk one night and screamed at her that she thought she was so great because she got a bigger salary than anybody else.
No wonder she went to Berlin with Pabst on Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl.
CB: She goes to Germany and finds a whole other realm of acceptance in a place where she can write her own rules in a place which doesn’t have rules.
TG: There was a freedom that she found as an actress in Europe. They wouldn't have made a film like Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl in the U.S. at the time. She had to go to Europe and be the right person in the right place at the right time to make those kind of films.
In her essay about Pabst, she talks about how Past tried to reign her in because she would go out drinking and to lesbian clubs and would hang out with people till all hours of the night and would show up on the set with a hangover, late or whatever. He tried to warn her that she’s going to end up just like Lulu did.
CB: I think Pabst, more than anyone, realized how much the camera loved her. She’s almost Garboesque in the sense of just staying still. They let her be still. She’s absolutely sparkling when she’s still.
Speaking of being her own worst enemy, she became persona non grata in Hollywood when she refused to return to Hollywood to do some redubbing on 1929’s The Canary Murder Case.
TG: She didn’t’ care to. Before she left Paramount to make Pandora’s Box, she was in contract negotiations. She didn’t get the raise and then she was told she had this offer to go to Germany, she said "see you later." The Canary Murder Case was made as both a silent and then it was adapted for sound. She’s not around to finish the job. So they got somebody else to do it”
And she couldn’t find work when she got back from Germany?
TG: She did have trouble finding work, and her first films in 1931 were a bunch of B-films. She made those films thinking "OK, I am going to get back into the game," and then she couldn’t. Those films - all three of them went nowhere.
She made a Buck Rogers western in ’36 and a couple of more films, bit parts in ’37 then Overland Stage Raiders in 1938. She opened a dance studio in L.A. It was kind of "what am I going to do with myself now?"
Isn’t it true she became an escort?
TG: Quite possibly, yes. That was maybe in 1940 or so, after she had left Hollywood for good. She had a lot of self -defeating behavior throughout her life, a lot of missteps. There were other opportunities in the '30s. Wellman wanted her in The Public Enemy.
The Jean Harlow part, right?
TGL Yeah. Brooks turned him down. There was a point she was considered for the lead in Bride of Frankenstein.
By the 1950s, she was living as a recluse in New York.
CB: Supposedly Bill Paley supported her for years. She always figured a way.
TG: James Card, who had this schoolboy crush on Brooks, heard that she was still around from a publicist named John Springer. So they started corresponding, then visiting, and then eventually in 1956 or so, he got her to move to Rochester, New York and live there. He got her writing about her own films, watching her own films - sometimes for the very first time - and then watching other films. That started writing articles for all the big film magazines and some of those were collected in her book. That rest is history, as they say.
Veteran journalist Susan King wrote about entertainment at the Los Angeles Times for 26 years (January 1990 - March 2016), specializing in classic Hollywood stories. She also wrote about independent, foreign and studio movies and occasionally TV and theater stories. She received her master's degree in film history and criticism at USC. After working 10 years at the L.A. Herald Examiner, she moved to the Los Angeles Times.