This post was originally written for Silent Revue, the blog that complements Toronto’s only year-round dedicated selection of silent films in a theatrical venue with live accompaniment. This season of the Silent Revue has celebrated the women (both famous and forgotten) of silent Hollywood. If you live in the Toronto area, follow the Silent Revue’s Facebook page for more information on future showings!
At the end of Augusto Genina’s 1930 film Prix de Beauté, we find Louise Brooks sitting in a movie theatre, watching a cinematic version of herself. Her character—Lulu—has escaped a claustrophobic marriage by winning a beauty prize; here, she is watching a preview showing of her first film. As Lulu’s projected self warbles a song onscreen, however, her abusive husband sneaks into the theatre and, firing a single shot, murders his wife where she sits. Lulu dies as the film’s light flickers over her blank, white face, her ghostly double singing all the while.
The moment is almost unbearably moving, particularly in the context of Brooks’s career: Prix de Beauté would be her last starring role. Having ditched her Hollywood contract to make two masterpieces with G.W. Pabst in Germany—Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, both released in 1929—Brooks was not inclined to return to Paramount to retrofit her late silent picture The Canary Murder Case for sound. While in Europe Brooks ignored the studio’s increasingly desperate communiques, and after her belated arrival in the United States she flatly refused the $10,000 bonus she was offered to submit to the necessary reshoots. In doing so, Brooks stuck one to the studio she knew had exploited her (Paramount was eventually forced to seek out a Brooksalike so that they could cobble together a talking Canary) but also destroyed her career. Producer B.P. Schulberg merely had to spread the rumour that Brooks’s voice was unacceptable for sound film and the industry left her behind forever. Louise as Lulu in the final scene of Prix de Beauté—dying as a voice that isn’t hers sings a song that can only, finally, act as her requiem—has become an overdetermined symbol for Brooks’s own obsolescence (one concurrent with that of the silent cinema itself) and the paradoxical afterlife that film has finally afforded her.
As Catherine Ann Surowiec writes, the “final flickering images of Prix de Beauté are unforgettable: we observe a luminous presence cut off in her prime, but in turn are struck by the immortalized image, isolated in time, preserved by the art of film.”1 Considering the same scene, Ado Kyrou reflects that “Louise, dying in a cinema while her celluloid image continues to exist up there on the screen, has always been for me the poetic symbol of the permanence of feminine beauty through the medium of cinema.” 2 Kyrou’s meditation sets out the terms of this peculiar haunting. Lulu, like all beautiful things, must perish; trapped in nitrate amber, however, she becomes an object eternally available to us.
If, like me, you’re a fan of Louise Brooks, you’ve probably spent a good deal of time watching Lulu die. Her most famous picture, Pandora’s Box, likewise concludes with her character’s onscreen death—this time, she (again named Lulu) is slain by Gustav Diessl’s Jack the Ripper on Christmas Eve. These murders—somehow, with their destruction of her beauty in its greatest flower, inseparable from Lulu’s beatification as film’s ultimate fetish object—tend to occlude the fact that, while Lulu died with her films, Louise Brooks survived. In fact, she lived through the end of her 70s, finally passing in August of 1985, less than 30 years ago.3 One could be forgiven for surprise at this fact, since the images still circulated of Brooks by those rapt in her allure overwhelmingly display her between the ages of 15, when she started work as a dancer with the Denishawn company, and 23, when her film career essentially ended after Prix de Beauté. Peter Cowie’s recent, magisterial coffee table book, aptly subtitled Lulu Forever, contains amidst its hundreds of pictures of Brooks only two taken after 1929. Even in the chapter detailing Brooks’s post-Hollywood life (“Into the Wilderness”), Cowie’s assertions—such as his contention that “Louise’s distinctive hairstyle seemed to evanesce in direct relation to her Hollywood career…Without the ‘black helmet’ she looked like just another girl next door”4—are accompanied by images of a behelmeted young starlet. After Lulu’s death, it seems, Louise cannot be admitted onto the page to trouble the image of perfection so created.
Freezing Louise as a forever-youthful Lulu allows us to consume her image and legacy in certain pleasurable ways. She remains as Kenneth Tynan feverishly described her in his diary after his second viewing of Pandora’s Box: “this shameless urchin tomboy, this unbroken, unbreakable porcelain filly…a creature of impulse, a creator of impulses, a temptress with no pretensions, capable of dissolving into a giggling fit at the peak of erotic ecstasy; amoral but totally selfless, with that sleek jet cloche of hair that rings such a peal of bells in my subconscious.”5 This Lulu is decorative and, even in her perversity, pliant to the imagination, acting as a container for sexual fantasy. The persistence of such images of our lady of the black helmet offer the difficult woman as an aesthetic object, with her non-normative sexual experience, her refusal of obedience, and her often destructive behaviour all readable as erotic signs. Her development arrested before 1930, Lulu remains a picture who never learned to talk.
Brooks’s stunning beauty and her impact onscreen are both undeniable and breathtaking: as Lotte Eisner once wrote about the “miracle of Louise Brooks,” she was “an actress that needed no directing, but could move across the screen causing a work of art to be born by her mere presence.”6 In raising Lulu to magnificent iconicity, however, we in fact do a disservice to Louise Brooks’s life and legacy, reducing both to the sum of her work across a few years in the 1920s, and tending to replicate the terms of sexual objectification upon which much of her career was, due to industrial and societal structures, necessarily premised. By attending to Brooks’s life after Lulu’s death, the rest of this piece hopes to gesture toward ways that we can honour her as a complex and brilliant woman, rather than merely as an icon, object, or fetish.
While I implied above that Brooks’s film career ended with her final star turn in Prix de Beauté, this is true in a metaphoric rather than a factual sense. Brooks actually made 7 films after 1930, largely certified turkeys, and she took smaller and more thankless roles in each one. These were the wages of Brooks’s sin of refusing to comply with Paramount’s demands in 1929: as Columbia’s publicity department cuttingly wrote below the promo pictures she took for one of her final efforts, 1937’s When You’re in Love, “Louise Brooks, former screen star…deserted Hollywood seven years ago at the height of her career… But seven years is too long for the public to remember and Louise courageously begins again at the bottom.”7 In the film, Louise’s character doesn’t even have a name: as “Specialty Ballerina in chorus” she appears and disappears with no fanfare, lines, or credit. During the 30s, even her famous glamour called in its account: she was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1932 (occupation: “motion picture actress, unemployed”8), so liquidating heavy debts with Saks and Bergdorf Goodman.
In C genre pictures and Z Westerns, Brooks lived out a decade-long humiliation in a Hollywood that had forgotten her name except to mock it (“Louise Brooks, former star, threw pride aside and resumed her career as a ballet dancer in Grace Moore’s current picture”9). Considering her career’s long goodbye is so painful that even Barry Paris, perhaps her most unflinching biographer, is drawn to consider might-have-beens rather than what was. Brooks almost had Jean Harlow’s role in William Wellman’s 1931 smash The Public Enemy, Paris notes, a part that catapulted Harlow to stardom and, he argues, could have established the unofficially blacklisted Brooks as a gamble with returns. While, unquestionably, Brooks—possessed of beauty, talent, and a perfectly modulated speaking voice—could have been a contender in 1930s Hollywood, the Public Enemy story is an especially bitter pill to swallow because Brooks’s best chance at a comeback was ruined not by scheming studio bosses but by Brooks herself. After at first agreeing to do the part, she walked out on her commitment so that she could take a trip to New York with her boyfriend.10 Here, the caprice and rebellious insouciance so associated with Brooks in her guise as Lulu resurface, but take on a grimmer aspect: unassimilable simply as girl power, they start to resemble instead a cruel performance of self-destruction.
After a last-ditch attempt to support herself by running a Beverly Hills dance studio failed almost as soon as it got off the ground, Brooks finally gave up on the town that had long since given up on her and, in 1940, returned to live with her mother and father in Wichita. This homecoming to a sepia Kansas was agonizing: Louise later reflected that “The citizens of Wichita either resented me for having been a success or despised me for being a failure. And I wasn’t exactly enchanted with them.”11 Her sometime confidante James Card reported that “when she first went back home, she spent days scrubbing floors. It was very masochistic. Here was a girl who had her picture in all the world film magazines, reducing herself to this. I’m sure she did it as self-punishment. She spoke not so much of guilt as of remorse—but for what?”12 She opened a dance studio that folded after barely a year, and finally took a job at the accessories counter at Garfield’s, a Wichita department store.
For me, the most evocative account of Brooks’s Wichita years comes from James Kiefner, a college student with whom she helped organize some skits for Wichita University’s spring celebrations in 1942. “The first time I saw her after she lost her [dance] studio,” he later said, “she took home stacks of books about leather. She read about it from the time it left the animal, how to tan it, all the various types and finished products. She had to know everything. It was an example of her intellectual curiosity, that compulsion to learn all there was to know about something.”13 Brooks may have been just a counter girl at Garfield’s, but, as Kiefner’s account makes clear, she would refuse that position’s limitations, transmuting its supposedly menial labour into an intellectual pursuit.
Kiefner continues: “I never saw her in anything except a long robe, at home or in the studio. It was probably a relic from one of her movies. She’d get up there with her long cigarette holder in front of the ballet mirror and the barre and direct…She’d already had problems with the local people—they sort of blacklisted her. But I think her self-destruction probably started with her mother, who was a rather severe-looking woman, a Twentieth-Century Club type. With Louise, there was a wall there, and once and a while you could see it come down…I didn’t visit her often, but whenever I did, she was always in her bare feet, and her room and bed were always strewn with books—Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, you name it, they were all there, all from the public library. And she always had a bowl of fresh fruit—a couple of grapefruit, a banana, grapes. And that was it. That’s the way she lived. It was very, very dark. She had the lamp on her bedside table covered by a towel to diffuse the light. She never went downstairs. There was a long, eerie corridor you went down—you sneaked past wherever her mother happened to be. She was unhappy there. She told me she left Hollywood not because she herself decided to leave, but because she was kicked out. I said, ‘What do you mean “kicked out”?’ And she said, ‘I like to fuck and drink too much.’”14
Kiefner’s memories ask us to grapple with Brooks as more than a charming hedonist. Lulu in Wichita is not only glamorous, wilful, provocative, and sexually free (though she certainly remains all of those things). This woman who likes to fuck and drink is difficult in ways that cannot be aestheticized: she is a failure, an embarrassment, a product of her own mistakes, and (as she had been throughout her film career) an alcoholic. She is angry: her Wichita dance studio business partner later offered that “she had a vicious disposition. We went out to dance one night at the 400 Club, and Harry Perkins, one of the boys she knew in school, came up and wanted to dance with her—he cut in on us—and you’d have thought I had hold of a tigress! I’ll never forget how she turned around and literally snarled, really bared her teeth at him.”15 Unlike her latter-day admirers, Brooks never tried to paper over this viciousness—rather, she embraced it. She wrote frustratedly in 1955 to a dazzled James Card that “I’ve told you eight hundred ways what a bitch I am…I think what throws people off about me is that they always associate a bitch with jewels and clothes and money, publicity and success. These not being first things in my life, people place upon me virtues belonging to poverty and modesty. That’s the only explanation I can find for people’s surprise at my true nature—for I don’t try to deceive anyone.”16 In the end, those who loved Brooks most loved her because, not in spite of, her difficult qualities. Receiving letters from his favourite sister, her brother Theo, editor of a Wichita newspaper, “would stride chuckling through the Eagle-Beacon city room, waving the latest missive. ‘Oh, she’s a bitch,’ he would declare with undisguised approval. ‘Read this!’”17
In 1942 Brooks took the first excuse to escape Wichita: after an old friend wired her the money for a train ticket to New York, she left—forever—later the same day. She spent a desolate decade in New York City, a time in her life she later said she “would not wish on anybody”; Card contended that that chapter of her history could only be told with justice by “Dostoyevsky collaborating with Budd Schulberg.”18 By 1955, however, the Lulu industry was ramping up. Brooks was rediscovered by influential men like the Cinémathèque Française’s Henri Langlois (decorating the entrance to his retrospective, “60 Years of Cinema,” with an enormous portrait of Brooks in Pandora’s Box, Langlois would declare, “There is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! There is only Louise Brooks!”)19 and Card, who eventually convinced her to move to Rochester as a kind of living addition to the Eastman House’s collection of filmic artifacts. No longer forgotten, Brooks began her ascent to iconicity. She figured it as a resurrection: “I was killed dead when Pandora’s Box failed, so from that time on, I just didn’t care,” she told John Kobal. “To be suddenly reclaimed from the dead was marvelously exciting…most people die before things like that happen—to find that you are to a certain extent admired. It’s a wonderful blessing.”20 Eventually, though, she became frustrated with how this revival ignored the living woman in favour of the beautiful ghost it constructed out of her: “I am asking all ‘Idolizers’ to stop writing bullshit about me—after all, they are really forming me in their own image,” she wrote to Kevin Brownlow in 1966.21 Near the end of her life, Brooks wrote a moving letter to her friend Herman Weinberg, expressing the gap between Lulu’s triumph and Louise’s everyday life: “every morning I face the day with dread—putting myself together like some old plastic toy, knowing that a loud TV can shatter my grip on control, despair—a jump on ahead to straight insanity…my late ‘celebrity’ and financial security are a miracle. But I wish I were dead.”22
Brooks ultimately filled this gap with words. In the crucible of the 1940s and 1950s, Brooks had become a writer, and with sharp, devastating prose, she began to remake Lulu in her own image. Composing pieces of criticism for film journals, Brooks told Hollywood’s history with characteristic viciousness, and so responded to the many stories made out of and about her by making her own. Her proposal for a book on women stars makes explicit how her critical project counters Hollywood’s industrial logic of objectification: the book was to be “a study of extraordinary, uniquely beautiful women and the success with which they preserved their originality of face and personality” against the “grinding of the producers who would reduce them to a commodity as uniform, as interchangeable, as expendable and cheap as canned peas.”23 The book was never published, but in 1982 she brought out a collected edition of her writing on film entitled Lulu in Hollywood: a vital, vibrant work, it was rightfully received with huge acclaim.
As many scholars have pointed out, Brooks’s writing, which combines her personal and autobiographical recollections with critical assertions about film history, is often a work of carefully composed fiction. Despite her frequent claims to truthfulness, Brooks is actually engaged in a process of deliberate fabrication.24 A negative review of Lulu in Hollywood from 1982 expresses frustration at the designing woman behind it, asserting that “Brooks gives the impression of withholding nothing while actually concealing a great deal. She pretends total frankness while presenting an elaborate myth of herself: the actress as moral exemplar, more honest and uncompromising than her more successful contemporaries and, it would seem, just about everyone else…By turning her impulsiveness and self-indulgence into a fiery iconoclasm, she has transmogrified the very quality for which Hollywood rejected her so many years ago into one for which she is extravagantly admired today. Where then she was merely unprofessional, now she has become the quirky individualist, willing to sacrifice everything—career, fame, fortune—in her need to [flout] convention. It may be her greatest role.”25 Morgan Wesson, who knew her in her Eastman House days, offers a similar perspective: “The great success of that woman was in totally resurrecting her reputation—and from a sickbed, immobilized, and being an alcoholic.”26 Wesson’s description of the influence an infirm Brooks finally managed to wield over her image is implicitly condemnatory, but in it I see a way to think about her life and legacy that encompasses both its persistent fictions and its difficult truths. In the end—through her uncompromising bitchiness, her self-destructive defiance, and especially through her failures—Louise Brooks became the author of herself.
1 Quoted in Barry Paris, Louise Brooks: A Biography (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 343.↩
2 Quoted in Paris, 343↩
3 Thus, unbelievably, Louise Brooks and I were alive at the same time for over a year. ↩
4 If girls next door look like that where Cowie lives, I want to move there. ↩
5 Quoted in Amelie Hastie, Cupboards of Curiosity: Women, Recollection, and Film History (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 118.↩
6 Quoted in Cowie, Louise Brooks: Lulu Forever (New York: Rizzoli, 2006), 96.↩
7 Quoted in Paris, 380.↩
8 Quoted in Paris, 361.↩
9 Quoted in Paris, 380.↩
10 Brooks’s trip to Germany to make Pandora’s Box against Paramount’s wishes had been undertaken in very similar circumstances. Her boyfriend George Marshall suggested that they go; Brooks later claimed he cared nothing about the picture (besides the fact that squiring a movie star satisfied his ego)–he had merely wanted to take a trip to Europe. See Brooks’s interview with Richard Leacock in Lulu in Berlin, 1984.↩
11 Quoted in Paris, 402. ↩
12 Quoted in Paris, 403. ↩
13 Quoted in Paris, 399. ↩
14 Quoted in Paris, 399. ↩
15 Quoted in Paris, 395. ↩
16 Quoted in Paris, 447. ↩
17 Quoted in Paris, 479. ↩
18 Quoted in Paris, 407. ↩
19 Quoted in Paris, 440. ↩
20 Quoted in Paris, 493. ↩
21 Quoted in Paris, 518. ↩
22 Quoted in Paris, 521. ↩
23 Quoted in Paris, 452. ↩
24 Hastie’s chapter “Louise Brooks: Star Witness” in Cupboards of Curiosity explores at greater length the truths and fictions of Brooks’s writing. ↩
25 Quoted in Paris, 512-513. ↩
26 Quoted in Paris, 507. ↩