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Louise, Louise, Louise

June 6th, 2006 (08:43 pm)
current mood: in awe

© 2006 D. Gordon

Louise Brooks is one of my idols. Probably not so much because of who she was, but what she symbolized: bobbed attitude, doing what she wanted, the personification of the flapper. It's an added bonus that her two best film performances - Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, both career- and genre-defining roles - were prime examples of German Expressionism, my favorite film period. And it's heartbreaking that her film career was more or less over by the time she turned 24.

Louise spent roughly the last thirty years of her life writing about the people she'd known and worked with during her years in motion pictures. By that point, the 1950s-1980s, she had a few contacts in the business (Roddy McDowall and James Card, for example, often checked in); they, plus renewed interest in her work (including a retrospective at the Cinémathèque Française) helped her develop and get published. While she always skirted the idea of writing a true autobiography, saying it couldn't be done unless it was tell-all, and she wasn't about to tell all, she did eventually gather her essays into a sort-of biography, Lulu in Hollywood. It's had decent distribution since it was published in 1982, and there is a documentary with a filmed interview that also fills in quite a bit.

As enjoyable as Louise's words are, they definitely aren't complete. Even forgetting the omission of her life after roughly 1930 - fifty years of post-stardom living - Louise clearly glosses over some things and leaves question marks over others. Generally, the work seems to be true; specifically, you have to wonder.

That's the difference with Barry Paris's Louise Brooks. Starting with her great-grandfather, he covers her early life in Kansas (including the trauma of a pedophile), through her move at fifteen to New York and the Denishawn dancers, to Broadway, then movies, then Hollywood to Europe. He continues on after her movie career collapsed, through years of failed attempts, a retreat back to Kansas, confrontation with her mother, departure to New York City, the beginning of her writing career, rediscovery, then a final move to Rochester, NY and a position in film history. During this fantastic voyage he fills in quite a few of the blanks in Lulu in Hollywood; while only Louise could have tied up some of the loose ends, Paris puts together a much fuller picture of who the woman was and why her life, and especially her Hollywood career, took the course it did.

* * * * *

Louise was an incredibly complex individual. There's a sense of someone with no sexual inhibitions and an extremely sharp but untrained intelligence. She had style and beauty and a good sense of how to use both (although she was by no means a strict adherent of Nietzsche). Although her bob dated to her childhood, she was the prototypical flapper. Imperfect or not, she comes across as a proto-feminist long before before the concept existed, although this often caused problems for her. Hollywood - inclluding her lovers - wasn't ready for a smart and beautiful woman.

But while she had the world in her grasp for a few fevered years, she also had an incredibly effective self-destructive streak. Louise could be difficult and a holy terror, without giving back enough (in favors, in obsequiousness, in anything) to be forgiven. She headed to and stayed in Europe instead of heading back to Hollywood to work on the sound for The Canary Murder Case - effectively destroying her career. She had the chance to star in the first Thin Man movie, which could have won her immortality of a different kind - but turned it down. She could have had a radio career (she apparently had a fine speaking voice, despite the rumors the studio had put out to cancel her contract), but quit the job at CBS that would have given it to her. Again and again she sabotaged opportunities. Why? Hard to say. It might have been childhood events bad enough to warp anyone. It definitely seems to be in part because of her experience with the Denishawn dance company.

Louise had moved to New York at the age of fifteen to dance with Denishawn. She was a fast-rising star, and Ruth St. Denis stated years later that Louise had been the best dancer they'd ever had. But Louise wasn't willing to live by the strict moral code set for the company (especially regarding dating and sex) and got herself fired from what was the best modern dance opportunity then available - at the age of seventeen. After that it was almost as though she didn't care what she did. Maybe she never got beyond the disappointment of seeing her dream destroyed, possibly not even understanding what had happened. Even a few years before her death, she mentioned that she had always wanted to be a great dancer - not actress. Some argue that Louise is overrated as an actress; I argue back that with the right director (which Pabst, at least, definitely was), she was magic and if she had been motivated she would have managed her career much better and would have had roles that did her justice.

Back to the book: Paris is very, very good at telling Brooks's story by putting together a lot of scattered pieces - old interviews, correspondence, studio records and other materials - to give a much fuller picture of the woman than existed before. The many photographs and extensive bibliography / filmography round out the picture, and each description of Louise's film productions prods the reader to track down copies. (There's a strong rumor that Pandora's Box - Louise's greatest role, possibly Pabst's greatest work, and one of German Expressionism's finest movies - may be out on DVD in a few months. We can only hope!) All in all, more than worth the 550 pages and a unique view of Hollywood and one soul that wasn't willing to play by its rules.

* * * * *

Instead of picking up some of Louise's movie work, I ended up tracking down a copy of The Show Girl.

At the peak of Louise's New York career, when she was possibly the best-known showgirl in New York and appearing in movies, a new magazine serial named Show Girl appeared on the scene. J.P. McEvoy, a popular comedy writer inspired by Louise's life story (or at least her appearance in the Ziegfeld Follies), came up with the life of one Dixie Dugan, in New York to find her fame and fortune (and a good time) dancing with the Follies. The story caught on, and within a year spawned a book, a movie, and a revue; the story appears with various plot modifications (Dixie as a stewardess!) through to the 1960s. However much an inspiration she might have been, though, Louise was not involved with either the movie or the musical (though this, like other things in her life, was partially her own fault) and never saw a cent of the profits, which might have come in handy later in her life.

The book itself – or at least this first book – is roughly eighty years old, but copies are pretty available and not very expensive. My Amazon copy turned out to be a fast read, covering Dixie's start through Broadway stardom and scandal, to the call of Hollywood. It's written as letters and cables between the characters, and the tone is in keeping with the premise – light, bouncy, with an increasing touch of worldliness. Although Dixie is a little bubble-headed, she's pretty spunky, remarkably adaptable and learning fast. Best of all, she knows exactly what she wants and she's not about to compromise to get it or trade it for security. Another proto-feminist - like Louise. The story itself is a fun ride with more curves than a showgirl's leg and each one wacky enough to be funny.

Maybe the book reflects a contemporary opinion of Louise as just another pretty face; but, for a couple of hours, it's light enough to be enjoyable fun.