The Archive: Louise Brooks – something of an enigma
One of the most luminous stars of the silent era, Louise Brooks has been all but erased from cinema history. Only a handful of movie buffs keep her memory alive, mostly through the 20-year-old Louise Brooks Society, whose aim is to honour the charismatic actor and stimulate interest in her life and work.
American Venus, a new play about Brooks in later life – she died of a heart attack in 1985 – will look at the reasons she quit acting after a career lasting only 13 years, her disenchantment with Hollywood and her deep suspicion of the fame game.
The distinguished film writer and critic David Thomson called Brooks “a mysterious and potent figure in the history of cinema… one of the first performers to penetrate to the heart of screen acting”.
Playwright Leslie Mildiner says: “She had this amazing presence on screen but she threw it all away. Why? Hollywood didn’t really know what to make of this beautiful, sassy creature who read Proust. She stirred up a lot of trouble and ended up as an ageing, ailing recluse, barking at everybody.”
Mildiner’s play finds the elderly Brooks, played by Susan Penhaligon, looking back at her younger self with honesty, wit and a degree of self-justification. He also writes about her short-lived affair with Charlie Chaplin when he was at the height of his success.
Brooks was just 18 years old when she appeared in her first film, Love ’Em and Leave ’Em (1926), having started out three years earlier as a dancer with the Denishawn Dance Company alongside the young Martha Graham. Even at that tender age, Brooks found the seriousness of modern dance was not to her liking and switched to the more life-enhancing Ziegfeld Follies, then the toast of Broadway.
With her come-hither looks and radiant features, framed by a close-cropped helmet of jet black hair, Brooks was the embodiment of 1920s chic. A journalist who interviewed her at the time wrote: “She is so very Manhattan. Very young. Exquisitely hard-boiled. Her black eyes and sleek black hair are as brilliant as Chinese lacquer. Her skin is white as camellia.”
The Ziegfeld Follies yielded a rich harvest for Hollywood talent scouts and in 1925, aged just 18, Brooks was signed to a five-year contract with Paramount. In the following three years she made 14 American films, had an affair with Chaplin, appeared on the cover of Photoplay, married and divorced director Eddie Sutherland, and reneged on her contract to up sticks and make a film in Germany with a director she’d never heard of.
And all that was accomplished without a single acting lesson. She later said of this period of her life: “When I acted, I hadn’t the slightest idea what I was doing. I was simply playing myself, which is the hardest thing in the world to do – if you know that it’s hard. I didn’t, so it seemed easy.”
The film she made with the German director GW Pabst in 1929 was a lurid melodrama entitled Pandora’s Box, based on a play by Frank Wedekind. In it she played Lulu, who murders her lover, becomes a prostitute and ends up being killed by Jack the Ripper.
Thomson rates it as “one of the major female performances in the cinema”, while Brooks herself dismissed Lulu as “the same kind of nitwit as me, not a destroyer of men, but someone who’d probably lie in bed all day, reading and drinking gin. Lulu’s story is as near as you’ll get to mine”.
In 1930, she returned to Hollywood on the strength of a promised contract with Columbia. Harry Cohn, the studio head, left her in no doubt that if she responded to his sexual advances, good parts would come her way. She rebuffed him and the contract was withdrawn. She was no angel, but neither would she prostitute herself for advancement.
Pabst offered her the role of Helen of Troy in a film he was making of Goethe’s Faust, with Greta Garbo, but the project fell through. She was screen-tested for a musical called Dancing Feet, but was eventually passed over for a blonde who couldn’t dance. “From then on it was straight downhill,” she later wrote.
Four decades on, in the late 1970s, the reclusive Brooks was ‘rediscovered’ by the critic Kenneth Tynan, who profiled her in the most glowing terms imaginable for the New Yorker magazine. Then 71, she had been living for some years in an apartment in Rochester, New York, suffering from osteoarthritis and the early stages of emphysema.
This is the Louise Brooks as she appears in Mildiner’s play, as performed by Penhaligon.
“She was evidently a very complex person,” says Penhaligon. “The ultimate 1920s flapper and free spirit, intellectual from a young age, abused as a child, and in old age, witty, angry and spiteful. She had to deal with the loss of youthful beauty and becoming invisible, as so many women do.
“The play is about getting older and dealing with your mistakes. The challenge for me is to capture her directness and wit and lack of self-pity.”
It has been speculated that the reason Brooks’ career didn’t progress beyond silent movies was that she didn’t have a good enough speaking voice, but one only has to listen to her interviews on YouTube to realise this wasn’t true.
According to Brooks herself, it was the studio ethic that changed everything. “The studio machine controlled you, mind and body, from the moment you were yanked out of bed at dawn until the publicity put you back to bed at night,” she said.
This was hardly consistent with being a free spirit.
I asked Penhaligon if she thought she would have liked Brooks. “She was a great storyteller, so I’d like to have had a few drinks with her, knowing I could say goodbye after a couple of hours,” she said.
American Venus opens at 6 Frederick’s Place, London, on August 31, as part of the Ever Hopeful Rep Season