"The Intense Isolation of Louise Brooks," by James Card
More than Garbo, the Louise Brooks face, the eyes. the hair, cut à la Jeanne d'Arc, and her smile.
"Those who have seen her can never forget her. She is the modern actress par excellence because, like the statues of antiquity, she is outside of time.
"It is sufficient to see her to believe in beauty, in life, in the reality of human beings; she has the naturalness that only primitives retain before the lens. . .
"She is the intelligence of the cinematographic process, she is the most perfect incarnation of photogenie; she embodies in herself all that the cinema rediscovered in its last years of silence: complete naturalness and complete simplicity.
Her art is so pure that it becomes invisible.
These notes appeared in the catalogue of the Cinémathèque Française exhibition "60 Ans de Cinéma", arranged by Henri Langlois in 1955. They concerned Louise Brooks' contribution to Pabst's The Diary of a Lost Girl. If this estimate seems to drift in the direction of extravagance, in what category can one place the enthusiasm of the critic Ado Kyrou expressed iin his recent book Amour-Erotisme et Cinéma? "Louise Brooks is the only woman who had the ability to transfigure— no matter what film—into a masterpiece . . . the poetry of Louise is the great poetry of rare loves, of magnetism at high tension, of feminine beauty as blinding as ten galaxial suns. Louise is the perfect apparition, the dreamwoman, the being without whom the cinema would be a poor thing. She is much more than a myth, she is a magical presence, a real phantom, the magnetism of the cinema.
"Her vivid beauty, her absolutely unique acting (I do not know of a greater tragedienne of the screen) predisposed her to the top rank. Not one woman exerted more magic not one had her genius of interpretation. Nevertheless she disappeared in 1931 in a manner altogether inexplicable, at the age of twenty-four. . ."
"It is doubtful whether any film star—even Vola Vale or Marin Sais—is more completely forgotten in the United States than Louise Brooks. When she is remembered at all, it is usually only to confuse her with Colleen Moore or with The Cat and the Canary. Her disappearance from the public mind is particularly paradoxical when one realises that Louise Brooks appeared in twenty-one American films, in nine of which she played the leading role. Of her three European pictures, only Pandora's Box was shown in the United States and that was brutally mutilated and narrowly restricted in its circulation—a silent film unseen in the period of new excitement over talkies.
One of those haunted by the Louise Brooks face ("plus que Garbo") ever since 1928 and A Girl in Even Port, I made a futile search in New York City where, according to one vague report, she was selling dresses in a department store. In 1953, a look at Pandora's Box at the Cinémathèque Française spurred me to renew the hunt. I learned that Lothar Wolff who produced Martin Luther for Louis de Rochemont, knew the whereabouts of Louise Brooks. (In 1929, Wolff had been a wild-haired, bright-faced young publicity man for Pabst.) Late in 1943. Wolff had brought Louise Brooks together with Richard Griffith, of the Museum of Modern Art, to talk about Pabst. Griffith, at least, might have her address.
But not until I returned from Henri Langlois' astonishing exhibition in 1955 did it seem imperative to let Louise Brooks know that, after twenty-five years in limbo, Paris had restored her to stardom.
At this point Eastman House was visited by a film person from New York who had seen Louise Brooks quite frequently in recent years. His portrait of her and his picture of her life was as dismal as anything in the dreary confessions of Lillian Roth and Diana Barrymore. According to this New Yorker, Louise Brooks had retired, quite literally, and rarely left her gloomy oneroom apartment located within the forbidding shadow of the grimy old Queensboro Bridge on Manhattan's lower East Side. Bitterness and despair had allegedly wrecked her beauty and the abortive consolation of the bottle ruined her figure. On the few occasions when she stirred out of this black cave of forgetfulness, it was only to hurry grimly over to Glennon's Bar on Third Avenue, clad in a long black overcoat which she never removed out of shame for her bloated body. A furious, baleful look repulsed any acquaintances of the past who might have encountered her on one of these excursions.
At Glennon's she stood at the bar, her hair long and streaked with gray, reaching to her shoulders. Above the bar there is a framed photograph of Louise Brooks by Steichen. One of the Glennon regulars long ago clipped it from a 1929 issue of Vanity Fair. The caption under the photograph reads : "The Rise of Louise Brooks: stranger than fiction is the metamorphosis of Miss Louise Brooks, once of the Scandals and currently of the cinema . . . long before her sultry Cleopatra bangs had created the head-dress known as 'a Louise Brooks', this diminutive actress was touring the hinterlands as a young, callow dancer of the Denishawn troupe. After that her progress was swift. George White's Scandals, the Café de Paris of London, the Ziegfeld Follies as a featured dancer . . . "
My informant was pessimistic about the chances of persuading Louise Brooks out of her retreat. "You look at her face," he told me, "and think—this is a woman who is just waiting to kill herself." Then I wrote to Louise Brooks, telling her what I thought of her Pabst performances and what was being said by others in France, Denmark, Belgium, Italy, Great Britain—wherever her ifims were being restored to the screen by the various archives and film societies. I asked her the usual initial questions of the film historian: "What was your first picture? How did you happen to begin film acting?" and similar inanities.
This was her answering letter:—
"The mystery of life. . . that you should, after almost thirty years, bring me the first joy I ever tasted from my movie career. It's like throwing away a mask. All these years making fun of myself with everyone overjoyed to agree . . . away all false humility forever!
"You see, they had to hog-tie me in the first place to make me go into pictures. From 15 to 17 1 had danced with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, then I went to work for Ziegfeld who was going to star me, when older and 'wiser' friends literally forced me into pictures. . . They didn't know what to do with me, I fitted nowhere, so they decided that I was a lousy actress. I, who would be the best at everything I did, so vain. After the day I went into the projection room with Walter Wanger and the director to see my second picture (A Social Celebrity), and they laughed and kidded me about my acting, I vowed that I would never see another picture that I was in—and I never have, not even my pictures made in Europe.
"So it went, from bathing suit to ballet skirt till talkies came in. And G. W Pabst wanted me for Lulu. And my option came up. And I was deservedly detested and detesting. Schulberg said that they wouldn't give me the salary boost my contract called for because they didn't know how I'd 'talk,' which was ridiculous as we both knew . . . I could stay on at the same salary or quit.
"So I went to Germany and, of course, adored and worshipped Mr. Pabst. Usually as mean and snarling as a wild cat, I sat up for him and wagged my tail like a little dog.
"Funny thing, or rather not, because he was brilliant, Mr. Pabst knew that I would never go back to Hollywood after working with him. First, he tried to get me to stay, go live with a German family to learn the language and work there. No. I was an Amurikin. Then, on the last day of the picture, he let me have it. He was sore at me anyway. We were outside, working at a grave dug behind a little café. And when he was ready for me I was off riding a borrowed bicycle round the block in me widow's weeds with me veil flying. So, when the scenes were finished and we were sitting having coffee alone at a little table, he told me that my rich friends (meaning all the Riviera crowd that he detested) would play with me and throw me away straight to hell. That the story of Lulu was my story. And I just sat there and glared at him. (And he came so near to being right that I shudder now a little, thinking of it.)
"I came back to New York and I would not do Bad Girl, and, far, far worse. I would not for the whole Paramount studio go back to the conversion of Canary Murder Case into a talkie. It cost them a lot of money, reshooting, re-cutting, dubbing in another voice. And Paramount got together with the other studios and they stuck the knife in me and they've never taken it out."
Miss Brooks, I learned to my delight, was willing to grant an interview to so nebulous a creature as a film curator. The horror story that had been told me about Louise Brooks, I immediately discovered, was only superficially true—which is to say that it was not true at all. She received me barefooted, dressed in a nightgown and a faded, well-scrubbed Chinese robe, then promptly returned to bed, where, she admitted, she spent roughly eighty per cent of her time. Of the memorable Brooks visage there remained the exquisite profile and, incredibly, that piquant eyebrow-and-a-half.
What I had been prepared to enter as a dungeon turned out to be a kind of shrine consecrated to cleanliness—Freudian perhaps—but for whatever reason, the room was a perpetual battleground against the oily grime that is unique to Manhattan. And on the walls, three paintings by Miss Brooks that looked not at all symptomatic of suicide. One in particular, an oil of St. Thérèse, I would be tempted to describe with the same ardent energy M. Langlois used in his catalogue notes about Louise Brooks.
As for Glennon's—it is a bar that used to be haunted by Robert Benchley and Humphrey Bogart. Among its habitués there are still folk of the theatre and the press who knew the Louise Brooks of the George White and Ziegfeld era.
It was the work of several months to persuade an actress, then about to turn fifty. to come to Eastman House in Rochester and see the pictures she made when she was twenty-two. The result was quite unlooked for. I had dreamed that, once confronted by the overwhelming evidence of her own effectiveness, Louise Brooks would at last succumb to the lure of the 'comeback trail that has brought Lila Lee, Mary Astor and Bette Davis to face the television cameras.
Instead of falling in love with herself, she became suddenly enraptured with motion pictures; she had never seriously looked at one in all her adult life. We screened scores of films for her: masterpieces and monstrosities. Having seen, for the first time, the end results of her own work, she became engrossed in the whole problem of acting in relation to what she already knew so well—the hazards that mitigated against any kind of worthwhile achievement in pictures.
These screenings have continued for a period of two and a half years. They are always supplemented with discussions marked by Brooksian analysis so penetrating and often so startling in its freshness of view that our curatorial dogma has been severely bruised.
When Henri Langlois came to visit her in Rochester last year, he was not the least surprised to discover that Louise Brooks knew nearly all of Proust by heart (as I had been surprised that her copies of John Stuart Mill, Goethe, Ruskin, Shaw and St. Bernard were dog-eared and super-annotated by herself). For Langlois, Louise Brooks turned out to be not a whit more nor less of an extraordinary being than he had expected.
As an historian forever carping about the paucity of film writing with just minimal doses of truth and authenticity, I encouraged Miss Brooks, with her obsession for veracity, to get down in print some of the observations churned up by our post-screening arguments. She had already written her memoirs ("to understand about writing—just as I had taken up painting—to understand it') and thrown the whole manuscript, titled "Naked on My Goat", down the incinerator. She finally began a book to be called "Thirteen Women in Films", about the acting and the pictures of those she knew best, including Clara Bow, Greta Garbo, Marion Davies and Norma Shearer. In a letter to Rex O'Malley, asking him about his work with Garbo in Camille, she described her book: "It is a study of extraordinary, uniquely beautiful women and the success with which they preserved their originality of face and personality against the vicious grinding of the producers who would reduce them to a commodity as uniform, as interchangeable, as expendable and cheap as canned peas."
The sordid story of the conspiracy of the film industry against art and artists, the constant search for a way to bring art to heel and chain it to an assembly line, is, of course, the history of motion pictures. It is also the history of Louise Brooks' "lost years" so puzzling to all those who, like Ado Kyrou, have speculated about her disappearance at the very height of adulation in Europe which—at the time of Prix de Beauté—filled at least one Paris shop window with nothing but a profusion of Louise Brooks photographs.
Only Dostoievsky collaborating with Budd Schulberg could tell the story of Louise Brooks from 1930 to 1955. The last years of that time—from 1948 to 1955—were the period of full retreat. "I had crept to a hole to find out what I had become and how to find the way back to what I was."
In the middle of 1930 her close friend, Peggy Fears, formerly of the Follies and then married to the late financial wizard A. C. Blumenthal, persuaded Columbia Pictures to offer Louise Brooks a $500 a week contract. Told to report to Jack Cohn in the New York office of Columbia, Miss Brooks waited an hour in the outer office—an experience totally unique in her career. Rather than be late for a date with Winston Guest to watch him exercise his polo ponies, she left Cohn's office without signing her contract—an event totally unique in the careers of the brothers Cohn, Jack and Harry.
When she arrived in Hollywood, still without a contract, by way of discipline Harry Cohn cut her salary in half but granted her the privilege of sitting every afternoon in his office while he, conducting the affairs of Columbia Pictures sans either shirt or undershirt, sat at his desk presenting to all who entered the perspiring apparition of an executive who seemed to be quite uncharmingly naked.
Every cliché about Hollywood is disgustingly true. Naive and well-disposed folk are eager to disbelieve the hackneyed plot of California casting techniques: the usual excuse of the failure, that she was too chaste or too discriminating to succeed, is a tired and tasteless yarn.
But for Louise Brooks, formerly of the Follies and the Scandals, to disdain falling into the indicated pattern, could only goad a top studio executive to savage retribution. It came first in the form of clapping a wig on Louise Brooks and testing her for a part in a Buck Jones Western. Her refusal brought a telephone call to her home from the studio head himself—the call, an ultimatum: wear the wig, play the Western, or Louise Brooks is finished. But the message was delivered to her mother; Miss Brooks would not come to the telephone.
She went back to New York to seek the doubtful comfort of her wealthy friends in the endless repetition of their night-club lives. Seven years later, back in Hollywood and with Pabst's predictions proving quite accurate, she was without money and desperate for a job. Harry Cohn was able to take his revenge. Fully believing that she would refuse, he offered her a test for a lead with the condition that she first agree to work as an extra in the dancing chorus of a Grace Moore musical. She did not refuse. Columbia released dozens of stills showing Louise in the chorus: and the publicity department captions on them spoke volumes. "Louise Brooks, former screen star, who deserted Hollywood seven years ago at the height of her career, has come back to resume her work in pictures. But, seven years is too long for the public to remember and Louise courageously begins again at the bottom." And another: "Louise Brooks, former star, threw pride aside and resumed her career as a ballet dancer in Grace Moore's current picture."
In January of 1943, she returned to New York City. She found intermittent work in radio, in publicity offices and finally as a salesgirl, until 1948. Then began her almost complete seclusion of First Avenue. In 1953 Louise Brooks was baptised a Roman Catholic.
About this time the world began to rediscover her films, and two years later she herself became aware for the first time that the motion picture provided a medium worthy of all that anyone could bring it. The Danish Film Museum invited her to Copenhagen where they were showing Beggars of Life. In Paris, the Cinémathèque Française arranged a memorable reception for her shortly after the showing of Pandora's Box. Glowing happily, surrounded by flowers and compliments, her coiffure drawn sleekly back in classic simplicity that gives all emphasis to an ageless profile, she received the German, Hungarian, Japanese and Brazilian admirers who were present to greet her, along with such old American acquaintances as Tom Curtiss, and new ones like Fred Zinnemann.
Louise Brooks wrote: "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."
That kind of isolation has always been hers. And from the day that the preservation of great films began, the petty plotting of small and selfish men, to wipe out the record of beauty and truth that has sometimes been achieved in spite of them, was forever frustrated. The return of Louise Brooks to the screens of the world is a portent: the art of the film has its own immortality.