Louise Brooks: Shameless sexpot of the silent era

Louise Brooks lived like one of her scandalous characters. Rhoda Koenig on a welcome retrospective

Seeing Louise Brooks reminds you that movies are about motion and light. In the first of her two great films of 1929, Pandora's Box, she enters with such startling animal grace that you feel a deer in human shape has leapt onto the screen. Brooks, who was a dancer in the renowned Denishawn company and the Ziegfeld Follies before becoming an actress, seems to be dancing every minute, her swift, liquid movements echoing the quicksilver moods of this femme fatale who, asked by a desperate man if she loves him, laughs and says, "I? Never a soul!" Her entrance in another film of that year, Diary of a Lost Girl, also makes you gasp. In this dark, dark movie, the first, close shot of her luminous, white face filling the frame shocks us with the power of her character's innocence. Seduced, consigned to a reformatory run by a vicious lesbian, and then taking up residence in a brothel, she never loses her aura of purity. Brooks is desire incarnate, unfettered by convention or love. Timing, she once said, is everything, while "emotion means nothing."

Born in Cherryvale, Kansas, in 1906, Brooks made her way to New York while still a teenager and rapidly became a pet of the the smart sets of show business and high society. Her beauty and high spirits would have sufficed, but people - including several sugar-daddies - were also taken with a Follies girl who read Proust. Brooks wasn't the first to cut her hair, but her patent-leather bob so suited her that she became identified with the style, its Art Deco streamlining as much a part of the stripped-for-action look as the second-skin evening gowns she wore. With her lithe, small-breasted figure, Brooks made the bosoms and ringlets of the sexpots who came before and after look like the gear of so many female impersonators.

Inevitably, Brooks was tapped for silent pictures, lively froth with such titles as Love 'Em and Leave 'Em and Rolled Stockings in which she played a high-kicking jazz baby. But in 1928 she made Beggars of Life, a stark drama of vagrants who risk death by riding the rails. Brooks's character hides out with them when she shoots a would-be rapist and, fearing a murder charge, disguises herself as a boy. The gorgeous photos of her in flat cap and oversized jacket must have converted those of either sex who were not yet entranced.

A Girl in Every Port was another frivolous comedy - Brooks played a high-diver courted by a pair of sailors who compete for girls but remain fast friends (or "two homos," as she curtly described them). But it caught the attention of the great German director GW Pabst, who saw in Brooks the elemental Lulu for whom he had been looking everywhere. Based on two plays by Frank Wedekind (which also inspired the Alban Berg opera), Pandora's Box had a four-syllable title that was a euphemism for one. Lulu ruins all the men (and one woman) who love her in Berlin, then runs off to London, where, in Brooks's words, "it is Christmas Eve, and she is about to receive the gift that has been her dream since childhood. Death by a sexual maniac."

Brooks proved as responsive as her character to the icy charms of Gustav Diessl. When the cameras stopped filming their lovemaking, she carried on, and surrendered to the actor who played Jack the Ripper. Pabst was delighted with the success of his casting, but became exasperated with the wilful Brooks, who never let an early call stop her from dancing all night in the Weimar cabarets . She was too much like Lulu, he told her. "You will end the same way."

Pandora's Box and Diary (also directed by Pabst) were eventually recognised as masterpieces, but upon their release they were box-office poison, especially in the US. Made just as talking pictures came in, they were, like many other fine films, swept aside as old hat. Nor could America cope with these Weimar-era cornucopias of perversity, though it tried - one version of Pandora's Box showed Brooks reforming and joining the Salvation Army.

Brooks made one more marvellous film in Europe, Prix de Beauté, a prescient tale of the destructive power of celebrity whose astonishing final scene has often been imitated in movies that want to show the mythic power of cinema. At the moment that her character achieves her ambition of becoming a movie star, she is shot dead at the premiere by a jealous lover. Behind Brooks's beautiful, lifeless body, we see her giant image on the theatre screen, laughing and dancing its way into immortality. But her achievements did her no good in Hollywood, where she found herself persona non grata for her blithe disregard of professional obligations.

In her essays about moviemaking, Brooks attributed her downfall to the jealousy of small, vulgar minds, but the words that come to a reader's mind are "feckless" and "smug". Brooks also drank more than was wise, and, like Pabst's heroines, slept with appalling men if they evoked tenderness or excitement. She recorded that an actor once called her "a cheap, drunken tramp," and added: "He was right." Assigned dismal parts in B-pictures, she was reduced to working as an extra only seven years after being a star. Brooks went back East, became a courtesan again, then a remittance woman, then a recluse.

In the Fifties she was rediscovered by French film buffs, and began writing memoirs and film criticism, later published as Lulu in Hollywood, notable for their voice-from-the-grave iciness and lacerating honesty. "Although people are better equipped to judge acting than any other art," she wrote, "the hypocrisy of 'sincerity' prevents them from admitting that they, too, are always acting some role of their own invention." In 1979, a dazzled Kenneth Tynan wrote a long article about her in The New Yorker that was later made into a play, and that kept her in the limelight for the last six years of her life.

What fascinates us today about Brooks is not just her beauty or sensuality but the dancer's grace with which she shrugged off - at least on screen - both consequence and guilt. In his memoirs, Ben Hecht, the co-author of The Front Page, wrote that, when the 1920s got going, he thought that education, technology, and prosperity had transformed society for good and that he was witnessing what would become the style of the new century. In the subsequent decades, he said, he kept waiting for the rich and fearless world of the Twenties to return, but it never did, and he never stopped being disappointed that the new century had turned out as bad as the rest of them, or worse. When Brooks lights up the screen, that lost world comes back to life for a little while. She was more than just a movie star: she was 20th-century sex.

Louise Brooks season, National Film Theatre, London SE1 (020-7928 3232; www.bfi.org.uk), to 23 December

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