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

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past