Saturday, July 31, 2010

Muse: Louise Brooks

Louise Brooks swore like a sailor, had a penchant for agitating, and posed nude for photographers... and that haircut-- considered one of the top 10 most influential women's haircuts of all time (there's a recent resurgence of her angled bob now). Silent films like "Diary of a lost girl", "Pandora's Box" were ground-breaking, even shocking, in their prodding at sexual conventions.

Born in Cherryvale, Kansas, she began as a Zeigfeld Follies dancer in 1925 on Broadway. She was soon noticed by a Paramount producer and later became of interest to Charlie Chaplin, with whom she had a brief affair. Her career was strong for several years, making pictures in Germany, France, and the US. Brooks made her screen debut in the silent The Street of Forgotten Men, in an uncredited role in 1925 and her career exploded making Brooks a female lead favorite in silent comedies and flapper style films  starring the likes of W. C. Fields.   But Brooks quickly tired of the Hollywood scene and after fulfilling her role in Beggars Of Life,  Louise sought to leave Paramount and left for Europe to make films for G. W. Pabst, a now legendary Expressionist director from Austria.  Snubbing Paramount is now seen as one of the most iconic moves of her life, as actors rarely broke free of the oppressive studio system; it cemented Louise Brooks as a hero of independent art cinema.  When Louise returned from Germany Paramount requested her presence to do some sound retakes for the polished version of the film The Canary Murder Case (1929), she refused, and was blacklisted from Hollywood.  Despite the blacklist, she still received a few offers from bold directors, but nothing could revive her career again.  

After her film career plummeted in the 1930s, she worked odd jobs ranging from gossip columnist to store clerk to call girl. She worked on a novel for years, only to destroy it in a fire abruptly before it was completed. She had scores of male suitors, but burned most of those bridges, along with her savings, with her frequent drinking and volatile moods.  She later reflected that her unlucky-in-love romances and troubled behavior stemmed from the trauma of her past child molestation at the hands of a neighbor.  She revealed in her bio that this childhood predator "must have had a great deal to do with forming my attitude toward sexual pleasure....For me, nice, soft, easy men were never enough – there had to be an element of domination".

Brooks was well known cheapskate but was known to lavish friends with cash from time to time.  In keeping with her volatile relationships, despite marriages she never had children, and because of this referred to herself jokingly as "Barren Brooks".  Even though Brooks tried to conserve her earnings from film, she needed cash and according to Louise Brooks: Looking For Lulu, a former beau who was a founder of CBS, thought to provide her with a small monthly allowance until her death.  It was said that this meager wage kept her from committing suicide once when she was particularly low and feeling broke.  But all her relationships where not so sunny.   Football Guru and financial backer George Preston Marshall courted her throughout the 1920s and 1930s and opened the door to her financially, but she regarded the relationship as abusive.  Marshall discovered Brooks' secret trysts with other men and quickly ditched her for another film actress instead.

In her final years, she lived alone by choice. After penning her autobiography in the 1980s, she faded into obscurity and then, death, in Rochester, NY. Luckily, several film historians and documentary filmmakers managed to land interviews with her prior to her death: particularly, Lulu in Berlin and Looking for Lulu.

"I have a gift for enraging people, but if I ever bore you it will be with a knife"
-Louise Brooks


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