Lulu in Hollywood

by Louise Brooks

 

Louise Brooks: A Biography

by Barry Paris

(This column was first published in the August 30, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)

This coming Tuesday, September 4, the second Buffalo Film Seminar will feature Louise Brooks in Pandora's Box. (Led by Bruce Jackson and Diane English, the seminars meet most Tuesdays at 7:00 p.m. at the Market Arcade Theater, 639 Main Street. They are open to the public for an admission charge.)

I wish I could attend this program -- I can't as I have a conflicting responsibility -- because I have been intrigued by this remarkable woman since I first read Kenneth Tynan's essay about her in The New Yorker in 1979. That biographical sketch of Louise Brooks appears as the introduction to her own collected writing about film in Lulu in Hollywood (1974, republished in 2000 by the University of Minnesota Press). I was drawn to Tynan's piece by the fact that Ms. Brooks worked with James Card of Rochester's Eastman House beginning in the 1950s when I too lived in that city. Despite that I had never heard of her.

If you never read another book about Hollywood -- and I count neglect in your favor -- I urge you to read this one. Ms. Brooks, as this commentary will show, was an unabashed voluptuary -- she quite literally slept around -- and all but a few of her co-workers hated her. But she was at the same time the equal of Audrey Hepburn in beauty, arguably the finest natural film actress (both characteristics I believe Pandora's Box will display), a highly trained and disciplined dancer and, far more important, a very bright woman.

Here are a few of Tynan's collected reviews of her work in film:

"One of the most mysterious and potent figures in the history of the cinema...she was one of the first performers to penetrate to the heart of screen acting. -- David Thomson, British critic

"Louise Brooks is the only woman who had the ability to transfigure no matter what film into a masterpiece.... Louise is the perfect apparition, the dream woman, the being without whom the cinema would be a poor thing. She is much more than a myth, she is a magical presence, a real phantom, the magnetism of the cinema. -- Ado Kyroit, French critic

"Those who have seen her can never forget her. She is the modern actress par excellence.... As soon as she takes the screen, fiction disappears along with art, and one has the impression of being present at a documentary. The camera seems to have caught her by surprise, without her knowledge. She is the intelligence of the cinematic process, the perfect incarnation of that which is photogenic; she embodies all that the cinema rediscovered in its last years of silence: complete naturalness and complete simplicity. Her art is so pure that it becomes invisible. -- Henri Langlois, director of the Cinematheque Francaise"

Or consider what Tynan himself says of her:

"Garbo could give us innocence, and Dietrich amorality, on the grandest possible scale; only Brooks could play the simple, unabashed hedonist, whose appetite for pleasure is so radiant that even when it causes suffering to her and others we cannot find it in ourselves to reproach her.

"Most actresses tend to pass moral judgments on the characters they play. Their performances issue tacit commands to the audience: 'Love me,' 'Hate me,' 'Laugh at me,' 'Weep with me,' and so forth. We get none of this from Brooks, whose presence before the camera merely declares, 'Here I am. Make what you will of me.' She does not care what we think of her.... In the best of her silent films, Brooks -- with no conscious intention of doing so -- is reinventing the art of screen acting.

"I suspect that she was helped rather than hindered by the fact that she never took a formal acting lesson. 'When I acted, I hadn't the slightest idea of what I was doing,' she said once to Richard Leacock, the documentary filmmaker. '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. I had nothing to unlearn. When I first worked with Pabst, he was furious, because he approached people intellectually and you couldn't approach me intellectually, because there was nothing to approach.' To watch Brooks is to recall Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell, who observes, 'Ignorance is like a delicate, exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.'

"...Brooks said, 'The best actor I ever worked with was Osgood Perkins.... You know what makes an actor great to work with? Timing. You don't have to feel anything. It's like dancing with a perfect dancing partner. Osgood Perkins would give you a line so that you would react perfectly. It was timing -- because emotion means nothing'.... This comment reveals what Brooks has learned about acting in the cinema: emotion per se, however deeply felt, is not enough. It is what the actor shows -- the contraband that he or she can smuggle past the camera -- that matters to the audience."

An actress of quality, she is also a writer of quality. Her essays in Lulu in Hollywood are about people like Humphrey Bogart, W. C. Fields, Lillian Gish, Greta Garbo and, of course, herself. They give us extraordinary insights into the movie industry. I am certainly not well informed about books of this genre, but I cannot imagine a better one. Consider, for example, this paragraph:

"Humphrey Bogart spent the last twenty-one years of his life laboriously converting the established character of a middle-aged man from that of a conventional, well-bred theatre actor named Humphrey to one that complemented his film roles -- a rebellious tough known as Bogey. In the years since his death, in 1957, biographers catering to the Bogey Cult have transformed him into a cinematic saint -- St. Bogart -- in whom I can find scarcely a trace of the Humphrey I first knew in 1924 or the Bogey I last saw in 1943. The earliest strokes in the biographers' portraits are those that paint him as a 'loner,' a man of 'self-determination,' who makes 'all his own decisions,' with regard for nothing beyond immediate satisfaction. Such a description will not do for a twentieth-century film star in Hollywood. Being myself a born loner, who was temporarily deflected from the hermit's path by a career in the theatre and films, I can state categorically that in Bogart's time there was no other occupation in the world that so closely resembled enslavement as the career of a film star. He had self-determination only in this: he might or he might not sign a film contract. If he signed the contract, he became subject to those who paid his salary and released his films. If he did not sign the contract, he was no film star. I, for example, when I was under contract to Paramount in 1928, complained about being forced to hang around Hollywood waiting to make some film. 'That's what we are paying you for -- your time' was the harsh comment of the front office. 'You mean my life,' I said to myself. When the coming of talkies made the cutting of actors' salaries practicable and I was the only one on the Paramount lot who refused to take a cut, thereby losing my contract, I doubted whether such 'independent' decisions would lengthen my career. When I was the only one of the cast who refused to return to make the talkie version of The Canary Murder Case, my last silent film there, the studio doused me with ugly publicity and made my doubts a certainty. I was blacklisted. No major studio would hire me to make a film. In later years, whenever Bogart, at Warner Brothers, followed the lead of James Cagney and Errol Flynn by going on strike and demanding better films and more money, the studio would make a pleasant game of it. The actors were allowed a triumphant interval in which to feel like lords of the lot; the publicity stirred up by these mock battles was free and beneficial; and a great deal of money was saved while the actors' salaries were suspended. Studio contracts were always a joke, as far as actors were concerned. Studios could break them at will; the actors were bound by their fear of impoverishing lawsuits and permanent unemployment."

Or rethink your view of Marlene Dietrich after reading this:

"If I had not acted at once, I would have lost the part of Lulu. At that very hour in Berlin Marlene Dietrich was waiting with Pabst [her director in Pandora's Box] in his office. Pabst later said, 'Dietrich was too old and too obvious -- one sexy look and the picture would become a burlesque. But I gave her a deadline, and the contract was about to be signed when Paramount cabled saying I could have Louise Brooks.' It must be remembered that Pabst was speaking about the pre-Josef-von-Sternberg Dietrich. She was the Dietrich of I Kiss Your Hand, Madame, a film in which, caparisoned variously in beads, brocade, ostrich feathers, chiffon ruffles, and white rabbit fur, she galloped from one lascivious stare to another. Years after another trick of fate had made her a top star -- for Sternberg's biographer, Herman Weinberg, told me that it was only because Brigitte Helm was not available that Sternberg looked further and found Dietrich for The Blue Angel -- she said to Travis Banton, the Paramount dress designer who transformed her spangles and feathers into glittering, shadowed beauty, 'Imagine Pabst choosing Louise Brooks for Lulu when he could have had me!'"

I don't consider myself a puritan, but I do find Ms. Brooks' personal life over the top. She was briefly a mistress of Charlie Chaplin and for a longer period of Washington Redskins owner George Marshall. And her free and easy ways did get her into trouble. Can you imagine anyone else telling the following story about herself?

"On the trip home that night, I lay out on a flatcar between Jack and Harvey. [Harvey was a stunt man whose daredevil leap off a moving train drew him to the actress' attention.] As the bell clanged the approach of town, I turned to Harvey, whispering, 'At one o'clock, come round to my bedroom window. I'll open the screen and let you in.'

"The next morning, Billy [Wellman, the director] worked alone with the freight train. Harvey and some of the hoboes were lounging on the hotel porch as I crossed it to return to my room after breakfast. 'Just a minute, Miss Brooks,' Harvey said in a loud voice as he rose from the porch rail and sauntered over to me. 'I've got something to ask you.' Holding the door shut with one hand while his other hand held my arm, he said, 'I guess you know my job depends on my health.' Naming a high film executive whom I had never met, he went on, 'Everybody knows you're his girl and he has syphilis, and what I want to know is, Do you have syphilis?' Following an impressive moment of silence, he ended by saying, 'Another reason I want to know is that my girl is coming up at noon to drive me back to Hollywood.' Looking round to get the effect of his performance upon the hoboes, Harvey saw Robert Perry moving quietly toward him. Quickly dropping his hands, Harvey sauntered off the porch as I opened the door and fled to my room.

"At one o'clock, praying that everyone had eaten and gone, I went to the lunchroom. It was empty except for two people sitting at the counter -- Harvey and his girl. She was a fat slattern in a yellow housedress. Harvey nudged her, and she swung round on her stool to stare at me and giggle while he spoke to her in an undertone. Just as I finished my ice cream and was preparing to make my escape, Billy came in from location and sat down at my table for lunch. When Harvey came to say goodbye to him, it was obvious that Billy had heard every detail of our sordid affair -- from the entrance through my bedroom window to the denouement on the hotel porch. He could not resist a small leer in my direction. How the grand Louise Brooks had fallen! It was a sequence he could have directed with relish."

Barry Paris's Louise Brooks: A Biography (University of Minnesota Press, 1989) tells the rest of the story about this woman who, despite her life style, I came to regard highly. I agree with the London Spectator reviewer (surely not a Hollywood hack) who said of the book: "Absorbing, wonderfully researched, and an exemplar of its kind."

I am convinced that witnessing the film Pandora's Box will lead you inexorably and serially to Lulu in Hollywood and Louise Brooks: A Biography.