Long Live Lulu

By James DC

georg-wilhelm-pabst-pandoras-box.jpgPandora’s Box, 1929

The legendary spectre of Louise Brooks, born over 100 years ago, commands a shimmering, hypnotic hold over 21st century art and pop-culture, still highly influential to the realms of fashion, photography, literature and film. Brooks was born in 1906 and died in 1985. Between that three-quarter of a century she, and her various artistic collaborators, created a modern day icon – a spectacular, multi-faceted myth, which conflated her screen persona with her own irrepressible and often fantastic – and fatalistic – personal life. With her famous bob hairstyle, classical features, prodigious acting talent and fiery intelligence, she embodied the archetypal 1920's flapper; an ethereal Art Deco beauty as well as a lethal, seductive vamp.

Brooks' early life was shaped by her domineering, bohemian mother – a pianist – who was emotionally cold towards her daughter but nevertheless instilled in Louise an interest and love for the arts, music and literature. This partly compensated for a sometimes difficult and unhappy childhood; Brooks was sexually molested when she was 9 years old by a neighbourhood predator, and she maintained that this traumatic event had a crucial, long lasting negative effect on her adult relationships, fuelling her often cynical and neurotic attitude towards sexual love “The men I liked most were the worst in bed, and the men I liked least were the best. I liked the bastards”.

She left home in her mid-teens, joining the Denishawn Modern Dance Company (whose members included the now legendary Martha Graham) and embarked upon her dream of a lifelong career as a dancer. Unfortunately it didn’t last – Brooks was an outspoken, headstrong individual from the start, and the rivalry and artistic clashes with her colleagues led to her being summarily dismissed. Undeterred, the tough-nosed Brooks quickly landed a part as a chorus girl, and later as a dancer in the celebrated Ziegfield Follies on Broadway. This eventually brought her to the attention of Paramount Pictures producer Walter Wanger, who signed her up for a 5 year movie contract, becoming her lover into the bargain (she was also spotted around this time by Charles Chaplin whom she had a short affair with – the first of many brief liaisons which the sexually promiscuous Brooks would conduct with celebrities of the day).

Brooks' screen debut came in 1925 in (the forgettable!) The Street of Forgotten Men. After appearances in a slew of mostly average, light-weight comedies (usually playing a capricious vamp, alongside fellow rising stars like W.C. Fields and Adolphe Menjou) she bagged what is generally considered to be her first artistically relevant role – that of the seductress in Howard Hawks ‘buddy’ movie A Girl in Every Port. She next played an abused country girl who goes on the run disguised as a boy hobo, for another talented director, William Wellman, in Beggars of Life. Both these seminal parts came in 1928, and attracted the attention of virtuoso German Expressionist director G.W. Pabst, who invited her to Germany to take the lead role in two magnificent films, both released in 1929; Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl – which pits the initially pure and innocent character Thymian against the cruel vicissitudes of a reform school. Diary… is a striking, powerful and beautiful film, essaying a humanist-tinged damnation of immorality, hypocrisy and inhumanity. However, it doesn’t come close to the ecstatic, stylistic heights and socio-politically charged resonance of Brooks'/Pabst's masterpiece Pandora’s Box, in which she played the legendary femme fatale Lulu. Brooks next – and last – leading role came in Prix de Beauté, directed by Augusto Genina in 1930. A subtly lyrical domestic drama, hinging on the classic Brooks themes of the loss of innocence, infidelity, retribution, redemption and, of course, sex and death, this last filmic hurrah rounded off what can now be viewed as an accidental, informal ‘European Trilogy’. All in all, Brooks' monumental reputation rests mainly on these 5 films, produced over a short span of just 3 years.

georg-wilhelm-pabst-pandoras-box-2.jpgPandora’s Box, 1929

By this time, Brooks had burnt a lot of bridges in Hollywood, and after precociously – and stupidly – turning down the lead role opposite James Cagney in William Wellman's Public Enemy, her career took a terminal nosedive (the fame-propelling part went instead to Jean Harlow). The remaining roles she managed to clutch at were lacklustre and asinine; mainly bit parts in inoffensive comedies, and a couple of supporting roles in B-movie westerns. Her very last film was the pedestrian Overland Stage Raiders from 1938, playing opposite a young, pre-stardom John Wayne. Never one to regret past decisions, Brooks never looked back – but tragically, for her legions of present-day adoring fans – cinema lost, from that moment onwards, one of its most enigmatic, alluring and sublimely beautiful female stars.

From then on, Brooks lived a stripped down, hand-to-mouth existence. She temporarily moved back to the dull, suburban confines of her family home in Wichita, and when she couldn’t handle her neurotic mother anymore, she left and tried running a dance studio. When that flopped, she ended up – after a brief foray into radio drama and a stint as a gossip columnist - as a lowly sales clerk in a department store in New York. Eventually she quit working for a living altogether and became – basically – a high class courtesan for anyone rich enough to keep her. Later, an old flame, William S. Paley (the wealthy founder of CBS) chose, probably out of nostalgic pity for her, to provide a monthly stipend for Brooks, which she continued to subsist on until her dying days.

georg-wilhelm-pabst-pandoras-box-3.jpgPandora’s Box, 1929

Then suddenly, in the early 1950’s the Brooks legacy was dusted off and re-evaluated – namely by Henri Langlois, the co-founder of the Cinématheque Française, who famously pronounced “There is no Dietrich, there is no Garbo, there is only Louise Brooks!” This cinematic exhumation led to a phoenix-like rebirth of the actress’ canon, and in turn created the worldwide Louise Brooks myth-cult we know today. Initially surprised, Brooks began to take pride once again in her past work, and along with heartfelt encouragement and support from aficionados and fans like Kevin Brownlow, Kenneth Tynan and particularly James Card, she began a second, fruitful career as a film journalist; writing astute observations, memoirs and essays about her exploits in the film industry, and the countless movie stars she knew (and bedded). The confluence of her new artistic lease of life – the writing became a cathartic, expressive outlet for her formidable intelligence and inner vitality – and the fresh reappraisal and acknowledgment of her glittering career, will have given some comfort to the ageing screen goddess. Over the next few decades she became a well respected commentator on film and the arts. She still lived in self-imposed, virtual exile, but allowed a few friendships to blossom, as with Card and Tynan. After a long bout of illness, Louise Brooks passed away, aged 79, in 1985.

Pandora’s Box plays as part of the Birds Eye View Film Festival.

James DC is a writer and broadcaster.