Louise Brooks: An American in Europe
Louise Brooks was one of the most talented and iconic actresses ever to grace the silver screen. Her work in the late 1920s with Austrian director G. W. Pabst was largely ignored at the time, but was rediscovered by French film historians in the 1950s. Her uncompromising flapper style and hypnotic, emotive screen presence have entranced later generations of fans, gradually gaining her the recognition and praise she never knew in her prime. In short, Louise Brooks was the best actress no-one ever heard of.
Born in Cherryvale, Kansas in 1906, Mary Louise ‘Brooksie’ Brooks left home at the age of 15, intending to embark on a career as a dancer. Within three years, she had worked her way up from jigging on a chorus line to signing a five year contract with Paramount Pictures.
She started off small, with an uncredited role in Herbert Brenon’s The Street Of Forgotten Men, but quickly attracted attention due to her expressive acting style and distinctive blackbobhaircut. She played the female lead in a number of comedies and flapper films, becoming a recognisable and sought after face on the US film scene.
And yet, Brooks is not remembered as one of the greatest screen sirens of the silent era for the work she did on the West side of the Atlantic. Brooks hated the Hollywood scene, and in 1928 she broke with Paramount after she was refused a promised raise. She had come to the attention of director G. W. Pabst, who wanted her for the leading role in Pandora’s Box (1929).
Brooks made a decision that would not only unofficially blacklist her in Hollywood, but that in later years would cement her status as a discerning and talented actress; she told Paramount where they could stick it, and high-tailed it to Germany to work with an Austrian Expressionist director who would make her immortal.
Legend has it that Marlene Dietrich, who was also up for Pandora’s Box, was with Pabst in his Berlin office when the telegram came through saying that Louise Brooks had accepted the part. Her performance in this film marked the beginning of her change from starlet to artist. In her autobiography, Lulu In Hollywood, Brooks wrote of her arrival in Germany: “In Hollywood, I was a pretty flibbertigibbet whose charm for the executive department decreased with every increase in my fan mail. In Berlin, I stepped to the station platform to meet Mr Pabst and became an actress.”
Pandora’s Box tells the story of Lulu, a promiscuous, thoughtless, yet innocent young woman who inadvertently ruins the lives of the people who love her, eventually bringing disaster upon herself. When it was first released, both the film and her performance were either censured or ignored by most critics. But, during the Louise Brooks ‘revival’ in the 1950s, Pandora’s Box was rediscovered and branded a brilliant classic of Weimar cinema; a dark exploration of sexuality, it is considered by many to be Pabst’s greatest work.
Brooks had taken a huge risk by shunning Hollywood and allying herself with the German film industry in the interwar period.
The discrepancy of critical receptions may simply be due to politics and prejudice. Brooks had taken a huge risk by shunning Hollywood and allying herself with the German film industry in the interwar period. An act that made her an outcast initially is now thought to have been the shrewdest decision of her career; Brooks flourished outside the confines of the American studio system under Pabst’s direction, although both her talent and the quality of the films she starred in were not acknowledged until many years later.
Brooks went on to star in Pabst’s next feature, Diary Of A Lost Girl (1929). The film, in which Brooks plays a beautiful young woman who is sent to a sadistic reformatory school, suffered much the same fate as Pandora’s Box upon its release. A silent film in the era of up-and-coming sound, Diary Of A Lost Girl slipped between the industry cracks. Not only that, but it was butchered by the censors in many countries due to the risqué brothel and boarding school scenes, meaning that some cuts of the film were nonsensical. Like Pandora’s Box, Diary Of A Lost Girl would have to wait many years before being rediscovered and hailed as a silent classic; the electrifying screen presence of Brooks, combined with Pabst’s melodramatic exploration of German society and morals, still make for a riveting watch.
After appearing in the brilliantly executed French film Miss Europe (1930), directed by Italian Augusto Genina and scripted by Pabst, Brooks returned to the US. Still informally blacklisted by the industry, she found it difficult to get lead roles; she did star in a few mainstream films, but, again, was largely ignored. She also made the mistake of turning down a role in The Public Enemy (1931), a gangster film which was, and still is, immensely popular; blonde bombshell Jean Harlow got her big break instead.
It wasn’t only her European betrayal that had condemned her in the eyes of Hollywood. Between the release of Pandora’s Box and the start of production on Diary Of A Lost Girl, Brooks made an error which sounded the death knell for any decent career prospects she might have had in the US upon her return. She refused Paramount’s request to do a voice recording for The Canary Murder Case, which had been her last film when under contract with them.
They kept offering her more money, but Brooks kept on refusing, a slightly petty act of revenge for the studio’s shabby treatment of her. Paramount was forced to bring in another actress, Margaret Livingston, to provide Brooks’ voice; the results were not favourable, and neither were the reviews. In retaliation, Paramount executive B. P. Schulberg started a rumour that Brook’s voice was terrible and totally unsuitable for the talkies. As proved by the few sound films she eventually did, this couldn’t have been further from the truth. But, the rumour stuck, and upon returning to America, Brooks found that she was considered to be box office poison.
Reduced to playing bit parts in B pictures, Brooks eventually retired from acting in 1938, before sinking into obscurity. However, she never truly mourned her inability to break back into Hollywood. She hated the US film industry, with its politics and intrigue. She never regretted her decision to go to Europe or the work that she produced there, and she was vindicated in the 1950s when she was rediscovered by French film historians. Henri Langlois said of her: “There is no Garbo, there is no Dietrich, there is only Louise Brooks!”
Following her revival, Brooks became a successful writer, if slightly quirky and reclusive. Her witty autobiography, Lulu In Hollywood, was published in 1982, and she died of a heart attack in New York three years later. Mostly unappreciated in her lifetime, Louise Brooks is now remembered, studied and idolised. She fought Hollywood and lost, but what she achieved in her short stay in Europe made her into one of the most iconic actresses of all time.
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