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The Silent Collection
By Tammy Stone
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“Most beautiful but dumb girls think they are smart and get away with it,
because other people, on the whole, aren’t much smarter.” – Louise Brooks

Louise Brooks de Beukelaer Card
There is a mighty culture around the feisty and witty Louise Brooks to this day – fans have seen her in movies, her iconographic face on posters and movie book covers in bookstores around the world, and they worship her. Her famous black bob, the “black helmet” framed a face described by many critics as one “that the camera loved.” People seem to take ownership of her the way they do a cherished or prized possession: it is though they have discovered her themselves and are linked personally to her legend. Take, for instance, this excerpt, written by a devoted fan:

“I discovered Louise Brooks when I was eleven. It happened purely by accident. I  was in my local bookstore ... browsing through the film section, as your average film freak does, when I came across a book with the title ‘Lulu in Hollywood’ ... I picked up the book, opened it, and there in front of my eyes was the most mesmerisingly beautiful woman I had ever seen. I was instantly hooked. I couldn’t afford to buy the book, so instead I made regular trips to the bookstore so that I could read it.”

Not unlike Marilyn Monroe, Louise’s persona has taken on a life of its own – it’s hard to imagine her as a real person, and a hard-working one at that. She was born Mary Louise Brooks on November 14, 1906 in Cherryvale, Kansas, USA. During her childhood she was given the Brooksie and Scrubbie, names seemingly at odds with her adult self, a gorgeous woman with smoldering dark eyes and refined elegance. As a child, Louise loved dancing, and while still young she became one of the Denishawn Dancers, which took her from Kansas to New York City.

In New York, she continued dancing with George White’s Scandals, and then landed a coveted spot with the renowned Ziegfeld Follies, where she positively shone. But fate had much more in store for her, and it wasn’t long before she turned to acting in a medium that had already won audiences over: the pictures. She wasn’t one of the first movie stars; it was already 1925 when she made her first film, in an uncredited role in The Street of Forgotten Men. It would be another three years before she became a bona fide star, but half of her film roles occurred during this time, in films like The American Venus, A Social Celebrity, Just Another Blonde (all 1926), Ten Years Old, Evening Clothes, The City Gone Wild (all 1927) and Beggars of Life (1928).

Though not yet famous, Louise honed her acting skills working with major talent of the time, and worked with such acclaimed directors as Malcolm St. Clair, Eddie Sutherland and Howard Hawks, and also worked with W.C. Fields on It’s the Old Army Game in 1926. More than her acting accomplishments, however, Louise was rapidly becoming all the rage in the public eye. Her dancing for Denishawn and Ziegfeld Follies inspired a comic strip called Dixie Dugan, and a play called Show Girl. It is also believed that in these years, there were only three starlets written about more than Louise: Clara Bow, Joan Crawford and Colleen Moore. Not bad company for a rising star to be in. Louise virtually became the poster girl of the Jazz Age. It’s rare that an era is celebrated for what it is while it is still happening, but the Jazz Age was one of these times, and Louise Brooks was partly responsible for sense of abandon and carefree ways that defined it. Everyone wanted the pageboy cut that Louise had – no one’s hair would be that famous again, arguably, until Jennifer Aniston came along six decades later.

Louise Brooks 5x7 Fan PhotoThe film that she is best remembered for 1928’s Pandora’s Box, made in Germany by G.W. Pabst. She appeared fragile and waiflike as a woebegone flapper called Lulu – a name that would be associated with her for all time. But the film didn’t do well in Germany, and it was barely seen in the United States either. 1924 Louise Brooks George Whites Scandals Trading CardWhat critics see now is that Louise mastered a natural acting style far ahead of its time. In her own day, reviewers complained that she couldn’t act, or at least wasn’t acting in the film. It didn’t help her then, but today this film is considered one of the supreme classics of the silent age.

Tragically, this was the beginning of the end for Louise’s career. She was not appreciated for the talent that she had, and she didn’t deal well with being misunderstood as an actress. Unlike so many of her contemporaries, Louise was not offered the roles she deserved and had worked so hard for. After Pandora’s Box, she quit Paramount – an act almost unheard of at the time – to make films in Europe. After two films there, though, her career wasn’t taking off. She returned to the U.S., the studios were put off by her flagrant pomposity and the way she would openly criticize the quality of scripts being offered her. She was cast in a string of B movies - God’s Gift to Women (1931), Hollywood Boulevard (1936) and Overland Stage Raiders (1938, starring John Wayne) – among them. In many of these later films, her parts were minimal, uncredited or deleted entirely. She was disgusted, and quit acting for good.

During this time, she had married and divorced cameraman Edward Sutherland. She married for a second time in 1933, to a millionaire Deering Davis, who left her five months later. They divorced in 1937, clearly a very difficult time for Louise, who was then shooting her last films.

Louise moved back to Kansas for awhile, but hated living there. This is what she has said about that experience: “... that turned out to be another kind of hell. The citizens of Wichita either resented me having been a success or despised me for being a failure. And I wasn’t exactly enchanted with them. I must confess to a lifelong curse: My own failure as a social creature.” A very wise comment made by an extremely self-aware person, it speaks to the reality behind the haze characterizes our perception of so many movie stars past and present. She was extremely intelligent, and self-destructive too. What could have been one of the great Hollywood rags-to-riches stories ended with Louise in obscurity.

Eventually she moved back to New York – following the path that years earlier took her to stardom – and worked as a sales clerk at Saks. It was there that she was “discovered” again, this time by film historians (film had by then transformed from the newest craze to a serious medium to be studied and recorded for posterity). Through her acquaintance with them, and with their help, she began writing, and her essays appeared in respected publications like Sight and Sound, Film Culture and Focus on Film. Her collection called Lulu in Hollywood (alluded to above) was published in 1982, three years before she died on August 8, 1985. It was a bestseller.

Louise Brooks might not have played the Hollywood game well, but hers is one of the most interesting Hollywood stories. She was a cultural icon, an actress too defiant and assertive for her own good, a woman with a bewitching combination of beauty, curiosity and insight. The century of cinema can be distilled through her work both on screen and as astute film critic. When she started out, no one knew what the movies would become. By the end of her life, and partly thanks to her own contributions, film had become a university discipline, and its practitioners – including G.W. Pabst – respected as some of the great artists of the century
Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen in each issue of The Movie Profiles and Premiums Newsletter.  Tammy invites you to write her at with any questions or comments on her column.

Other Louise Brooks Pages:
Denny Jackson's Louise Brooks Page --
From Kansas to Hollywood!
Louise Brooks Society -- Absolutely wonderful site dedicated to Miss Brooks, has just about every feature you could hope a site to have, plus stop in their shop and purchase Louise Brooks Society tee-shirts and coffee mugs!  Very complete site.