Women’s History Month: Louise Brooks

By Bee Garner

“The great art of films does not consist of descriptive movement of face and body, but in the movements of thought and soul transmitted in a kind of intense isolation.”
Louise Brooks

You may not know her name, but I am damn certain that you would recognise her face and more importantly her hairstyle. The ‘Lulu’ Bob haircut worn by Louise Brooks is a representation of the Jazz age in all of its glory and revolutionary awe. For a few brief years, Brooks was one of the most well known and one of the highest-paid actresses in the world. At the height of her career, she made a bold decision to leave La La Land, in order to star in two of the silent era’s most famous films, “Pandora’s Box” (1929) and “Diary of a Lost Girl” (1929).

However, when she returned to America her career had virtually ended and by 1938 she had turned her back on Hollywood. Throughout the 1940s and 50s, Brooks lived in extreme economical hardship before being ‘rediscovered’ by James Card, who encouraged her to write down her memoirs as well as essays that reflected on the silent era.

louise brooks 1920

Born in 1906, Mary Louise Brooks was brought up in a household where her parents were more concerned with their own pass-times then taking care of their children. When Brooks was sexually assaulted at the age of 9, her mother (Myra Rude) cruelly replied that she must have led the man on. This incident deeply affected Brooks and her sexual attraction to certain types of men, later in her memoirs she would go on to writer that ” For me, nice, soft, easy men were never enough—there had to be an element of domination.”


At the age of 15, Brooks joined the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts modern dance company in Los Angeles. However, in 1924 she was fired by one of the troupe’s founders Ruth St. Denis, who stated that the reason for the dismal was because Brooks wanted life handed to her on a silver salver. Brooks wasn’t unemployed for long, as she soon found work as a chorus girl in “George White’s Scandals” and then as a semi-nude dancer in Ziegfeld Follies at the Amsterdam Theater on 42nd Street.

It was because of her dancing for the follies that Brooks attracted the attention of two very powerful men in Hollywood. The first was Walter Wanger, a producer at Paramount Pictures, who became so infatuated with her that he signed her to a five-year contract with the studio in 1925. The second man was no other than the Tramp himself, Charlie Chaplin. The two of them met at a cocktail party when he was in town for the premiere of “The Gold Rush”, and their affair lasted 2 months.

Brooks made her way to Hollywood in 1925, and made her first on-screen appearance in the silent crime drama, “The Street of Forgotten Men”. She also featured in several comedies including the 1926 film “It’s the Old Army Game” alongside W.C. Fields. During filming, she started a relationship with the director, A. Edward Sutherland, who she would later go onto marry. Two of the other films from 1926 in which Brooks starred in are now considered to be ‘lost films’ (“A Social Celebrity” and “The American Venus), prints for “A Social Celebrity” apparently existed up until the 1950s but the last known print was destroyed in a fire in 1959.

Louise Brooks and William Gaxton in It’s the Old Army Game (1926)

After her small roles in 1925, both Paramount and MGM offered her contracts. However, Wanger did his best to try and persuade her to take the MGM contract to avoid rumours that she only obtained the Paramount contract because of their relationship. Despite his advice, she decided to accept Paramount’s offer. During this time, Brooks gained a cult following in Europe for her role in the 1928 Howard Hawks silent film “A Girl in Every Port”. Her distinctive bob haircut started a trend, with many women styling their own hair in imitation.

“When I went to Hollywood in 1927, the girls were wearing lumpy sweaters and skirts… I was wearing sleek suits and half naked beaded gowns and piles and piles of furs.” 

Her next film was the Paramount picture “Beggars of Life” which is regarded as Brooks’ performance in an American film. Brooks played the character of Nancy, a young woman dresses as a man in order to hide from the police after killing her abusive foster father. During her travels, Nancy befriends a drifter called Jim (Richard Arlen), and they ride the rails until an encounter with a group of sex-crazed hobos led by the blustery Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery) leads to an epic climax on top of a moving train. During filming, Brooks repeatedly clashed with director William Wellman whose approach to directing led to Brooks nearly dying as she performed her own stunts during a scene where she hazardously climbs aboard a moving train.

Louise Brooks and Richard Arlen in Beggars of Life (1928)

It wasn’t only Beery who caused issues for Brooks during the filming of “Beggars of Life”, She had a one-night stand with a stuntman wh spread a malicious false rumour on the set that Brooks had contracted syphilis during a previous weekend stay with a producer. Her co-star Richard Arlen was close friends with Brooks’ husband and clashed with her over this matter and he was also rude about her acting ability, regarding her as a poor actress.

After filming “Beggars of Life” Brooks starred in the pre-code murder mystery “The Canary Murder Case”. The film was initially made as a silent picture, then reworked as a sound film. However, Brooks’ refused to cooperate in the sound version (she was now in Germany filming “Pandora’s Box”) and this had a major impact on her career in Hollywood. There was a good reason for Brooks’ decision to leave after filming “The Canary Murder Case”, she had begun a brief relationship with Marion Davies‘ lesbian niece, Pepi Lederer. (Note: Davies was the mistress of famous American businessman and newspaper publisher William Randolph Hurst).

the canary
Louise Brooks and William Powell in The Canary Murder Case (1929)

Hurst and Davies were made aware of Lederer’s lesbianism, and their response was to arrange Lederer to be committed to a mental institution for drug addiction. Several days after her arrival, Lederer committed suicide by jumping to her death from a window. The whole event let Brooks scarred and she decided she’d had enough of Hollywood. So, when her friend and lover George Preston Marshall asked her to sail to Europe and make films with director G.W. Pabst, she agreed.

Pabst wanted Brooks to star in his next film, “Pandora’s Box” (Die Büchse der Pandora), an adaptation of Frank Wedekind‘s plays. He had searched for months for an actress to play Lulu. On seeing Brooks as a circus performer in “A Girl in Every Port”, Pabst tried to get her on loan from Paramount Pictures but the studio refused to loan her. The second choice was Marlene Dietrich but Pabst rejected her saying she was “too ‘old” and too ‘knowing'”. Pabst took a risk in hiring Brooks, (who wasn’t a major leading lady back in Hollywood) but there was something about Brooks which caught Pabst’s eye. “She had both innocence and the ability to project sexuality without coyness or premeditation” Pabst would later go on to write.

Die Buchse der Pandora
Louise Brooks and Alice Roberts in Pandora’s Box (1929)

In “Pandora’s Box” Brooks played her most iconic role as Lulu, a young woman so beautiful and alluring that vry few can resist her. Several men are drawn to her including the respectable newspaper publisher Dr. Ludwig Schön (Fritz Kortner), his musical producer son Alwa (Franz Lederer), circus performer Rodrigo Quast (Krafft-Raschig) and Lulu’s seedy old friend, Schigolch (Carl Goetz). However, Lulu’s life soon sprials out of control with devesasting consquences.  Once filming had ended, Brooks and Pabst has a brief affair, and she would go on to star in his next film, “Diary of a Lost Girl” (1929), based on the book by Margarete Böhme.

In “Diary of a Lost Girl” Brooks played Thymian, a young woman who is thrown out of her home and sent to strict all girls reform school after falling pregnant to a pharmacist. Ulitimately, Thymianbecomes a prostitute as she has no other means to support herself. On the final day of shooting “Diary of a Lost Girl”, Pabst asked Brooks not to return to Hollywood and instead to stay in Germany in order to continue her career as a serious actress. According to Brooks,  Pabst had expressed his concern that her carefree approach towards her career would end in dire poverty “exactly like Lulu’s”. Before, she returned to the US, she would go on to star in “Miss Europe” (1930), a French film by Italian director Augusto Genina.

Das Tagebuch einer Verlorenen
Louise Brooks and Georg Wilhelm Pabst in Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)

Upon her return to America, Brooks discovered that she had been ‘blacklisted’ because of her refusual to record her lines for “The Canary Murder Case”. She appeared in a few other films, including “God’s Gift to Women” (1931) and “It Pays to Advertise” (1931) but she had little succcess with the critics. William Wellman offered Brooks the female lead in his new picture “The Public Enemy”, but she turned down the role in order to visit her then-lover George Preston Marshall in New York City. The role of gangster Mol, Gwen Allen would go to Jean Harlow, another star with a troubled private life and a tragic end.

By 1932 the roles had all dried up, and she ended up declaring bankruptcy in 1932. irrioring the tragic lives of Lulu and Thymian, Brooks begand dancing in nightclubs to earn a living. She attempted a film comeback in 1936 and did a bit part in the Western film “Empty Saddles”, however her scenes in the 1937 film “King of Gamblers” were left on the cutting room floor.  Her final film was the 1938 Western “Overland Stage Raiders” in which she plays the romantic lead, opposite John Wayne. Here, Brooks is almost unrecongisble, gone is her trademark short bob and instead we see her with a long hairstyle.

John Wayne, Louise Brooks, Ray Corrigan, Anthony Marsh, Max Terhune, and Elmer in Overland Stage Raiders (1938)

Fearing that she would end up just like the tragic Lulu, Brooks decided to leave Hollywood all together and in 1940 she briefly returned to Wichita Kanas, where she was raised. However, the people there resented her and she found it hard to settle back. She would move to New York, where she tried to open a dance studio. When that failed, she became a salesgirl in a department store, then between 1948-53 she worked as an escort. By now, her friends from Hollywood had all forgotten her and she increasingly drank more and continued to suffer from suicidal tendencies.

louise old
Louise Brooks being interviewed

There is a slightly happy ending to Brooks’ life. During the 1950s, film historians such as Henri Langlois rediscovered her work. He would go on to proclaim: “There is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! There is only Louise Brooks!” It was around the same time that James Card, the film curator for the George Eastman House, discovered Brooks “living as a recluse” in New York City. In 1956 he managed to persuade her to move to Rochester, New York, to be near the George Eastman House film collection where she could study cinema and write about her past career. With Card’s assistance, she began writing perceptive essays on cinema in film magazines, which became her second career.

“Love is a publicity stunt, and making love – after the first curious raptures – is only another petulant way to pass the time waiting for the studio to call.”

In the 1970s, she was interviewed extensively on film for the documentaries “Memories of Berlin: The Twilight of Weimar Culture” (1976), produced and directed by Gary Conklin, and the TV series “Hollywood” (1980), by Brownlow and David Gill. A collection of her writing was published in 1982 with the title “Lulu in Hollywood”. Brooks would pass away three years later at the age of 78. Despite marrying twice and have mutiple affairs (both with men and women, although she claimed not to be bisexual), Brooks stated that she had never loved anyone in her lifetime: “As a matter of fact, I’ve never been in love. And if I had loved a man, could I have been faithful to him? Could he have trusted me beyond a closed door? I doubt it.”

Louise Brooks may have had a short career but she left a long-lasting legacy and a spell over all of cinema. She’s proof that women can take on the world, and in her own words, “A well dressed woman, even though her purse is painfully empty, can conquer the world.”

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