The Redemption of Brooksie

by Gildas the Monk on June 2, 2013

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I wonder who remembers Moonlighting? It was all the rage back in the 80’s and featured Cybil Shepherd and a young Bruce Willis as the wisecracking private detective. Being of a romantic nature there was one scene which stayed with me for many years, as Willis’s character is amorously reunited with his old flame Gillian, played by the very lovely Dana Delaney (who recently starred in Desperate Housewives, I believe), all to the cool soundtrack of the Isley Brothers’ This Old Heart of Mine. There is a crackling chemistry between the two and Ms Delaney looks rather striking and seductive with her distinctive black “coal scuttle” haircut; a “Dutch Bob”, I am now informed. Obviously I was not alone in finding this scene affecting, as it can be found on YouTube.

Without being too much of a spoiler, I can reveal that Ms Delaney’s character may have less honest intentions than one might think and is indeed something of a Femme Fatale. What I did not know then was that there was a great deal more to Ms Delaney’s appearance than one might have imagined. In fact, she modelled this look on a particular actress from the days of black and white and silent movies.

I am a regular listener of BBC Radio 5 Lives’ Friday afternoon film reviews presented by Simon Mayo and featuring the critic Mark Kermode. For those of you who do not know, it’s a little oasis of eccentricity and escapism as the good Doctor (of Film Studies) Kermode gives me comfort that I am not, in fact, the most eccentric person on the planet. I commend it, and it’s available by internet and podcast.

A little while ago, I was perusing the Good Doctor’s (as he is known) blog Kermode Uncut and he made passing reference to a silent movie, to be precise, to “the Louise Brooks movie, Beggars of Life“. A brief black and white photo appeared of a rather petite, but plainly very striking – no, beautiful – woman, dressed as a man in workman’s clothes in 1920’s Depression style.

I was strangely affected by the photograph. Who was this woman Louise Brooks? When I looked into the matter, I was to be introduced to a remarkable story of talent, hedonism, triumph, reckless self destruction, disaster and redemption, and which would lead back to that Moonlighting scene.

In a nutshell here it is.

Mary Louise Brooks was born on November 14th 1906 (a good Scorpio then, which explains a lot) in the little town of Cherryvale, Kansas. Her father was not attentive and her mother Myra was a very beautiful, brilliant and unorthodox artist who seemed to care little for her children – “squalling brats [who] could take care of themselves”.

However, her mother did provide a strong artistic education, and Louise became a child protégé dancer, appearing at local theatres and events from the age of six. Dance was to remain her abiding passion and perhaps here one true love.

But at the age of nine Louise was sexually abused and possibly raped by a neighbour; an incident which she later suggested had a profound effect on her attitude to sex, and ability to share love.

At age 14 she was already an accomplished dancer when she watched a touring performance of the revolutionary Denishawn Dance Company. That changed her life. At 15 she left Kansas to study dance with the company in New York. She quickly achieved promotion to a lead role. However, the regime of the company was strict, and already there were rumours of boys and smoking and drinking. At the end of a second season she was dismissed in front of the whole company for “having a superior attitude”. A humiliated Brooks never forgot or forgave it.

But, now 17, she found a place as a dancer in the risqué dance revue, The George Whites Scandals. Artistically it was a come down, but it was good money and Louise Brooks took to the racier life, and the racier life took to her; as did the critics who began to take note of this girl with the distinctive “Dutch Bob” hairstyle. So did the show’s musical writer, one George Gershwin. But Louise’s stroppy attitude caused a rift with the other girls, and she was forced to leave the show.

No matter. She soon joined the more prestigious Ziegfeld Follies and quickly became a popular dancer. She became a great friend of W.C. Fields, for whom she danced in his dressing room while he poured the drinks. On the other side of the footlights she had an admirer in the person of one Charles Chaplin, and for a couple of months they were lovers. They always spoke fondly of each other ever after. She was still just 17.

After the affair with Chaplin ended she was thrown out of her hotel for immoral behaviour. But there was no stopping Louise now. She threw herself into a social whirl of New York. In the age of the flapper, “Brooksie” – as she was known – became the belle of the ball. She had a string of lovers and partied like there was no tomorrow. She was clearly a proper little madam. When she wanted a mink coat one rich lover bought her a one. In a “speakeasy” she arrogantly hurled it away onto the dance floor. She had wanted a full length coat, not a mere half length jacket.

One of her many boyfriends was a powerful producer in the up and coming world of silent movies; he offered her a screen test. For a lark she took it, and excelled. A string of small scale movies ensued; but the fuse had been lit. The striking girl with the Dutch Bob haircut was a hit and soon she was delighted to be working with her old friend W.C. Fields in It’s the Old Army Game.

The director Eddie Sutherland fell in love with her and persuaded her to marry him. But, despite the marriage, Louise’s partying ways did not stop. The couple spent little time together and now Louise’s star was truly rising in a series of new movies. She possessed a dazzling screen presence and she was also becoming the queen of the Society Scene, with her face in a thousand gossip magazines.

In Love ’em and leave ’em she got to play the bad girl who decides to steal her sister’s boyfriend for fun. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Brooks excelled at the part.

She moved to Hollywood and her career rocketed. Her first major film was the heavyweight Beggars of Life with established stars. They resented her attitude and high pay and there was a trouble on the set. There was more when Louise slept with a stunt man. But the film is still a classic record of the depression years and Louise’s performance is extraordinary.

Louise was now living the high life with wealth and fame and a string of rich and generous lovers. She divorced her husband.

Then in 1929 the talkies came. This was to be a disaster for many of the stars of silent pictures and for Brooks too; but not in the way one might expect. She declared that she had a beautiful voice.

Brooks was filming The Canary Murder Case when it was decided to re-shoot the film with sound. There was a row about her new contract with the director and the hot-headed Louise quit on the spot, leaving the producers in the lurch. As she was leaving the scene she received a telegram from German director Georg Wilhelm Pabst, inviting her to go to Europe to star in his new film. It was the defining day in Louise’s career. She accepted at once and decamped to Germany. There, under Pabst’s direction (she didn’t like the discipline) she produced her classic, iconic performance as “Lulu” in Pandora’s Box, in which her tragic character is abused and ultimately betrayed and murdered. It was, and is, a sensation. She continued with Diary of a Lost Girl, also directed by Pabst. She completed this with another triumph in Prix de Beaute (1930). These films were regarded as groundbreaking not only in their techniques, but in their shocking portrayals of sex and morals.

In 1930 having conquered Europe Louise returned to Hollywood. But her fame in Europe meant little in Hollywood; and worse, because of the trouble she caused the producers of The Canary Murder Case, the rumour had put been about that she had a poor voice and was no good for the new talkies. She was blacklisted by the all powerful Studios.

Still, after a couple of minor roles she was given the chance for a new role, but she turned it down in order to visit her then lover in New York. The film was Public Enemy, with James Cagney and her part was taken by Jean Harlow, who was to go on to be the blond bombshell superstar of the 30’s. The film was a smash hit.

It had been the last chance for Louise’s career. She was no longer offered serious roles, and she was now broke. The money had been frittered away into nothing. She took a series of small roles in B movies. Her last appearance was in 1931, in a small low budget picture called Overland Stage Raiders. It is notable for only three reasons. First, her co-star was a young man just starting to make a name for himself called John Wayne. Second, her voice was actually lovely. And third, her trade mark Dutch Bob, like her career, was gone.

Slowly, Louise’s life began to unravel. She married again and she and her husband had a spell as professional touring dancers. The marriage didn’t last. She was declared bankrupt. In the later 1930’s she returned to Cherryvale and lived with her mother for a time. Here she revealed the story of her abuse by the neighbour to her mother, who merely commented that little Louise must have done something to lead the poor man on.

She opened a dance studio, but she was rude and impatient with the clients. It failed.

Broke and alone, in the 1940’s Louise went to New York where she worked in anonymity as a salesgirl in a 5th Avenue store, and possibly as a call girl. She lived as a recluse, hiding her face from the neighbours in her apartment block. She drank heavily and her only regular company was gin.

The world had completely forgotten Louise Brooks.

The ultimate humiliation came when one of her neighbours in the apartment block, one John Springer, was having a party with a silent movie theme. He had been a fan of Louise back in her heyday and the posters advertising the event featured, amongst other matters, a cartoon Louise Brooks with her classic bobbed hair. They were plastered around the block. During the party there was a hammering on the door. It was a furious Brooks who assumed it was a deliberate jibe.

“How dare you humiliate me like this!” she yelled at him.

Springer hadn’t even realised who his neighbour was until then, then it slowly dawned.

However, it was the start of a form of redemption for Louise. She became close friends with Springer. He was later to speak of her extraordinary warmth, personality and intelligence.

By a curious coincidence Springer knew one James Card, the film curator for the Kodak/George Eastman House collection. Card had been a fan of Brooks and appreciated her work. He mentioned this to Springer one day and revealed how he would love to find her and talk to her.

“But nobody knows where she is.” Card lamented.

Springer was aghast.

Through Springer, Card got in touch with Louise and a sort of rehabilitation began. After 25 years there was a renaissance of interest in her films. In the 1950’s she was invited to Cannes and feted, the film critic Henri Langlois made a famous proclamation:

“There is no Garbo, there is no Dietrich, there is only Louise Brooks!”

Louise herself may have taken issue with this. She could certainly attest to the existence of Garbo, since they had had a one night stand together, just to see what it would be like. Apparently Brooks wasn’t that impressed.

With Card’s help Louise retired to a little town in New York State. She was hardly well off, but she had a certain status as a minor local celebrity. A collection of her writings – “Lulu in Hollywood” – was published in 1982, to critical acclaim. She was profiled by Ken Tynan in his essay “The Girl with the Black Helmet”.

She died alone in 1985 of a heart attack, her last years crippled by arthritis and emphysema. But, as she said, in her mind she was not crippled, she danced.

To return to the beginning, I now know the look adopted by the lovely Ms Delaney to be a deliberate homage to Louise Brooks; it was the ultimate Femme Fatale look. Liza Minnelli also partly based her portrayal of Sally Bowles in “Cabaret” on her. She is listed as one of the top style icons of all time and she probably redefined film acting.

She was an arrogant little madam, a royal pain in the ass, a spendthrift, a nuisance, and had a famous temper. She once said “I have a gift for enraging people. But if I ever bore you, it will be with a knife”. She was a chain smoking alcoholic and possibly a nymphomaniac.

She was also damaged goods, extraordinarily beautiful, very, very bright, and, when not being a pain in the ass, she was witty, funny, warm, and extremely generous to her friends. I would have liked Louise Brooks, I think, at least in her later years.

A full documentary on the life of Louise Brooks, narrated by Shirley MacLaine, called Looking for Lulu can for now be found on YouTube here: Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu (1998).

Dana Delaney is one of the commentators. It includes some interviews with Louise shortly towards the end of her life. She is still bright as a button. In the past this YouTube video has vanished, so I cannot warrant it will always be there. Be warned, even if you have a heart of stone don’t watch it without a big box of tissues. And hers is a story of a rise, a fall and, ultimately, redemption. And that is something to ponder on.

© Gildas the Monk

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