Movie Stars: Brooks, Louise–Legendary Actress and Icon

This year marks the centennial of the actress Louise Brooks, who was born on November 14, 1906, in Cherryvale, Kansas and died in 1985.

To honor the event, her greatest and most scandalous film, “Pandora’s Box” (1929) is being released in a new 35-mm print in New York’s Film Forum, before touring around the country.

A lawyer’s daughter, Brooks began her professional career at age 15 as a dancer with the Ruth St. Denis Company. She then appeared in “George White’s Scandals” and the “Ziegfeld Follies,” which led to a Hollywood contract and a 1925 film debut in a bit role.

Pretty and shapely brunette, with a boyish bob of hair style (which later became her signature), she was cast at first in routine flapper comedies, but gradually emerged as a talented actress in such films as Howard Hawks’ “A Girl in Every Port” and William Wellman’s “Beggars of Life.”

For two years, 1926-1928, Brooks was married to the Hollywood director, Edward Sutherland.

Strangely, Brooks revealed her artistry in Germany, where she gave some remarkable performances for the noted director G.W. Pabst in “Pandora’s Box” and “Diary of a Lost Girl.” These were followed by another startling performance in a French film, “Prixe de Beaute” (aka “The Beauty Prize” and “Miss Europe”), after which she returned to Hollywood, where again she was offered only minor role in minor films.

Brooks played a bit part in “The Public Enemy,” the gangster movie that made Jimmy Cagney a star. In the same year, she appeared in “Windy Riley Goes to Hollywood,” a two-reel short, directed by Fatty Arbuckle.

Unable (some say unwilling) to re-acclimate herself to Hollywood, she retired from the screen in 1931, at age 25. She tried to make a living as a nightclub dancer but, by her own admission, was not very good at it.

In 1936, Brooks made a futile attempt at a comeback in B Westerns, one of which against John Wayne (before he became a name), “Empty Saddles,” and then “Overland Stage Raiders,” in 1938.

In the early 1940s, she made occasional radio appearances, but eventually gave up showbusiness altogether, and found employment as a clerk at New York’s Saks Fifth Avenue. By the late 1940s, there were reports that she had become a recluse.

However, in the late 1950s and 1960s, Brooks was rediscovered by film critics and cultists, when some of her old films were re-screened in the U.S. and Europe.

In 1956, Brooks settled in Rochester, New York, at the urging of James Card, curator of the George Eastman House collection. She began studying film there and devoted herself to writing for film periodicals.

I am grateful to the British Kenneth Tynan’s critical essays on Brooks, and the very American and distinguished critic Andrew saris, who introduced me to Brooks’s German films.

In 1982, Brooks received accolades for her stylish and revelatory memoirs, “Lulu in Hollywood,” which was reviewed extensively by the mainstream press.

In 1985, she died of a heart attack. She was poor and alone, but not forgotten! Her two seminal movies, “Pandora’s Box” and “Diary of a Lost Girl” continue to enchant thousands of viewers year after year.

See Reviews of “Pandora’s Box” and “Diary of a Lost Girl”