In her sharp, immensely enjoyable collection of essays, Lulu in Hollywood, silent-film star Louise Brooks refers repeatedly to the sorry state of the beautiful woman who “knows she’s dumb,” counting herself as just such an unfortunate (alongside Marlene Dietrich, whom she refers to as “that contraption”). It’s one of Brooks’ few allowances to coyness and even fewer capitulations to an identity imposed on her by Hollywood and the rest of the world. Anyone reading Lulu can see that Brooks was as clear-eyed and clever a creature as she was lovely — which could only have made her more keenly aware of the fact that tremendous beauty is rarely looked past.
And tremendously beautiful Brooks was: pert, lithe, dewy and dark-eyed, with a perfect Cupid’s-bow mouth and a famous geometric bob that she fondly called “my shiny black helmet.” A professional dancer by 15, and a Ziegfeld girl before 20, she radiated fluid physical self-possession. A woman with Brooks’ face and grace wouldn’t have to do much to be exciting in front of a movie camera. The essence of her genius is that she didn’t. As the four films in LACMA’s centenary tribute to Louise Brooks reveal, Brooks’ scintillating onscreen presence emanated not from the silent era’s exaggerated flailings and poses, nor from refined technique, but from an earthy (as opposed to ethereal) sense of subdued expression, what German film writer Lotte Eisner called “a curious mixture of passivity and presence.”
It was a quality that perfectly suited her to the role of Lulu in German filmmaker G.W. Pabst’s 1929 sexual drama Pandora’s Box. As a nymphet whose overpowering allure destroys men (and women) like moths to the flame, Brooks — with her subtly flashing eyes, concise gestures and sweetly pursed lips — is blithely electric, a guileless object of desire whose very blankness makes her a ready recipient of all manner of lascivious projections. As Pabst clearly recognized, that charged dispassion also made her an excellent screen entity, but in the crasser Hollywood milieu, such sophisticated ideas of sex appeal weren’t quite dumb enough. Cast as a carnival showgirl in Howard Hawks’ 1928 feature, A Girl in Every Port, Brooks, gorgeous and cool, could have been the first great Hawksian woman. Instead, the director wastes her as a run-of-the-mill gold digger, a minor dustup in the real romance between sailor buddies Victor McLaglen and Robert Armstrong. Still, it was this film that inspired Pabst to cast Brooks in Pandora’s Box.
After returning from Germany and her second film with Pabst, Diary of a Lost Girl, Brooks — an unreservedly independent young hedonist who had no use for making nice with studio executives — refused to dub her part in the already-made The Canary Murder Case. Snubbed, Paramount spread the word that her speaking voice was no good — a falsehood — and, after a few halfhearted comeback attempts that ended with a Republic Western in ’38, Brooks gave up on Hollywood completely. Rediscovered by film scholars in the 1950s and at last inspiring gushing critical praise, she moved to Rochester, New York, at the urging of the Eastman House film curator James Card and began writing for film journals. A virtual recluse, she died there at 79, in 1985, leaving behind the words and images of an eternal beauty who, in the end, was too smart not to want something more.
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A CENTENARY TRIBUTE TO LOUISE BROOKS | Los Angeles County Museum of Art | Through October 21 | www.lacma.org