Insolent Shadow: Louise Brooks

by Mrs. Parker

Copyright 2004 by Michele Gouveia. All rights reserved.

Louise Brooks in her most famous role as Lulu in Pandora's Box.

“There is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! There is only Louise Brooks!”—Henri Langlois

She was either the bravest or the most foolish actress the screen has ever seen. In 1928, on the verge of stardom, she walked out on Hollywood and into celluloid obscurity, where she would remain for thirty years before she was “rediscovered.” The quintessential flapper, seductive screen siren, muse to countless artists, she was unlike any star the world had seen before. The woman who once said, "I have a gift for enraging people, but if I ever bore you, it will be with a knife," was an original. She was Louise Brooks.

Brooks escaped the Kansas plains of her childhood when she was just 15, joining the famed Denishawn Dance Company. “I wanted to be a great dancer like Martha Graham,” she would say later in life. “That was my ambition.”[1]  She would last two years before one of the company’s founders, Ruth St. Denis, dismissed her for wanting “life handed to you on a silver salver.”[2] It was not the last time that her brazen personal life would get her in trouble but this slight would continue to sting until the end of her life. She went on to take Broadway by storm, starring in the George White Scandals and Ziegfeld Follies, before one of her numerous beaus, Paramount Pictures producer William Wanger, insisted she do a screen test. She passed and made her screen debut in Street of Forgotten Men (1925).

Louise Brooks in a scene from Rolled Stockings (1927); photo by E. R. Richee.

She photographed gorgeously. In an era where blondeness still dominated the landscape, Brooks’ “black helmet” of hair and sleek boyish figure stood out and made her a favorite of photographers. As the 1920s progressed, Brooks’ look began to shape the image of the flapper. She even had the perfect flapper attitude. Whereas “It” girl Clara Bow was, in private, insecure and fragile, Brooks oozed self confidence and disdain. The woman who said “Love is a publicity stunt, and making love, after the first curious rapture, is only another petulant way to pass the time waiting for the studio to call,” was no shrinking violet. She was a true flapper, down to her hair. Colleen Moore is often credited with inventing the bobbed look for flappers, but all one has to do is look at photos of Brooks as a child to find the same black bob with stick-straight bangs framing a devilish face. Her hair, combined with her alabaster skin (which in real life was dusted with freckles) and what Christopher Isherwood described as “that fine, imperious neck of hers,”[3] would make her one of the iconic images of the 20th century.


Louise Brooks was a favorite of photographers.

Typical of Hollywood, they didn’t know what to do with her. So they threw her into a bunch of comedies playing the ingenue. It wasn’t until William Wellman’s Beggars of Life (1928) that she was given a role she could really sink her teeth into. Playing a young girl who, disguised as a boy, takes to the rails to escape a murder charge, the film was a reality check for American film goers about the lives of tramps and hobos. It would be her last good Hollywood role.

  “Wait a minute, wait a minute! You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”—Al Jolson

The words uttered by Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (1927) spelled the end of many careers in Hollywood. Sound had arrived, and studios, having to incur huge costs to build new sound stages, began using the line “we don’t know how your voice will record,” with their actors, offering renewed contracts without pay raises. Most went along but not Brooks. Called into B. P. Shulberg’s office (he was the West Coast head of Paramount), Brooks, who knew she had a strong voice, was told “You can stay on at $750 per week or leave.”[4] She turned him down flat and left Hollywood.  Fortunately for film buffs, she had an offer waiting in Berlin.

Louise Brooks, Kobal Collection.

“Lulu is not a real character but the personification of primitive sexuality, who inspires evil unawares.”—Frank Wedekind

Brooks made three films in Europe—Pandora’s Box (1929), Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), and Prix de beauté (1930)—but it was the first that would earn her a place in film history.

Pandora’s Box was based on two 18th-century plays by Frank Wedekind—Erdgeist (Earth Spirit) and Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box). The character of Lulu, a young woman whose sexuality causes the destruction of those around her, was infamous in Germany. Director G. W. Pabst had been combing the country, looking for his Lulu, something akin to David O. Selznick’s later search for Scarlett O’Hara, when he settled on Brooks. When it was announced that he had chosen an American, the German people were incensed, but they soon got over it.

Brooks had almost lost the part to a German—Marlene Dietrich. Legend has it that Dietrich was in Pabst’s office, ready to sign a contract when he received a cable from Brooks accepting the role. Pabst later said “Dietrich was too old and too obvious—one sexy look and the picture would become a burlesque.”[5]

Brooks spoke no German and Pabst little English, but the two hit it off immediately. Pabst knew instinctively how to handle Brooks and got the performance of a lifetime out of her. She later wrote “In Hollywood, I was a pretty flibbertigibbet whose charm for the executive department decreased with every increase in her fan mail. In Berlin, I stepped onto the station platform to meet Pabst and became an actress.”[6]

In Pandora’s Box, Brooks is Lulu, a young dancer and prostitute who is having an affair with Dr. Peter Schön (Fritz Kortner), a wealthy, older man whose son, Alwa (Franz Lederer), is also infatuated with her. One evening, back stage at the theatre where Lulu is performing in a revue, she and Schön get into an argument. After a struggle in which Brooks scissor kicks her dancer’s legs divinely, they kiss, only to be interrupted by Alwa and Schön’s fiancée. Schön is devastated but Lulu is triumphant. The slow, smirk she gives is one of the greatest moments of ultimate victory captured on film.

Later, Lulu and Schōn marry, but when he discovers Lulu with Alwa that night, he tries to get her to commit suicide, only to end up dead himself. Put on trial, Lulu manages to escape and winds up destitute in London with Schigolch (Carl Götz), an old pimp, and a broken Alwa. Left alone, she goes out and brings home a man she meets on the street—Jack the Ripper. As Brooks describes Lulu’s death scene that follows, “It is Christmas Eve, and she is about to receive the gift that has been her dream since childhood: death by a sexual maniac.”[7]

What is most striking about Pandora’s Box is its originality. From the start, it feels different from most other silents. One of its more memorable scenes is backstage at the revue, where Pabst captures brilliantly the frantic energy of an opening night, including a comical portrayal of a stressed-out stage manager. Much of the film’s success is due to Brooks’ acting style. In an era when the norm was to overreact to compensate for the absence of sound, Brooks just reacted, translating to a certain naturalness on screen. How she pours a drink, her reaction to Schön’s death, even her wistful gazing at a tiny lit candle are all so subtle that many critics at the time thought she wasn’t acting. Her approach was completely modern; Brooks, was simply ahead of her time. She later said of her Lulu: “She’s just the same kind of nitwit that I am. Like me, she’d have been an impossible wife, sitting in bed all day reading and drinking gin.”[8]

Most Americans never got to see Brooks’ European films. Pandora’s Box was butchered by the censors and shown in a just few theatres. By the time she left Europe, sound was king, and when she refused to return to Hollywood to dub her role in The Canary Murder Case (1929), which had been shot as silent before she left, she put the last nail in her coffin. If she had gone along with the studio heads, she might have become one of the great stars; her departure for Berlin coincided with the peak of her popularity (the year she left, only three other stars had as many magazine articles written about them). She made a few more films but they were mostly insults to her talent and intellect. Her career was finished before she was even 25.

She retreated to New York and the bottle, gin being her best friend. There she wallowed in a self-imposed exile until some film historians, led by James Card of the George Eastman House, started viewing her films and “rediscovered” Louise Brooks. In her later years she took to writing about the art she had never really understood or cared for at the time, culminating with a collection of essays, Lulu in Hollywood.

Louise Brooks, photo by E. R. Richee, 1927.

The great irony of Louise Brooks’ life is that she became more famous after her career was over than when she was acting. Today, she is one of the most recognizable Hollywood stars. Her look and style have been copied by generations of women, and she has inspired numerous actors, writers, musicians, and even two cartoon characters (Dixie Dugan and Valentina). But she still remains an elusive, unattainable element from the past, an image almost erased from film, but one that left a decided shadow on film history.

 For the dope on Louise Brooks, click here.

[1] Paris, Barry. Louise Brooks. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc , 1989, page 544.

[2] Ibid, page 53.

[3] Tynan, Kenneth. “Louise Brooks: The Girl in the Black Helmet.” The New Yorker, June 11, 1979.

[4] Paris, page 270.

[5] Brooks, Louise. Lulu in Hollywood. New York: Limelight Editions, 1989, page 96.

[6] Ibid, page 104.

[7] Ibid, page 104.

[8] Tynan.