The promiscuous motion picture camera has had many memorable romances: Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, Audrey Hepburn, Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor. Yet, the great love affair of the it’s 100 plus year life was also one of its briefest: actress Louie Brooks. Despite, or perhaps because of, that brevity, this love affair has never really been equaled in intensity.
Louise Brooks is primarily remembered for the cinematic masterpiece Pandora’s Box (1929), made with G.W. Pabst. He was considered by some the greatest of all German directors; he was certainly one of the most intelligent. Pabst only made one other film with Brooks, Diary Of A Lost Girl (1929), which although not quite the equal of their first collaboration, is rightly and belatedly being recognized for its own merits. Brooks made a final film of some interest: Beauty Prize (1930) with director Augusto Genina, which together with the Pabst films finished off a feminist trilogy.
Pabst had earlier convinced Hollywood of Greta Garbo’s abilities with Joyless Street (1925), which also featured a remarkable performance by Asta Nielson. He directed Brigitte Helm in The Love of Jeanne Ney (1928) and Leni Riefenstahl in The White Hell of Pitz Palu (1929). Being a certified woman’s director, Pabst virtually invented Brooks’ screen personality. Brooks later confessed in her interviews with Kenneth Tynan that, at the time, she had little clue as to what Pandora’s Box was even about, turning herself over to the director’s hands. In Brooks’ eyes, she was only playing herself. She, and the film, was aided immensely by Gunther Krampf’s illuminating cinematography.
Pandora’s Box is considered a primary example of Weimar Cinema. Simultaneously expressionistic and naturalistic, Pandora’s phantasmagoric quality inspired the composer Alban Berg, who adapted his libretto, as Pabst did his screenplay, from playwright Frank Wedekind’s “Lulu” cycle. In both cases, the result was a beautifully repulsive work.
Pabst initiated an extensive search for his Lulu, testing and rejecting hundreds of aspiring actresses. Upon seeing Brooks’ ravishing portrayal of a femme fatale in Howard Hawks’ amiable, comic A Girl in Every Port (1928), Pabst felt he had found his Lulu. It’s easy to see why. Brooks’ memorable part, though small, registers as a rudimentary prototype of Lulu. Brooks later complimented her Svengali’s perception: “It was clever of Pabst to know even before he met me that I possessed the tramp essence of Lulu.” Brooks’ only other early Hollywood film of merit is William Wellman’s Beggars of Life (1928). For years Malcolm St. Claire’s The Canary Murder Case (1929) was considered lost. Stills hinted at a missing gem. Unfortunately, the film was discovered and released. Perhaps some things should remain lost.
That Pandora’s Box has a lurid plot is a given. Pabst wisely simplifies Wedekind’s source material, concentrating on Lulu’s relationships with her first “patron,” the haggard Schigolch (Carl Gotz), Schon (Fritz Kortner), Schon’s son Alwyn (Franz Lederer), and her lesbian lover Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts). Pabst and Krampf give Pandora’s Box an crepuscular sheen. The girl, with her bobbed, jet black hair contrasting sharply with a white dress flickering like a candle, engages in a balletic promenade. Brooks, the trained dancer, is a naive succubus, flippantly unconcerned with bourgeoisie seasoned ideas of morality. Communal mores demand a comeuppance and the sordid finale gifts it in spades at the hands of Jack the Ripper (Gustav Diessl). Aptly, Brooks later wrote that the only actor she was sexually attracted to on the set was the man who killed her.
Pandora’s Box was successful enough in Europe to produce the followup Diary Of A Lost Girl, based on Margarete Bohme’s controversial best-selling novel. Brooks plays Thymiane, who stands in marked contrast to Lulu, although both are societal misfits. Thymiane is the daughter of a well-to-do pharmacist (Josef Rovensky). When Papa’s pregnant maid commits suicide, a devastated and naive Thymiane seeks to understand why. Papa’s slimy assistant (Fritz Rasp) is all too eager to give the virgin, willing or not, a lesson on the facts of life. Off with the communion dress, and nine months later Thymiane herself is pregnant. Averting scandal, Papa and new scheming maid (Franziska Kinz) send Thymiane off to a reformatory. A Dickens-like hell awaits our heroine. With the aid of friends, Thymiane escapes her tormentors, falls into prostitution, marries a count and has the last word in a somewhat unconvincing, censor-mandated happy ending. Pabst intensifies the contrast of Brooks’ angular, dark emerald face with the white of a confirmation dress and a garland of white flowers round her saintly countenance.
On paper, Diary Of A Lost Girl is a soapy melodrama, but one rich in the symbology of avarice, wide-eyed innocence lost, lesbianism, sex and bourgeoisie hypocrisy. Brooks is again a mesmerizing figure, masterfully manipulated by Pabst and cinematographers Sepp Allgeier and Fritz Wagner. Pabst’s camera repeatedly caresses Brooks’ neckline, conveying the arching beauty of innocence. The sadistic couple sending her to the reformatory bristle with perverse deviance: his dome pate and long sinister fingers are surely patterned after Max Schreck. Although not the equal of their first collaboration, Diary Of A Lost Girl has an inimitable texture that only Pabst and Brooks could give it.
The point is made clear with Augusto Genina’s Beauty Prize. Written primarily by Rene Claire in collaboration with Pabst, this is Brooks’ first sound film. The plot is simple. Brooks’ Lucienne Garnier is a typist at a Parisian newspaper who wins the Miss Europe Beauty contest. A jealous fiancee (Georges Charlia) is a prototype for Paul Snyder. Again, Brooks’ plays an innocent feminist who suffers at the hands of a misogynist. However, the film is saddled with problems typical of early sound. While lacking the imaginative direction of Pabst, Beauty Prize has a beautiful fluidity, astute use of mise en scene, and an exceptionally lurid finale (which is indeed worthy of Pabst). Genina was among those who singled out praise for Brooks, yet that praise was tinged with regret.
Pabst attempted to cast himself as Brooks’ Svengali in the same way Josef von Sternberg had been to Marlene Dietrich. However, Brooks was too promiscuous and too free-spirited for Pabst, which resulting in his letting her go. She returned from Germany to California, but was all too candid regarding her disdain for Hollywood and filmmaking in general. Brooks’ independent streak made her unpopular. She never bothered to read her scripts in full and, unwisely, she turned down a leading role in Public Enemy (1931) because filming would have interfered with a liaison she was having at the time. Tinsel town responded by wasting her in dreadful B-movie bit parts. As Pabst predicted, Brooks, whose life closely mirrored Pandora’s Box’s Lulu, met a similar fate to her character (or close to it). She was reduced to being a washer woman in Kansas, followed by alcoholism and prostitution in New York.
Cinematically, Lulu was lost, but she returned, in advanced age, to write one of the most charming, erudite, and incisively brilliant of Hollywood memoirs: “Lulu in Hollywood.” Her autobiography was a series of essays, written with Kenneth Tynan, revealing the actress’ shrewd assessment of herself and her image as an embodiment of sex and death. Brooks’ cinematic persona was an authentic descendant of the femme fatale found in 19th century Symbolist painting and literature. Brooks’ readers, like the viewers of Pandora’s Box, are rendered voyeurs to her captivating shrug at amorality. Despite the fact that her films were poorly received upon release and died at the American box office, she emerged, against all odds, as the cult actress. Hailed belatedly by influential critics and film historians, Brooks lived long enough to see her own revival. She utilized the surprising turn of luck with Tynan’s assistance. Her last days were spent reading, painting, and (with humorous shrug intact) impatiently waiting for death, which finally arrived in 1985.