14 November 2010

The Girl With the Bob

I wear my hair in a short, dark bob. Some think it’s a nod to my favourite decade, the 1920s. But it’s really because of Louise Brooks. Ever since I saw her in Pandora’s Box when I was a teenager she’s inspired me (see the photo I used in my first post)—not just her hair but her strength and originality.

Today would have been her 104th birthday. Born in 1906 in Cherryvale, Kansas, she would spend most of her 78 years battling something—studios, authority, alcohol, poverty. Louise was a born rebel. She never backed down, always sticking to her guns even when her choices hurt her in the end. The woman who once said, "I have a gift for enraging people, but if I ever bore you, it will be with a knife," may have been hard to like sometimes but her determination is something to be admired.

Members of the Denishawn Dance Company. Louise is second from right.Louise escaped a self-absorbed mother and the Kansas plains when she was just 15, moving to New York to join 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.” 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.” It was not the last time that her brazen personal life would get her in trouble (she was asked to leave her room at the Algonquin after neighbors complained she was doing exercises on the rooftop in her pajamas) 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).

She photographed gorgeously. In an era where blondeness still dominated the landscape, Louise's “black helmet” of hair and sleek boyish figure stood out and made her a favorite of photographers. As the 1920s progressed, she helped to shape the image of the flapper. She even had the perfect flapper attitude. Whereas “It” girl Clara Bow was privately insecure and fragile, Louise 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 Louise 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,” would turn her into an iconic image.

Louise in a scene with Richard Arlen from Beggars of Life.

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 disguises herself as a boy and takes to the rails to escape a murder charge, the film was a reality check for American filmgoers about the lives of tramps and hobos. It would be her last good Hollywood role.

Hollywood publicity still.

The arrival of sound in 1927 with The Jazz Singer spelled the end of many careers in Hollywood. 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 Louise. Called into the office of B. P. Shulberg, the West Coast head of Paramount, Louise was told “You can stay on at $750 per week or leave.” She turned him down flat and left Hollywood. Fortunately for film buffs, she had an offer waiting in Berlin.
Louise 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.
Louise as Lulu in Pandora's Box.
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 Louise. When it was announced that he had chosen an American the German people were incensed but they soon got over it.
Louise spoke no German and Pabst little English, but the two hit it off immediately. Pabst knew instinctively how to handle Louise 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.”
Lulu's triumph backstage.

In Pandora’s Box, Louise 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 Louise 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, sly smirk she aims at the camera screams of victory. Later, Lulu and 
Schön marry but when he discovers Lulu with his son, 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 Louise 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.”

What is most striking about Pandora’s Box is how modern it feels for a silent. Much of this is due to Louise's acting style. In an era when the norm was to overreact to compensate for the absence of sound, Louise just reacted. Her approach was so subtle that many critics at the time thought she wasn’t acting. Louise 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.”

Louise in a scene from Diary of a Lost Girl.

By the time Louise 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 (but did prove something Louise had known all along, her voice recorded fine). Her career was finished before she was even 25.

She retreated to New York and the bottle, gin becoming 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 cared for at the time, culminating with a collection of essays, Lulu in Hollywood. She died on August 8, 1985, a rebel until the end.

So Happy Birthday Louise. You continue to inspire.

To find out more about Louise Brooks, check out the Louise Brooks Society or read Barry Paris' biography and Louise's Lulu in Hollywood.

(This post is largely taken from an article I wrote about Louise Brooks years ago so my apologies if it sounds familiar to any of you dear readers).

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