She's the greatest actress you've probably never heard of, a movie siren whose image came to symbolize a generation, whose spirit Hollywood couldn't comprehend or contain, whose legacy shatters the notion that there's nothing sexy about silent films.
"If I ever bore you," the actress once said, "it'll be with a knife."
Louise Brooks was talented, beautiful and bull-headed; it's impossible to say which attribute was most dominant. Suffice to say, her beauty got Brooks into movies, her attitude forced her out of them, and her talent ensured her presence would be missed -- and her legacy cherished.
Tonight at 8 (with a repeat at 11) on TCM, a new documentary, "Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu," chronicles Brooks' career. Three of her films follow, beginning at 9 with the best, 1928's "Pandora's Box," director G.W. Pabst's masterpiece of obsessive, ruinous love.
At midnight, TCM premieres a restored version of 1926's "The Show-Off," a light-hearted trifle about Philadelphia high society. The mini-marathon concludes with a 1: 30 a.m. showing of 1935's "God's Gift to Women," a star vehicle for vaudevillian Frank Fay.
Brooks was born in 1906 in Cherryvale, Kan., where two events set her life in motion: At age 6, she began dancing. And at age 9, she was molested by a male neighbor, an assault with lasting repercussions. As an adult, she was promiscuous at a level that would barely raise an eyebrow today but shocked 1920s society.
Brooks danced in the George White Scandals and the Ziegfeld Follies before her striking beauty -- a perfectly proportioned figure, topped by an impossibly long neck, piercing eyes and jet-black hair cut in a bob that would forever make her the embodiment of the '20s flapper -- brought her to the attention of Hollywood.
Even in her early films, Brooks commanded attention -- she possessed a spirit that leapt through the lens, a joy and seductive innocence that put her in a league with such free spirits as Clara Bow, Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe.
In Hollywood, her "strength annihilated her," says a friend, composer George Diamond. When Paramount, crippled by the high cost of converting to sound films, asked its contract players to take a pay cut, Brooks refused. Ostracized -- studio officials started a rumor that her voice sounded awful on film -- she fled to Europe and screen immortality.
Director Pabst, already a legend in Germany, chose Brooks to play the doomed Lulu, whose effortless sexuality brings out the worst in men, in "Pandora's Box." The result earned Brooks the adoration of her adopted continent. Two more successes followed: "Diary of a Lost Girl" (1929), also directed by Pabst, and "Prix de Beaute" (1930), in which Brooks' phenomenally erotic performance is only partially undercut by some atrocious dubbing.
When Brooks returned to Hollywood, no one noticed. "Nobody burned more bridges than Louise Brooks," her biographer, Barry Paris, wrote, "or left prettier blazes on two continents."
Brooks spent years in obscurity and near-poverty, achieving a renaissance of sorts in the late 1950s and 1960s as a writer. She became a favorite of students and researchers at Rochester, N.Y.'s George Eastman House, one of the world's foremost centers of film scholarship. Her 1982 collection of essays, "Lulu in Hollywood," is considered a classic.
By the time of her death in 1984, 36 years after making her last film, Louise Brooks had finally conquered Hollywood.
"She was way too wild," laments Eastman House Senior Curator Paolo Cherchi Usai, "in a business that was way too tame."
Pub Date: 5/05/98