by Philip French, The Observer, Sunday, ??.??.1982

by Louise Brooks
Hamish Hamilton �8.95

ALTHOUGH she appeared in 24 movies between 1925 and 1938, Louise Brooks is known largely for a single beguiling performance as the fatal hedonist Lulu in G. W. Pabst's silent classic "Pandora's Box," made in Be rlin in 1929. Even those who have never seen that film recognise stills from it, for Brooks was not only one of the great beauties of the 1920s, but as the thinking man's Clara Bow, the girl who added Id to It, she's an icon of the decade. Ken Tynan spo ke for the besotted when he wrote rapturously in his journal of "that sleek jet cloche that rings such a peal of bells in my subconscious . . . the only star that I can imagine either being enslaved by or wanting to enslave."

In 1929 Brooks seemed set fair to become a major star, but she deliberately rejected the wealth and fame Hollywood might have brought. First she refused to extend her contract at Paramount (this enabled her to make "Pandora's Box" with Pabst) then she wo uldn't accept the terms they offered to come back to California for the recording of the soundtrack that would turn "The Canary Murder Case," a detective movie in the Philo Vance series, from an unusable silent film into a potentially lucrative talkie. I n revenge, the studio put out the damaging (and quite untrue) story that she had an unsuitable voice.

So she faded away, and many thought her dead when in the 1950s a cult sprang up around her in France. Then articles by her started to appear in American and European film magazines, she was brought as guest of honour to the Cinematheque in Paris, and the first generation of American university film students beat a trail to her door. A selection of these essays has now been published as Lulu in HoUywood, and a rather random lot they are, written in a spiky, idiosyncratic prose-style that records some asp ects of her fiercely independent life with shocking frankness and others with an irritating circumspection .

To give the book some sort of context, the reader should first revisit the classic 1979 New Yorker profile with which Ken Tynan concluded his last book, "Show People." The present book endorses Tynan's eulogy with a graceful introduction by the New Yorke r's editor, William Shawn, the only signed piece he has published in the past 30 years, praising Brooks's observation, wit, and literary style.

The first chapter, Brooks's only concession to chronology, is an affectionate account of her girlhood in Kansas, where she was born into a prosperous middle-class family in 1906, and whence she departed at the age of 25 to pursue a dancing career in New Y ork. Her father was a shy, upright lawyer, devoted to his violin and his books, her mother was a gifted musician, who entered on marriage telling her husband that "he was her escape to freedom and the arts, and that any squalling brats she produced could take care of themselves." In youth, Louise became 'and remained,in cruel pursuit of truth and excellence, an inhumane executioner of the bogus, an abomination to all but those few who have overcome their aversion to truth in order to free whatever is go od in them."

This arrogant flaunting of her integrity reminds one of Lillian Hellman, and indeed the two ladies' careers resemble each other closely. There's the odd prose, the rejection of and by Hollywood, the hard drinking-and both, when down on their luck after W orld War II, found themselves working behind the counter in New York department stores.

The book's teasing title sugests a total identification of Louise Brooks with Wedekind's innocently depraved heroine, and indeed there is something wilful, heartless and amoral about the course of her life. She lived off rich society men in New York, wal ked out on her husband (the movie director Eddie Sutherland), treated her employers like dirt. Yet she retained a strong sense of personal probity, was a loyal friend, and refused to succumb to what she called "the pestiferous disease" of "Going Hollywoo d." When in the final chapter she at last gets around to recalling her experiences with Pabst in Berlin, she has given a new dimension to Wedekind's "Earth Spirit."

Lulu met her early death at the hands of Jack the Ripper. Louise Brooks hit rock bottom in a seedy New York hotel, sustained by booze, pills and rich lovers, then surfaced in Rochester under the protective wing of the Eastman House film museum to start wr iting the pieces that make up this book. For much of the time she is telling us about herself while talking of others. Her mature insight enables her to provide sharp, analytical portraits of W. C. Fields and Humphrey Bogart and, in a remarkable essay o n Lillian Gish and Garbo, to theorise about Hollywood and the star system.

"Anyone who has achieved excellence in any form knows that it comes as a result of ceaseless concentration-paying attention," she writes, talking of Mack Sennett. She has paid attention herself, and merits it from us.

Copyright: McKenna W. Rowe, 1997-2006