The other day I found myself rambling off to someone about classic films, as I have a habit of doing. I started on my burgeoning passion for silent films and of course began gushing about my idol Louise Brooks, and unsurprisingly the person I was talking to (or more likely talking at since I have a habit of going on and on about things people don’t really care about) had never seen any of her films and knew nothing about her. They actually were very interested in learning more about the lovely Lulu and suggested I write a post about her, so here I go.
Louise Brooks is perhaps one of the best loved sirens of the screen among silent film enthusiasts today, but she is virtually forgotten by the rest of American culture. During the heyday of silent film in the 1920s, Brooks was a superstar appearing in a number of American films produced by Paramount. She worked with many other noted film stars including W.C. Fields and John Wayne. By the end of her cinema career in 1938, Brooks had appeared in twenty-one Hollywood films and three German pieces.
Mary Louise Brooks, called Brooksie by her friends and family, was born November 14, 1906, in the small hamlet of Cherryvale, Kansas. Brooks’ very first taste of the theatre came when she was four, cast as Tom Thumb’s bride in Tom Thumb’s Wedding at her local church. She was a creative child and began studying dancing at a young age, but she experienced a relatively happy and normal childhood. Both of her parents encouraged Brooks and her siblings to pursue cultural endeavors, and Louise grew up with a love of reading and learning.
At fifteen, though, Brooks’ life changed dramatically. She was accepted into Ruth Saint-Denis and Ted Shawn’s Denishawn Dance Company in New York City. She danced with the company for two years until she was dismissed due to her poor attitude. It appears she acted a bit like a diva. After a brief stay in Europe, Brooks returned to the U.S. and signed with Paramount. She soon rose to stardom.
In 1929, though, Brooks made one of her most famous career decisions, and left Paramount to act in the film scene in Weimar Germany. She starred in G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box as Lulu the epitome of sex. This role became the one she was most known for the rest of her life. Brooks also appeared in Diary of a Lost Girl, my personal favorite, and Prix de Beauté.
Brooks’ European efforts received a lukewarm reaction at best from critics of the day on both sides of the Atlantic, and she was forced to return to the States with her tail between her legs in 1930. She was unable to reclaim her Hollywood stardom and acted in only a few B movies upon her reemergence and eventually fell off the map.
Lulu’s story does not end tragically, though, as many of the other stories of starlets who fell from grace did. Brooks eventually moved to Rochester, NY, after a visit to the George Eastman House at the urging of publicist John Springer and Eastman House’s film curator James Card. In Rochester, she reinvented herself as a successful writer from the 1950s to the 1970s, and her essays appeared in numerous respected film publications. She died in Rochester August 8, 1985.
I love Brooks because she was the first antithesis of the cookie-cutter Hollywood It girl. She recognized the game for what it was and wanted no part in it. She was comfortable being herself, completely owned her own sexuality, made female intelligence sexy , and became a style icon whose influence still can be seen over eighty years later.
Some fun facts about Brooksie:
~ She supposedly was the first person to popularize the now famous Charleston dance while she worked in a London nightclub in the early 1920s.
~ As a writer, Brooks visited various libraries and secretly corrected false information found in biographies and autobiographies.
~ Brooks’ sexuality has always been a rather ambiguous subject. She once wrote, “All my women friends have been lesbians…Out of curiosity I had two affairs with girls– they did nothing for me.”
~ She was the inspiration behind “Dixie Dugan,” a famous comic strip about a Hollywood showgirl which ran from 1929 to 1966.
~ Brooks left her contract with Paramount when they wanted to dub a different voice over her performance in her last silent film. The studio’s constant nagging about her liberated behavior (drinking and multiple affairs) didn’t help either. She basically gave the studio a big “Fuck you!” and left for Europe.
~ InSyle magazine named her signature sharp, black bob “One of the 10 Haircuts that Changed the World.”
~ She once had an affair with Charlie Chaplin (but, then again, who didn’t?)
~ Prior to breaking onto the Hollywood scene, Louise was one of the famed Ziegfeld Follies.
Here is the first few minutes from Diary of a Lost Girl. You can watch the entire film on YouTube as well. As I mentioned above, this is my favorite of Brooks’ films. It’s really a powerful telling of a pretty classic tale…with some interesting sadomasochistic and lesbian undertones (the scenes in the reformatory school), which make one do a double take when remembering this was a film from 1929!