“There is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! There is only Louise Brooks!”

“There is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! There is only Louise Brooks!”

 

The film critic and cinephile Henri Langlois wrote this in 1955 about the silent movie actress who at that time was just emerging from a long retreat from the world.

 

So, what inspired movie-goers and film buffs about Louise Brooks, what made her in their eyes unique? After all, there were plenty of luminous and talented movie stars around in the ‘20s, jostling for attention and ambitious for fame.

 

The first quality may be that she seemed to have had no great ambition to be a star, starting off firstly as a dancer in Los Angeles in 1922 then, through connections, ambling into films.

 

She began by playing bit parts in now lost or mostly forgotten films and then turned up in a silent comedy called ‘A Girl in Every Port’. Brooks had had her hair bobbed since childhood but somehow her hairstyle in this production created something of a cult following in Europe. But even at this early stage of her film career she had become disenchanted with Hollywood. Tyrannical directors, vitriolic gossip and the suicide of a close friend, as well as her own rebellious spirit made her depart for Europe to make two films with the Austrian film director G.W. Pabst.

 

              In these two, ‘Pandora's Box’ and ‘Diary of a Lost Girl’ (both made in 1929) her incandescent performance secured her future reputation. What was arresting about it was her naturalness; in a world where silent movie actors over-emphasized their gestures and emotions she was restrained and yet had the ability to project both innocence and sexuality.  Nevertheless, you get the impression she didn’t like making films much, at least American films. Many years later she said she wouldn't go back to Hollywood, "but I would go to Mr. Pabst."

 

            In her personal life (with an insouciance that even today seems striking) she took and discarded lovers. There were at least two film directors, two millionaires, Garbo, Chaplin and Bill Paley, the founder of CBS, a figure who was later to have an impact on her life. Vivacious, fun-loving, iconoclastic and ephemeral she was as much a symbol of the Jazz Age as F. Scott Fitzgerald or Capone. And she had something of a reputation for decadence and debauchery.

 

                Thrown out of hotels, bankrupted and with her film career waning, she attempted to open a dance school in Los Angeles. It failed and she lost a considerable amount of her savings. To simply survive throughout the 30s and 40s, Brooks worked as a nightclub dancer, a gossip columnist, a radio host, a salesgirl at Saks Fifth Avenue and—for a brief, unhappy period—as a courtesan for wealthy men. She slid into obscurity and, with her continuing dependence on alcohol it seemed as if Louise Brooks’ radiance was fading. As she says: “I never gave away anything without wishing I had kept it; nor kept anything without wishing I had given it away.”

 

               Unbelievably in 1955, Brooks was rescued from this impoverished darkness by an unlikely combination of lovers, film historians and writers. Bill Paley had given her a small monthly stipend for the remainder of her life, but it was James Card, a film curator, who discovered Brooks living as a recluse in a small apartment in New York City; he persuaded her to move upstate. Still beautiful, she began to write perceptive essays on cinema in film magazines, and this animated her second career. A collection of her writings, called ‘Lulu in Hollywood’ was published in 1982; Roger Ebert said that this was "one of the few film books that can be called indispensable."

 

                These eight autobiographical essays in ‘Lulu’ were nostalgic, selective, fearlessly smart and sometimes venomous (she once called Shirley Temple 'a swaggering, tough little slut’). A true original, she wrote perceptively and fashioned a minor classic film memoir. But her self-destructiveness still dogged her.

 

Misanthropic and gleefully unrepentant, having fought off success at every turn, the still magnetic Brooks appeared in a couple of documentaries and continued to be combative and passionate until her death in 1985 at age 78.

 

So again: Louise Brooks -a failure as a star but a success as an icon -what is it about her that made her unique?

 

I think it was her hypnotic and sensual naturalism; if you look at her old flickering films of the silent era, particularly the two made for Pabst, everyone else on the set looks like they are fixed firmly in the 1920s.

 

But not Louise …she looks like she comes from tomorrow.

 

Quentin Johnson

October 2019

Louise Brooks picture from 'A Girl in Every Port'.

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