film history: Film Stars 04/50 | Louise Brooks
A dancer turned silent film star, Louise Brooks, or ‘Lulu’, was immortalised in a short but iconic cinema career in the late 20s and early 30s where she played the leading role in two of the most acclaimed silent films of the era, Pandora’s Box (1928) and Diary of a Lost Girl (1929). Brooks brought a unique presence to the screen, ignoring the wild, melodramatic acting styles of her contemporaries and instead went for a subdued and reflective style that often confused the audiences of the day (upon leaving the première of Pandora’s Box, crowds accused her of “doing nothing” on the screen) but later grew to become some of the most haunting and magical performances ever filmed when rediscovered by her growing cult fans.
Brooks’s childhood was filled with performance and showbusiness from a young age; her mother, a dedicated but purely hobby-driven pianist, filled the family home with the sounds of Bach and Debussy, encouraging a young Lousie to spend her days dancing around the house - a passion that later led to lessons and a professional career. However, despite a happy and imaginative upbringing encouraged by the mountains of books that decorated the Brooks family home, the ugly face of the real world found its way into Louise’s young life, and she was sexually assaulted by a family friend at 9 years old. This was an episode that she later described as a major influence on her career and personality, and she claimed herself to be “incapable of real love” following the ordeal that left her with a confused and premature view of sex. After confiding the story with her mother, she blamed Louise for “leading him on”. Sexuality later became a consistent part of Brooks’s career, she became a professional dancer in 1922 which led to a star part in the famous Ziegfield Follies on Broadway in 1925, where she honed her identity as a flapper girl and developed an erotic mysticism which she brought to the cinema screen after signing a contract with Paramount the same year. Louise became lovers with a number of famous figures in the industry including Charlie Chaplin over a short summer during his promotion of The Gold Rush, and her rebellious personality made her a social staple in the showbiz world, although she openly loathed the glitz and glamour of Hollywood that led to her leaving America for Europe and refusing to enter the then-new sound era that was entering the industry (a decision that ultimately enhanced her iconic silent persona).
With her two most famous films in Germany at the end of the silent period, Brooks revolutionised both hairstyles (her famous bob essentially invented the style in popular culture) and female sexuality, stirring controversy with her radical erotic presence in Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl and openly discussed love life with film figures and friendships (and experimentation) with many LGBT women. Brooks retired from film in 1938 after becoming increasingly unhappy with the industry, and dropped into a troubled period in the 40s and 50s, however after her rediscovery and cult following in France in the 1950s, Brooks became a writer and film historian herself after help from curator James Card and her writings were later collected into the acclaimed Lulu Goes to Hollywood in 1982. An icon and revolutionary who graced cinema at a time that was ultimately not ready for her, Louise Brooks was an extraordinary woman who transformed her haunting personality and background into a handful of immortal films and writings, and her subtle influence can be felt throughout culture decades on. (more +)