One of the most iconic stars of the silent era was Louise Brooks. With her signature “black helmet” hair, piercing blue eyes, and delicate features, she was a sure candidate for Hollywood stardom, but something went wrong. It’s amazing that Brooks, one of the most recognized silent stars, never really achieved that pinnacle. In most of her surviving American silent films, she’s a featured player, not the star. But in the few starring roles she had, in films like Beggars of Life and the German films Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, Brooks is simply stunning. In the early 1950s, when French film historian, Henri Langlois, stated “There is no Garbo, there is no Dietrich, there is only Louise Brooks,” he redefined her on-screen persona in a way Hollywood never imagined.
Brooks started her professional career as a dancer with the famed Denishawn Company when Ted Shawn saw her dance in Kansas. Brooks was still a teenager but persuaded her mother to let her tour nationally with Shawn and his wife, Ruth St. Denis. After being dismissed by St. Denis (for being disruptive), Brooks headed to Broadway, where she worked as a show girl and quickly became one of the most popular flappers in town. In 1924 and 1925, Brooks appeared in three shows, including the 1925 edition of the famed Ziegfeld Follies, which boasted Will Rogers and W.C. Fields (a future co-star in the film, It’s the Old Army Game (1926).
While appearing in the Follies, Brooks ventured out to Long Island and landed a bit part as a moll in The Street of Forgotten Men. Brooks made six films in 1926. She played a beauty contestant in the lost film, The American Venus, and in her third film, Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em, was promoted to co-star (with Evelyn Brent and Lawrence Gray) as the sassy younger sister who causes trouble for everyone. That same role was played by Jean Arthur in the early talkie version, The Saturday Night Kid, starring Clara Bow. Just as Brooks started to click in films, she got fired by Ziegfeld for missing performances.
Brooks moved up to “leading lady” status in Rolled Stockings (1927) and A Girl in Every Port (1928), and then made her best American film, Beggars of Life, starring with Richard Arlen and Wallace Beery. Although she claimed to hate director William Wellman, the end result is a sensational film with solid performances by the three stars. This is a gritty tale set against beautifully framed images in the way that Sunrise or Days of Heaven uses visual imagery to tell the story.
Brooks plays a girl (dressed as a boy) on the run with a man she meets (Arlen) after he stumbles onto the dead body of her adopted father. She admits to killing him after an attempted rape. The picaresque tale takes them west as they try to get to Canada. They run into a hobo camp where Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery) takes control of their destinies. Among the best scenes is one where Brooks and Arlen, shot in a framed close up, hide out in a haystack. Their facial expressions are wondrous. Wellman’s direction and camera work are also great. The stars do their own stunt work as they hop a moving train. Beggars of Life is a tantalizing hint at what Brooks could have achieved in Hollywood films.
Her next film, The Canary Murder Case, was a disaster and virtually ended her Hollywood career. Starring with William Powell and Jean Arthur, the silent film introduced Powell as Philo Vance. But the 1929 mystery was shelved for a year until it was slated to be re-shot as a part talkie. By that time, Brooks had sailed to Europe and begun filming Pandora’s Box for G.W. Pabst. She refused to return to Hollywood to re-shoot the film. Brooks’ uncooperative nature cost her another job. Paramount fired her and dubbed her role. Brooks was effectively blacklisted in Hollywood.
Pabst had been searching Europe for the perfect actress to play Lulu in Pandora’s Box, a film based on a famous 1904 play by Frank Wedekind, which depicted a society “riven by the demands of lust and greed.” In the story, Lulu is a cheap vaudeville performer whose sexuality and amoral nature bring ruin to almost everyone she meets. Pabst was looking for a very special actress; Brooks had exactly the look he wanted. The film was a sensation in Europe but went unnoticed in the U.S., where talkies were now the rage. Brooks made Diary of a Lost Girl with Pabst and then a French silent film, Prix de Beaute, and returned to Hollywood.
Her first film back in Hollywood was a minor comedy, It Pays to Advertise, starring Carole Lombard (still struggling in talkies). Brooks had a small part in the forgettable comedy. Next up she had an even smaller part in God’s Gift to Women, starring the failing Frank Fay. She made a couple of shorts and quit films. Brooks tried to revive her dance career and toured in a nightclub act without much success. She returned to films in 1936 and landed a leading lady role in a Buck Jones western, Empty Saddles. In 1937 she made two films but her scenes were deleted. In 1938 she co-starred with John Wayne (still a year away from stardom in Stagecoach) in the western, Overland Stage Raiders. That film ended her career for good. She was only 32.
In the 50s, there was a rediscovery (led by Langlois) of Pandora’s Box. Decades after all the negative publicity surrounding her attitude had faded away, her portrayal of Lulu jumped off the screen as a unique creation that combined dazzling beauty and subtle under-acting. Somehow, Brooks seemed very modern, especially when compared to her contemporary silent stars.
Brooks had one last act. While living in Rochester, NY, Brooks was encouraged by James Card of the George Eastman House, to write about her days in Hollywood. Brooks published several essays, collected in the book, Lulu in Hollywood. Even in writing, Brooks remained a ruthless critic of Hollywood, stating: “When I departed Hollywood forever in 1940, I thought that getting away from the place would cure me. Then, in 1956, James Card persuaded me to move to Rochester, where I could study old films and write about my rediscovered past. There I found that my recovery from the Hollywood disease had been wholly imaginary. I still judged all the films I had made, not on their merits but by their success or failure in the eyes of Hollywood.”
In her book, Brooks warmly recalls W.C. Fields and is sympathetic to the demise of Lillian Gish’s career at MGM; she also offers some interesting insights into the manipulation (by Louis B. Mayer) of Greta Garbo’s career. Surprisingly, Brooks is a harsh critic of Humphrey Bogart and Marion Davies.
To the end of her life, Brooks had the “gift” of pushing away those who tried to help her and her career. Beautiful, talented, enigmatic, and frustratingly difficult, Brooks was unrepentant to the end. Yet despite her shortcomings and failures, her image and name have survived the decades. How odd that the little girl from Kansas became the lasting image of Germany’s decadent post-war era.