LOUISe BROOKS AT THE NFT
ouise Brooks, who appeared in silent and a few sound films in the 1920s and early thirties, has something of a cult reputation, and the National Film Theatre has been running a season of her films. In two of the earliest she appears as a support player. In It's the Old Army Game (1926), which stars the great comedian W.C.Fields, she has little to do except look pretty and provide a small love sub-plot with another minor character: in The Show Off (also 1926) she plays the girl next door and adds a little sparkle to an otherwise rather dull comedy starring Ford Sterling (once a Keystone Cop and by 1926 a comedy lead player) as a self-important fantasist and liar, and Lois Wilson - adequate rather than good - as his wife. In both films Brooks is attractive and appealing and certainly shows star quality, though no more than many other actresses of the period.
She made another eight films in Hollywood over the next two years, becoming increasingly famous: the best are the last two, A Girl in Every Port (1928) and Beggars of Life (1928).
In the latter she goes on the run disguised as a boy (character portrait, left), a part which suited her direct, challenging gaze which distinguished many of her publicity photos as well as her performances. She starred with Richard Arlen and Wallace Beery.
So far we see an actress with a good deal of star quality: but the great German director G.W.Pabst saw something more and brought her to German to star in two of his films. The second, Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), shows something far beyond her Hollywood performances (and was sufficiently disturbing to be cut to ribbons by the censors): but in the first, Pandora's Box (1928), she gives perhaps the most hair-raising performance in the history of the cinema. The film is based on Franz Wedekind's two 'Lulu' plays: Brooks's character, Lulu (top picture), is simultaneously totally naive and completely corrupt - a woman who is attractive but trouble.
She is the mistress of the powerful Dr. Schön, but also involved with a couple of dubious characters, and Schön's son has fallen in love with her. When Schön tries to terminate the relationship to get engaged to a respectable woman she throws a tantrum and then seduces him, delighted that his fiancée discovers them (still, right). This puts him in the position of having to marry Lulu. Discovering her with his son on the wedding day he tries to force her to shoot herself but is killed himself in the struggle. Condemned for murder, Lulu escapes and hides out with the son, the dubious companions, and a lesbian admirer (whose advances she doesn't understand) on a seamy gambling boat; then, penniless, flees to London where she becomes a streetwalker and is killed by Jack the Ripper. Powerful stuff, even now, and devastating in 1928.
It is on these two Pabst films that her cult reputation depends; she never did anything as good again and her remaining Hollywood career was short and unremarkable. But Pandora's Box alone is one of cinema's greatest films (and well acted by all the fine cast), and has made her a lasting icon in cinema history.
Pandora's Box (together with an interesting documentary on Louise Brooks) is available on DVD: UK / USA
Posted by Roger Wilmut at 0913 on December 28th 2006
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