Louise Brooks is an icon of the 20th Century, her face framed by her famous 'black helmet' hairstyle symbolising the 'flappers' of the 1920s. Her look was copied by Cyd Charisse in Singin' in the Rain, Liza Minnelli in Cabaret, Melanie Griffiths in Something Wild, Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, and Catherine Zeta Jones in Chicago, but she is rarely remembered nowadays as the gifted actress she was. Her picture can be found at LBS Portrait Galleries.
Her Life and Work
She was born Mary Louise Brooks on 14 November, 1906, in Cherryvale, Kansas. She grew up in a large, respectable, middle-class family, but from a very early age she was dancing semi-professionally. In 1922, still aged only 15, she left home for New York to join the Denishawn Dance Company, then the leading modern dance company in the USA. In 1924 she became a chorus girl in the 'George White Scandals', a Broadway show. Later that year she worked as a dancer at the Cafe de Paris in London, and was the first person in the UK to dance the Charleston. In 1925 she returned to New York and Broadway and joined the Ziegfeld Follies, soon becoming one of the two 'Glorified Girls,' the speciality dancers at the centre of many routines. Alberto Vargas1 painted her portrait, which took pride of place in Florenz Ziegfeld's office. Very much a member of the New York smart set, Brooks was regularly seen with the likes of Humphrey Bogart, and had a two-month-long affair with Charlie Chaplin, moving into his suite at the Ambassador Hotel. Later that year she appeared in her first film, The Street of Forgotten Men. This was a bit-part as a 'moll', but by her third film - A Social Celebrity - she was playing the female lead. Her 1928 film, Beggars of Life, was Paramount's first film to include scenes with sound.
Louise Brooks was successful as an actress, making 24 films between 1925 and 1938. She did not go unnoticed. She was the inspiration both for the stage play Show Girl and the long-running 'Dixie Dugan' comic strip, illustrated by JH Striebel. In 1927 she was the fourth-most written about actress in the USA, after Clara Bow, Joan Crawford and Colleen Moore. In 1928 she refused to sign a new contract with Paramount because it offered no increase in salary. In 1929, with the promise of work in Europe, she left for Berlin and what would become her most famous role, as Lulu in the classic German film, Pandora's Box, directed by GW Pabst. Brooks made two other films in Europe, before returning to the USA. She turned down several contracts and refused to record sound scenes for The Canary Murder Case. Annoyed, Paramount 'sent out a story, widely published and believed, that they let me go because I was no good in talkies'. She found herself effectively blacklisted and relegated to supporting roles in B-movies. Her intelligence, independence, and self-destructive streak all contributed to her effective exile from Hollywood. Frank Thompson wrote of her:
Brooks's idea of independence was mistaken for scatterbrained irresponsibility by some - and her penchant for 'temper tantrums' did not ease with age ... she was the bane of her directors - and often her co-stars as well due to her cavalier approach to the business.
Louise Brooks herself admitted, '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'. She was twice married and divorced, first to film director Edward Sutherland, and then to wealthy Chicago playboy Deering Davies. She never asked for or received any financial support from either of her ex-husbands.
After years of obscurity and poverty she found a new career as a film critic. During the 1950s, 60s and 70s she produced thoughtful and insightful essays about the people she had known and worked with. In 1975, Louise Brooks decided2 that, 'I shall write no more. Writing truth for people nourished on publicity crap is a useless exercise.' After giving up writing she lived in near-total seclusion and suffered from bouts of depression and occasional 'gincoherence'.
In 1965 the Italian artist Guido Crepax created 'Valentina', a comic strip inspired by Louise Brooks. On 8 August, 1985, Louise Brooks died aged 78 in Rochester, New York. In the years since her death, the reputation of Louise Brooks has risen. Some of her films, including those directed by GW Pabst, Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, are available on DVD, and there are numerous books about her. Once seen she is not easily forgotten. As the French film historian Henri Langlois said, 'There is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! There is only Louise Brooks!'
Filmography of Louise Brooks
The Street of Forgotten Men directed by Herbert Brenon, with Percy Marmont (Famous Players-Lasky3, New York)
The American Venus directed by Frank Tuttle, with Esther Ralston, Ford Sterling and Lawrence Grey (Famous Players-Lasky, New York)
A Social Celebrity directed by Malcolm St Clair, with Adolph Menjou and Chester Conklin (Famous Players-Lasky, New York)
It's the Old Army Game directed by Edward Sutherland, with WC Fields and William Gaxton (Famous Players-Lasky, New York)
The Show-Off directed by Malcolm St. Clair, with Ford Sterling and Lois Wilson (Famous Players-Lasky, New York)
Just Another Blonde directed by Alfred Santell, with Dorothy Mackaill, Jack Mulhall and William Collier Jr (First National, New York)
Love 'Em and Leave 'Em directed by Frank Tuttle, with Evelyn Brent and Lawrence Grey (Famous Players-Lasky, New York)
Evening Clothes directed by Luther Reed, with Adolph Menjou (Paramount, New York)
Rolled Stockings directed by Richard Rosson, with Richard Arlen (Paramount, New York)
The City Gone Wild directed by James Cruze, with Thomas Meighan (Paramount, New York)
Now We're in the Air directed by Frank Strayer, with Wallace Beery and Raymond Hatton (Paramount, New York)
A Girl in Every Port directed by Howard Hawks, with Victor McLaglen and Robert Armstrong (Fox, Hollywood)
Beggars of Life directed by William Wellman, with Wallace Beery and Richard Arlen (Paramount, Hollywood)
The Canary Murder Case directed by Malcolm St. Clair, with William Powell, Jean Arthur and James Hall (Paramount, Hollywood)
Pandora's Box directed by GW Pabst, with Fritz Kortner and Franz (Francis) Lederer (Nero Films, Berlin)
Diary of a Lost Girl directed by GW Pabst, with Fritz Rasp and Valeska Gert (Hom-Film, Berlin)
Prix de Beaute (Miss Europe) directed by Augusto Genina, based on a script by Rene Clair (Sofar Films, Paris)
Windy Riley Goes to Hollywood directed by William Goodrich4 (Educational, Hollywood)
It Pays to Advertise directed by Frank Tuttle, with Carol Lombard and Norman Foster (Paramount, Hollywood)
God's Gift to Women directed by Michael Curtiz, with Frank Fay and Laura La Plante (Warner Bros, Hollywood)
Empty Saddles (1936) directed by Lesley Selender, with Buck Jones (Universal, Hollywood)
King of Gamblers (1937) directed by Robert Florey, with Claire Trevor and Lloyd Nolan (Paramount, Hollywood)
When You're in Love (1937) directed by Robert Riskin, with Grace Moore and Cary Grant (Columbia)
Overland Stage Riders (1938) directed by George Sherman, with John Wayne (Republic, Hollywood)
Articles by Louise Brooks
- 'Mr Pabst' (1956) - Image, George Eastman House, Rochester, NY, vol 5, Sept 7
- 'Gish and Garbo' (1959) - Sight and Sound, London, Winter 1958 - 1959
- 'Zazu Pitts' (1963) - Objectif, Montreal, August
- 'Als ich mit Pabst arbeitete' (When I Worked With Pabst) (1964) - Munchener Photo and Film Museum, December
- 'Filmography - Positive and Negative' (1964) - Objectif, Montreal, April
- 'Louise Brooks, Par Elle-Meme (In Her Own Words)' (1964) - Objectif, Montreal, April
- 'Pabst and Lulu' (1965) - Sight and Sound, London, Summer
- 'Marlene' (1966) - Positif, Paris, No 75, May
- 'Letter to Andrew Sarris' (1966) - English Cahiers du Cinema, New York, No 3
- 'Charlie Chaplin Remembered' (1966) - Film Culture, New York, No 40, Spring
- 'Buster Keaton' (1966) - Double Exposure, Delacorte Press
- 'Humphrey and Bogey' (1967) - Sight and Sound, London, Winter, 1966 - 1967; French trans: Positif, Paris, No 81, Febuary
- 'On Location with Billy Wellmann' (1968) - London Magazine, London, May; French trans: Positif, Paris, No 114, March
- 'L'Autre Visage de WC Fields' (1971) - Positif, Paris, No 125 - reprinted from 'The Other Face of WC Fields' (1971) - Sight and Sound, London, Spring
- 'Pabst and Lulu - Pandora's Box' (1971) - Lorrimer, Simon and Schuster
- 'Actors and the Pabst Spirit' (1972) - Focus on Film, London, No 8, Febuary
- 'Marion Davies' Niece' (1974) - Film Culture, Nos 58 - 60, October
- 'Stardom and Evelyn Brent' (1975) - Toronto Film Society Program, January
- 'Duke by Divine Right' (1975) - Introduction to John Wayne, by Allen Ayles
- 'A Certain Kind of Freedom' (1982) - in Louise Brooks: Portrait d'une Anti-Star, edited by Roland Jaccard
- 'Kansas to New York' (1982) - Lulu in Hollywood by Louise Brooks5
There are several sites devoted to Louise Brooks on the web. The two below are very good and have numerous links to other sites.
- Louise Brooks Society
- Every Little Breeze, The Louise Brooks page
For information on her film career, the Internet Movie Database is useful.
The following are interesting articles about her.
- 'The Girl in the Black Helmet' by Kenneth Tynan.
- 'The Intense Isolation of Louise Brooks' by James Card.