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 character is amorously reunited with his old flame Gillian, played by the very lovely Dana Delaney (now starring in Desperate Housewives, I believe), all to the cool soundtrack of the Isley’s Brother’s 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 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…
I am a regular listener of the 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, was perusing the Good Doctor’s (as he is known) blog, and he made passing reference to a silent movie, to be precise, to “the Louise Brooks movie, Beggars of Life”. A brief photo appeared of a rather petite, plainly very striking woman, dressed as a man in workman’s clothes.
I was strangely affected by the photograph. Who was this Louise Brooks? When I looked into the matter, I was to be introduced to a remarkable story of hedonism, triumph, recklessness, 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, like me) in the little town of Cherryvale, Kansas. Her father was not attentive and her mother Myra was a 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.
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. 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 a 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 hairs, and also as 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 joined the even more prestigious Ziegfeld Follies and soon became a popular dancer. She was great friends of WC Field, 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.
After the affair 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 a proper little madam. When she wanted a mink coat one rich lover bought her a one. In a speak easy she arrogantly hurled it away onto the dance floor. She had wanted a full length coat, not a half length jacket.
One of her boyfriends was a powerful producer; 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 was a hit, and soon she was delighted to be working with her old friend, WC Fields in It’s the Old Army Game.
The director Eddie Southerland fell in love with her, and persuaded her to marry him.
But 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 was becoming the queen of the Society Scene, with her face in a thousand gossip magazine.
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 heavyweight established stars. They resented her attitude and 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 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 George 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 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 been about 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.
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 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; John Wayne. Second, her voice was 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 40’s Louise went to New York where she worked 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. Her only 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 she was until then, when 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 or her extraordinary warmth, personality and intelligence. You had to know her, he said, to understand the full force of her personality.
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 his famous statement:
“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.
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 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.
To return to the beginning, I now know the look adopted by the lovely Ms Delaney to be deliberate homage to Louise; the ultimate Femme Fatale look. Liza Minnelli based her portrayal of Sally Bowles partly on her. She is listed as one of the top style icons of all time.
She was an arrogant little madam, a royal pain in the ass, a spendthrift, a nuisance, and had a famous temper. She was chain smoking alcoholic and possibly a nymphomaniac. She was also beautiful, bright, funny, warm, and generous to her friends. I would have liked Louise Brooks, I think.
And hers is a story of fall, and ultimately redemption. And that is something to ponder on for a Sunday.
God bless you Brooksie
Gildas the Monk
PS a Documentary of Louise Brooks’ Life called “Looking for Lulu” is available on Youtube. It features some surviving interviews with the good Brooksie. It is narrated by Shirley McClain and features Dana Delaney. Don’t watch it without a box of tissues.