“Louise as the winsome French girl in Now We’re in the Air (1927).” (Photo and caption from “Lulu Forever”)
I think the first time I can recall hearing the name “Louise Brooks” was years ago in a scene from “The Simpsons”. In the 2002, season 13 episode “Weekend at Burnsie’s”, Mr. Burns prepares for a big investor meeting by practicing a speech with these lines: “So, profits will be thinner than…Louise Brooks negligee! You know, Louise Brooks, the silent star of Lulu?” While Mr. Burns got things a bit twisted (Louise played a character named Lulu, but the movie’s English name is Pandora’s Box, this quirky little tidbit stuck in my mind. Who was Louise Brooks, and being that she was a silent film star, how was she known for wearing skimpy little things (this was way before I knew about Pre-Code Hollywood)?
Fast-forward to a few months ago and I was rummaging through the Biography section at the library when I came across a rather large coffee table book on a bottom shelf. Titled, “Lulu Forever”, and written by Peter Cowie, I picked up the heavy tome with a stunning photo of Louise’s face and neck in profile in black and white on the cover. Her famous “black helmet” hair was visible but fallen in such a way as to not detract from her porcelain skin. I had seen photos of her thanks to Google images in the decade and a half since Mr. Burns’ quip, but none compared to the high quality of the ones featured in this book. Fascinated, I lugged the oversized book to the librarian’s desk and checked it out; I wanted time with this (and Zoe was decidedly unimpressed by the entire Adult floor and wanted out ASAP).
I quickly realized “Lulu Forever” was far more than a coffee table book collection of lovely photographs, although there are plenty of those along with movie stills. It serves as a Brooks biography, and even autobiography, as Crowe, a friend of Brooks, pulled together her words from letters, notes and conversations she had over the years with him and other close confidantes. Admittedly, I was surprised by how intelligent and well-read she was. She casually dropped references to Proust in conversations about her favorite director, G.W. Pabst. But then, she had no compunction about opining on her Hollywood contemporaries like Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford.
“Louise as the seductive siren in The Canary Murder Case (1929).” (Photo and caption from “Lulu Forever”)
Crowe successfully weaves together Louise’s life using important dates and facts about her career but also using generous quotes from Louise herself. The book is nearly conversational at times, which prevents it from becoming a dry recital of career highs and lows. Her words give life to the woman who was one of the first screen sirens; she isn’t just a black and white image on a giant screen, as lovely as that image may be.
“No ‘honest’ person can be a movie star: certainly I was not, ” Brooks told me. “By honesty, I mean awareness of self and the truth about myself in relation to other people.” This explains her persistent refusal to succumb to Hollywood’s contract system. “When you become a celebrity, ” she emphasized, “the outside gets inside and the inside gets outside and you are nothing except in the view of others.” Louise found her greatest happiness in the life of the mind, which could only be cultivated in solitude. “I had to run away from the world of celebrities,” she confided. “For years it was a terrible life in limbo without friends or security or approval.”
“Louise in a boldly patterned dress with generous jewelry and her hair swept back. Photograph taken for and used in Pandora’s Box (1929)…”. (Photo and caption from “Lulu Forever”)
Born Mary Louise Brooks on November 14, 1906, in Cherryvale, Kansas, Louise refered to her hometown as being part of”the Bible Belt of Anglo- Saxon farmers who prayed in the parlor and practiced incest in the barn.” Her mother had her dancing classes young, which gave her the shapely legs that she would happily showoff in the shortened hemlines of Flapper dresses in the 20’s. It was also her mom who was responsible for her stylish coiffure:
Would Louise have ever become Lulu without her distinctive haircut? She was a ten-year-old stripling when her mother instructed the Cherryville barber to snip off her daughter’s braids, “leaving her hair in a straight Dutch bob with low bangs nearly touching her eyebrows.” Louise took this so-called “Buster Brown” cut to its severest extreme in the years that followed. The strict, clean lines of the cut, allied to the ebony sheen of there were overtures of mutilation- the neck exposed, in all its gleaming whiteness, to the executioner’s knife.
While still a teenager, Louise’s skills at dancing helped her hightail it out of Kansas and into NYC:
… in 1925, she persuaded Florenz Ziegfeld to take her on as a dancer- not just as a chorus girl- performing with Will Rogers, among others. … Then Louise had a two-month affair with Charlie Chaplin. She shot her first two films- “The Street of Forgotten Men” and “The American Venus”- at the Astoria Studios on Long Island. And by year’s end she had signed a five year contract with Paramount Pictures.
Chaplin had come to New York in the summer of 1925 for the release of “The Gold Rush”, and Louise met him at a cocktail party. Their affair sprang as much from mutual admiration as from chemical attraction. Louise would write of her lover that he was “small, perfectly made, meticulously dressed, with his fine grey hair and ivory skin and white teeth, he was clean as a pearl and glowed all over.”
(Photograph from “Forever Lulu”)
The press embraced her. Variety raved that in “It’s the Old Army Game”, she “photographs like a million dollars” and asserted that Louise would “land right at the top in the picture racket and is a real bet at it this time.” The trade paper extolled her even more fulsomely when “Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em” appeared: “Louise Brooks, playing an entirely unsympathetic role of the flapper sister and of the saleslady, runs away with the picture.” Three weeks later, Variety described Louise as “notably agreeable” in “Girl from Coney Island” (now lost), “with her quiet, demure handling of a bobbed and understanding young sophisticate.” Photoplay branded her “exquisitely hard-boiled. Her black hair and black eyes are as brilliant as Chinese lacquer.” It was a miraculous year: Louise was featured in no fewer than six movies released during 1926.
Why then did she never attain the wealth and fame of a Garbo or a Swanson? Deep down, Louise regarded Hollywood and its works with disdain. Shunted into pictures by Walter Wanger and her “older and wiser friends,” she strolled naively into the projection room to see her third film, “A Social Celebrity”, only to hear producer Wanger and director Malcolm St. Clair laughing and teasing about her acting. From that day on, she vowed, “I would never see another picture that I was in- and I never [did], not even my pictures in Europe.”
Ouch. Whether she stuck to that promise or not (the book references others who contend Louise did indeed screen some of her work many decades later), she would soon leave Hollywood for Europe to do the film that made her a screen legend- Pandora’s Box– and two others: Diary of a Lost Girl, and Prix de Beauté.
Alwa finds his father dying after Lulu has accidentally shot him. With Francis Lederer and Fritz Kortner in Pandora’s Box (1929). (Photo and caption from “Forver Lulu”)
Pandora’s Box is the film that renders Louise Brooks so relevant today. She gazes out across the gulf of years to tease us with her changing moods- sassy one moment, brooding the next- and looking as modern as today’s mannequin. She confided… that many people viewing Pandora’s Box then and now “expected a femme fatale, a siren, a slinking woman with lascivious looks and sneers […] although Lulu does nothing. She just dances through the film: she’s a young girl, she leads a life she’s always liked. She was a whore when she was twelve, and she dies a whore when she’s about eighteen.”
Below are two magnificent trailers for the film via YouTube. Done in recent years, they capture Louise’s magic.
And here’s the whole film, also from YouTube:
“Louise snapped in a tender mood by Hans Casparius.” (Photo and caption from “Forever Lulu”)
After her time in Europe, Louise’s career faltered badly. The Great Depression began, and the entire mood of the nation soured. She had never been sweet on Hollywood, and she would always look back on her time filming in Berlin and Paris with longing: “…the happiest time I ever had, looking back, is when I was making pictures in Paris and didn’t speak French. And the reason I was happy was I didn’t have to talk to anyone. I didn’t have to explain anything.”
By 1932, Louise was forced to file for bankruptcy: “she had liabilities of $11,969” and claimed “her only asset was listed as ‘my wearing apparel.” Ever the style maven, even broke, Louise still had those clothes. There was a quickie marriage (her second) to a wealthy Chicago playboy who was quite the dancer, but it fell apart. She didn’t appear onscreen again until 1936’s Empty Saddles, and two years later, she starred in her final film, Overland Stage Raiders, with an up-and-coming John Wayne. And just like that, Louise Brooks, Hollywood star, was over.
(Photo from “Lulu Forver”)
After Hollywood, Louise moved back to Kansas for a while, but ended up living in NYC for most of the 1940’s and into the early 50’s. She joined the Roman Catholic Church, but then quit after more than a decade. She fought an addiction to alcohol and long periods of acute depression. She eventually settled in Rochester, and it was there that Louise would develop her second career as a writer. Also, much to her surprise, decades after the height of her career, her silent films were rediscovered, acclaimed and feted. In the autumn of 1958, she flew to Paris for a gala tribute thrown in her honor.
More significant than the trip itself- Louise’s last to Europe- was the impact of the Cinémathèque retrospective. A fresh generation fell in love with Lulu. Critics such as Robert Benayon, Ado Kyrou, and Barthelémy Amengual would write ecstatic pieces in her honor. Kyrou, for example, raved that “a single smile from Louise makes every sacrifice worthwhile.” Amengual called Louise “the most radiant sun of the cinema.”
Louise with former co-star Richard Arlen in the early 1960’s. (Photo from “Forever Lulu”)
Louise once wrote to a friend, “All life is a preparation for death,” and in 1985, at age 78, preparation complete, she died. But her legacy- films nearly a century old, the marriage of Hollywood and high fashion, and the ability to emote without uttering a single word- lives on.
“Louise in her male garb for Beggars of Life (1928).” (Photo and caption from “Forever Lulu”)