I watched a Louise Brooks picture the other night, Diary of a Lost Girl, a 1929 German silent directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst. I’m not here to talk about Diary of a Lost Girl except to say, I didn’t get it. What happens happens slowly, and often without title screens, all in keeping with the New Objectivity of the time. As reflected in his pictures of the ’20s, G.W. Pabst’s world—Germany at the tail end of the Goldene Zwanziger, the Golden Twenties—was bleak and seedy, a socio-political vacuum that the National Socialists would soon be inhabiting. I’m sure many of you can give me a dozen reasons why Diary of a Lost Girl is good or great, but I can only speak for myself, and the slowly enveloping creepiness was a bit too much for me.
What held my attention was Louise Brooks. I sat mesmerized beginning to end looking at Louise Brooks in all manner of psychologically perilous situations. They called Helen of Troy “the face that launched a thousand ships,” and so Helen must have been Louise Brooks beautiful. If we were able to pull Louise Brooks off the spool of celluloid for Diary of a Lost Girl, she could be reinserted into any other filmstrip from any other time, and she would be just as arresting—and hopefully in better clothes.
I find all sorts of women to be beautiful for all sorts of reasons, outwardly and inwardly. You’re everywhere, you women, and I admire you all. And then there’s Louise Brooks. It does Brooks a disservice to say she’s sexy. She may be sexy in the traditional sense but it’s too symplistic term to be applied here. She grabs your attention when she appears and doesn’t let go. She’s got those big, dark, knowing, wide-set eyes and that severe dark hair framing her face and that wide mouth and flawless pale skin and wham, there’s nowhere else for your gaze to fall.
Audrey Hepburn is another of those ship-launchers. There are a few out there who don’t get Audrey’s appeal. Maybe you’re one of them. As far as I’m concerned, Audrey could just stand there and not be a part of a plot or reciting lines or facing peril, just stand there, and I’d be watching that face with my mouth hanging open until she wasn’t there to look at anymore. I remember walking up a cobblestone street some months back in the ancient German town of Eppstein, this narrow little street with a few shops on it, and in one of the shop windows was an inexpensive little purse and my eye snagged on the purse because there was Audrey Hepburn’s face staring out from it. Time stood still. Five thousand miles from home, in Germany conducting research for a book on a dark 35-degree day in November, I didn’t know anything but, there’s Audrey. From one glimpse of that face applied to a commercial product.
To my way of thinking, Audrey was as arresting near the end of her life as she was decades earlier in Roman Holiday, because, in her case, the beauty had deepened from all the living she had done and from decades of good deeds. There’s a sense of inner beauty from the face of a young Louise Brooks as well—she was by all accounts a smart, intuitive woman with a wicked sense of humor and strong independent streak.
My reading list is pretty long after finishing Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe (Coming Soon from GoodKnight Books—put it on your Christmas list now!) and among those titles is Lulu in Hollywood, a collection of the writings of Louise Brooks. I can’t imagine that this face was launched in Kansas, but that’s where she was born and raised. Supposedly she was molested as a child, which shaped her sexuality and, presumably, pointed her toward frank film performances, as well as a number of nude portrait sittings and many incendiary affairs. She made only a couple dozen films in a career spanning 13 years, in part because she snubbed her home studio, Paramount Pictures, just as sound arrived in 1929, the year of Diary of a Lost Girl. Among her credits was a picture with Carole Lombard, It Pays to Advertise, in 1931 with Carole on her way up and Louise sinking fast. Her last picture would be in 1938 and she’d be done in movies at age 32 and not rediscovered as a motion picture icon for another generation. How that face slipped from the mainstream for a while I’ll never understand.
Today the face of Louise Brooks has reemerged and collectors eagerly pay thousands for original still photos and movie posters featuring her, and I think it’s high time I added such a piece to my own collection and my wall. Productivity will suffer, because I’ll be staring with my mouth open quite a lot, but I can live with that if you can.
I watched Pandora’s Box, which was on earlier the same evening, and was instantly enthralled, fascinated, and discomforted by Brooks’ character in that film. I couldn’t stay awake through Diary of a Lost Girl, which was past my bedtime, I’m afraid. However, Pandora’s Box is a disturbing and decadent film, and Brooks is incandescent in it. She moves beautifully and her acting is understated and natural, very different from typical silent film performances. She also has a very natural look compared to other beauties of the era. However, what is most arresting is this her potent sexuality doesn’t seem to be aware of itself, lending a kind of innocence to her character, which in Pandora’s Box, essentially is part of the power that destroys everything in its path. Pandor’s Box even features a lesbian character who succumbs to her charms, and by the end of the film, this straight viewer was acquiring a serious “girl crush.”
Many years ago I happened to come across Pandora’s Box while it was playing on television. At the time I had never heard of Louise Brooks or Lulu or the actress’s openly rebellious attitude in Hollywood which had led to her being blacklisted by the studios and reduced to playing small roles in productions before disappearing from the film capital.
But I remember responding strongly to Brooks’s stunning good looks in the film, her strong sensual presence and the beguiling naturalness of her performance. She was a revelation. And, as Rosemarie, said, unlike other screen sirens of the time, there was an innocence about her screen character that was disconcerting. She directly and openly used her physical powers to charm and seduce a variety of men, clearly enjoying the carnal pleasures, yet seemed oblivious to the fact that she could cause harm or be harmed herself by her sexual lifestyle.
And at the end of the film, when she feels sorry for a clearly troubled young man she encounters in the London fog, who turns out to be Jack the Ripper, her vulnerability couldn’t be more apparent. But in that memorable Pabst production, even the Ripper is presented sympathetically, for that matter.
Years later I read that Louise Brooks’s lived in a small Rochester apartment, from where she wrote brilliant film essays (she was a huge fan of Clara Bow). It was while living that secluded lifestyle there, I believe, that she and her two Pabst films were re-discovered by critics and film fans and she enjoyed a degree of celebrity that had not been her’s since the days of Pandora.
I seriously considered writing to her at the time but, for whatever reason, never did. It’s my impression that she was known for responding to various correspondence she received so I am now, of course, sorry that I let the opportunity to communicate with her pass.
But that Brooks’s screen image, that distinctive hair style with those bangs (or no bangs), that perfect skin, the hint of a smile and, perhaps, above all, those large mysterious, mischievous eyes that pierced you with their intelligence and curiosity, still remain with me all these years later. She haunts me still, as she continues to do with so others who turn on one of her films and fall under her spell.
1. You’ll love Lulu In Hollywood.