“There is no Garbo. There is no Dietrich. There is only Louise Brooks!”
So declared the pioneering French film archivist Henri Langlois in 1955, when his decision to place a large period poster of the then-forgotten actress at the entrance to a Paris exhibition celebrating sixty years of cinema was criticised by a journalist, who wondered why he hadn’t chosen Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich instead.
It’s unlikely that such a decision would be questioned today. Brooks’ face, with its limpid eyes framed by her trademark shiny black bob, has become one of film history’s most iconic images – endlessly recycled and referenced on posters, in books and films. Yet if the face is now familiar, relatively few people have actually seen it in its natural habitat – on screen. The camera adores her – as can be seen on page after page of lovely books such as this one, by Peter Cowie – but the moving picture camera adores her even more.
Louise Brooks was born one hundred years ago, in Kansas. She went to New York to be a dancer, but ended up signing a contract with Paramount Pictures. On screen and off, she was the embodiment of the 1920s flapper, a party girl with no thought for the future and no desire to toe the line – she gained a reputation for being headstrong and difficult, and worked her way through a couple of short-lived marriages and a series of lovers, including Charlie Chaplin and William S Paley (the proprietor of CBS who would later be played by Frank Langella in George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck).
From 1925 to 1938 she appeared in 24 films, but by the time talkies came in, her career was already on the slide. Her reputation as what the author Anita Loos called, “the greatest actress in the history of moving pictures,” rests on a handful of the silents, but on one film in particular – Pandora’s Box.
In 1928, the Austrian-born director Georg Wilhelm Pabst advertised in the German press for an actress to play Lulu in his film adaptation of two plays by Frank Wedekind, Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box. But he ended up casting an American – Brooks – reportedly after seeing her in still photographs. When she saw his telegram, Brooks dropped everything and left for Germany.
She was uncannily perfect as Lulu, the ingenuous femme fatale who lives for the moment, sows destruction all around her and ends up a prostitute, murdered by Jack the Ripper. Curiously enough, it’s in the second half of the film, when she swaps her bob for a swept back style with exposed forehead, when this masterpiece goes off the boil a little. Coincidence? I think not.
I first watched Pandora’s Box when it was screened on British TV in the early 1970s. The ending was a little too mean-spirited for my liking, but I was mesmerised by Brooks, whose underplayed acting style seemed strikingly modern and natural; she seemed to be playing herself rather than a role. And men were willing to die for her.
Hell, I wanted some of that.
In 1973, I decided to take the first step, which was getting my hair cut in a short bob with a fringe – or “bangs”, as the Americans so charmingly call it. Unfortunately, the hairdresser I chose to effect this transformation was on the top floor of Allders department store in Croydon. When I said, “Like Louise Brooks,” the hairdresser, not surprisingly, looked blank. I drew a sketch. The blankness became a little less blank, though not by much. The hairdresser went ahead and cut my hair, and she cut it wrong.
It wasn’t her fault. She had obviously been taught coiffing by numbers, and I was accordingly given a standard “Club Cut”, with a fringe and some wispy bits, “to soften it up.” I didn’t have the heart to say the result wasn’t at all what I’d had in mind. I went home and, with the help of mirrors, studied my hair from every angle. It was too long, more like a chunky Pageboy than the sleek Bob that exposed the back of Brook’s exquisite swanlike neck to such seductive effect. There was no getting round it. It was a botched job.
I bought the recently published Classic Film Script book of Pandora’s Box and showed the pictures to my friend Marilyn and she finished off what Allders of Croydon had begun. She trimmed away the wispy bits and tackled the nape of my neck with a razor and lo! I had a genuine Louise Brooks hair-do at last. In months to come, I would become adept at shaving the back of my own neck with a disposable Bic.
Even after my hair had grown long and been lopped and crimped and permed half a dozen times, had gone red and then black and then blonde and then back to the mouse that God gave me, I retained fond memories of Lulu’s bob and bangs, and even revisited them once or twice. I consider myself a bit of an expert on that particular hair-do, so it annoys me when everyone says that Melanie Griffith is wearing a Louise Brooks wig in Something Wild, or Uma Thurman looks like Louise Brooks in Pulp Fiction, or Anna Wintour is described as having a “Louise Brooks bob”. Not so! Take a look at their necks!
Brooks went on to make one more film with Pabst – Diary of a Lost Girl – then Prix de Beauté for René Clair, before returning to Hollywood. But she was easily bored, taking neither herself nor acting very seriously, and seemed almost wilfully to sabotage her career at every turn. She rejected the role opposite James Cagney in The Public Enemy that would make a star out of Jean Harlow, preferring instead to spend time in New York with one of her lovers. She refused to dub her role in The Canary Murder Case when the studio decided to release it as a sound picture, leading to an unfounded but damaging rumour that her voice wasn’t suitable for talkies.
Brooks went on to act in a handful of them, all the same, but her career was already in freefall. Her last film appearance, in 1938, was in Overland Stage Raiders, alongside a pre-Stagecoach John Wayne, but that trademark bob had long since disappeared, and with it, apparently, her unique luminosity. Afterwards, she tried unsuccessfully to hold down a series of small jobs, including a stint as a sales assistant at Saks Fifth Avenue, then lived on handouts from ex-lovers (“I suppose you could call me a kept woman,” she told Kenneth Tynan many years later) and by the early 1950s, had become a virtual recluse.
It could have ended there, but happily, Louise Brooks found a new sort of stardom, which was launched when Langlois, in Paris, and James Card, curator of film at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, sought her out. Not only were they astonished to learn she was still alive, they were amazed to find that the woman who had so brilliantly incarnated the ultimate sex object was also smart as a whip (stop the press! A woman with a brain!), phenomenally well-read, bracingly candid about her sex life and remarkably devoid of self-pity or resentment.
Brooks forged a new career as a respected writer, and a collection of her autobiographical essays, Lulu in Hollywood, was published in 1982. Up until her her death in 1985, she received visits from a long stream of admirers – most famously Tynan, who in 1979 introduced the Brooks mystique to a wider readership by publishing an article called The Girl in the Black Helmet in The New Yorker.
If I have one regret about Brooks’ life, it’s not that she didn’t make more films. It’s that, in her frail old age, when she’d grown her grey hair long and scraped it back as though purposely to disassociate herself from her younger self’s trademark bob, no-one thought to arrange a proper photo session. From the few snaps and a filmed interview that do exist, it’s clear that she was still a looker, not to mention an intelligent, lively-minded and admirably uncompromising woman who did it her way, and whose life was etched into her face for all to see.
Except we didn’t get the chance. Of course we can celebrate her beauty in its youthful prime, but to gloss over the way she looked in later life seems to be catering to that sad old chestnut about older women’s invisibility, as though the younger incarnation is the only one that matters.
She slipped out of sight for a while, it’s true. But Louise Brooks, that intoxicating combination of beauty and brain, was living proof that there are second acts in American lives. And perhaps that should be celebrated too.
This article was first published in December 2006 in Stella magazine (for the Sunday Telegraph).
The screengrabs from Pandora’s Box are from the Criterion Collection box set, which includes audio commentaries, a discful of extras and a book featuring (among other things) Kenneth Tynan’s essay The Girl in the Black Helmet. The photograph of Louise Brooks is from Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu (1998), a documentary by Hugh Munro Neeley, which is included in the extras.
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Like Fine Wine… A lovely blog about Louise Brooks and ageing (thank you Fiona!)