Sight and Sound, Summer 1982, Volume 51 Number 3


Since Louise Brooks' autobiographical pieces first started appearing, in SIGHT AND SOUND and elsewhere, no one it seems has been able to get over the fact that she is beautiful and can write. William Shawn, editor of the New Yorker, joins the incredulous chorus in his introduction to this slim but absorbing collection. It begins, actually, to sound a little patronising, especially since, in their surprised delight over the felicities of style, most commentators omit to notice that Louise Brooks is also a woman of ideas. Her writings-and this, for an actor, really is extraordinary-are about something more than just herself.

She has ideas about Hollywood, she has ideas about life, and she does not necessarily confuse the two. In her most famous piece, "Gish and Garbo", there may well be some colouring from her own experience which is not immediately apparent, but by and large it is an intelligent observer's estimation of something that happened in Hollywood and why it happened. (And she would be the first to admit that she was never in a position to have it happen directly to her.) Stars, she observed, the biggest stars any way, seemed to go through a cycle of creation and destruction, both engineered by their studios. You would almost think that it was deliberate: the studios would make their own monsters, profit from them and then, like Frankenstein, when the monsters became too powerful and independent would set out to destroy them, and start again with someone else. Hence, Lillian Gish with MGM; hence, a few years later, Garbo with the same studio.

The notion is persuasive, and no one else seems to have put it in quite those terms. Certainly on some level it is true, but not, one suspects, on a conscious level-or not usually. (Louis B. may have deliberately sabotaged the career of the difficult John Gilbert, but why should he need to sabotage Lillian Gish's career when she was so bent on doing it herself through her own prim high-mindedness?) But then, if Louise Brooks has an Achilles heel, it is her own intelligence: she tends to attribute to others as much self awareness and analytical power as she has herself.

She is very good at painting portraits of people, even if they are only thumbnail sketches, like the brief description of her period with the Bennett family (Constance, Joan et al) in the opening section. She is good on W. C. Fields as he really was, rather than as his posthumous elevation to 60s icon would have him (she was in the Follies with him, and later married to his most regular director, Eddie Sutherland). She is really revealing-or at any rate really persuasive-in her explanation of how another cult figure, Humphrey Bogart, got that way by rigorously suppressing his real character, "a conventional, well bred theatre actor", in favour of something he learned from his own tough-guy screen roles (she first knew Humphrey in 1924 and last saw an unrecognisable Bogey in 1943).

Inevitably, what we most want to know about is her working relationship with Pabst in her two most famous films, Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl. She indulges us with one of the most substantial chapters in the book. The character of Pabst remains enigmatic, partly no doubt because at that stage in her life Louise Brooks spent a lot less time trying to understand him than he spent in trying to under stand her. Clearly he succeeded, knowing exactly how to communicate wordlessly with her while with others he would talk endlessly, analysing for the intelligent and theatricalising for the old hams. According to this account of the collaboration, she was impossibly childish and tantrum prone, and he was firm but not unkindly-a father figure if not a god. Well, if that is the way she says it was, one has complete confidence that's the way it was.

She also tells us interesting things, quite coincidentally. For those who have always wondered about the good-time girls in 20s and 30s movies, with the elaborate gifts they received and their curious method of repayment with a chaste goodnight kiss at the door (surely that was just a nod and a wink while the censor's back was turned?), she explains that "sexual submission was not a condition of this arrangement, although many affairs grew out of it." She should know, since she has been there; and one recognises that, whereas most people in her position would be protesting their sexual inviolability, even sixty years after the event, she would be most pained by having to admit the sad truth that "ours was a heartless racket. After receiving an ermine coat from Jaeckel's, the gift of a stockbroker named John Lock, I let him take me just once to a tea dance at the Biltmore Hotel." And she remembers his name...

Transcription courtesy of Meredith C. of UK.

Copyright: McKenna W. Rowe, 1997-2006