What made Louise Brooks special?
Her trademark haircut?
Her roles for Pabst and Hawks?
Her power to define a look?
By Peter Wollen
Nearly 50 years after he had directed a film with Louise Brooks, Howard Hawks looked at a still photograph of her from A Girl in Every Port (1928) and wrote to Kevin Brownlow: "I wanted a different type of girl... a new type. I hired Louise Brooks because she's very sure of herself, she's very analytical, she's very feminine - but she's damned good and sure she's going to do what she wants to do. I could use her today. She was way ahead of her time. And she's a rebel. I like her, you know, I like rebels. I like people you can look at and you remember who they are."
When I first read this, I thought how shrewd Hawks always was, how sympathetic in unexpected ways, but also how shrewd Louise Brooks had been when she wrote, in 1977: "For 35 years I have been studying men's hatred of women. Mary Hemingway weighs it out in her book about Ernest. It is the Howard Hawks' two brave fighting buddies (homos) who 'prove' their 'masculinity' by occasional brutal rampages among women." And yet without Howard Hawks we might never have heard of Louise Brooks. It was, after all, as a result of seeing A Girl in Every Port that Pabst invited her to Berlin to make Pandora's Box, to place her centre stage, where she belonged.
But there is a twist to the story. After all, it is equally true that without Louise Brooks we might never have heard of Howard Hawks. Even now, people are often surprised that he should be considered one of the great directors, his Hollywood films the touchstone of what cinema should be. Why Hawks? The answer is simple. Henri Langlois, who became the founder and director of the Paris Cinematheque, went out of his way to collect and preserve Hawks' films and, as a result, the young critics of Cahiers du cinema were able to see them and learn from them. As Jacques Rivette put it: "Hawks taught the Cahiers school all that is best in the classical American cinema, particularly inspiring them with his ability to personalise the diverse genres in which he worked." But why did Langlois make such an effort to collect Hawks in the first place?
In 1928, at the age of 15, he had been thunderstruck by Hawks' silent masterpiece A Girl in Every Port, starring Victor McLaglen and Robert Armstrong (as the typical Hawksian buddies), with Louise Brooks playing the woman (Mam'selle Godiva, a circus stunt diver in Marseilles: shades of Lola Montes). In 1963, 35 years after this first crucial viewing, Langlois wrote an article in homage to Hawks for Cahiers du cinema. "To the Paris of 1928," he said, "which was rejecting expressionism, A Girl in Every Port was a film conceived in the present, achieving an identity of its own by repudiating the past. To look at the film is to see yourself, to see the future." And encapsulating the modernity was Brooks: "the modern artist par excellence."
In 1955 Langlois presented a historic exhibition in Paris to celebrate 60 years of cinema. At the entrance of the exhibition, held in the Musee Nationale d'Art Moderne, he hung two gigantic photo-portraits, blown up from film stills - one of Renee Jeanne Falconetti in Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928}, the other of Brooks in Pabst's Pandora's Box. An outraged critic complained to Langlois about his choice of Brooks, and Langlois shouted back: "There is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! There is only Louise Brooks!" Defiantly, he wrote: "As soon as she comes on the screen, fiction disappears along with art, and one has the impression of watching a documentary. The camera seems to have caught her by surprise, almost without her knowing it. She is the intelligence of the cinematic process, of all that is photogenic; she embodies all that the cinema rediscovered in the last years of the silent film: complete naturalness and complete simplicity. Her art is so pure that it becomes invisible."
What, then, was the key to Louise Brooks' belated ascent to an iconic status beyond even that of Garbo and Dietrich? What was it that made her, in Hawks' limpid phrase, someone "you can look at and remember who they are"? First and foremost, of course, it was the trademark haircut, the Louise Brooks bob. The analysis of haircuts has as yet not played a substantial part in film theory or scholarship, although Roland Barthes' celebrated essay on haircuts in Mankiewicz's Julius Caesar provides a fine precedent. But there is no doubt that the most visible and memorable reason for Brooks' instant appeal was simply the way she looked, and that the way she looked was primarily determined by her haircut. It was the haircut, for instance, which was to be the marker of 'Brooksness' in such acts of filmic homage as the appearance of Cyd Charisse in Singin' in the Rain, of Anna Karina in Vivre sa vie and of Melanie Griffith in Something Wild.
Cartoons and the bob
At the time this bob was called a Buster Brown haircut - a label that is not insignificant. The cartoon character Buster Brown was a young boy who was dressed as a `sissy' but proved to be a rough-and-tumble kid at heart in fact, an incorrigible scamp. His hair was drawn rather shorter than Little Lord Fauntleroy's, at a carefully calibrated critical length, so that (on Buster) it was 'girlish' for a boy, but (on Louise) it would be 'boyish' for a girl. Thus from the start it was a signifier both of youth (a child's cut, an 'innocent' cut) and of an unsettling androgyny. In France it was known as the 'Joan of Arc' cut (another uncanny link between Brooks and Falconetti).
Louise Brooks was to be associated with cartoon characters more than once in her life. Buster Brown ceased publication in the New York Journal in 1921, but in 1928 a new cartoon featuring Dixie Dugan was launched in the New York Daily News. The publisher of the News gave one of his cartoonists a photograph of Brooks in her 1926 film The American Venus and asked him to develop a comic strip from it. Dixie Dugan ran until 1962 (by which time she had stopped being a showgirl and become an airline hostess). Three years later, hard on the heels of the Godard film and as part of the burgeoning Louise Brooks cult, the Italian pornographic comic strip artist Crepax launched his character Valentina (who, in 1977, even went to the cinema to see 'herself' in Pandora's Box).
Comic strip artists were attracted to Brooks because her haircut was geometrical, like a design, and gave her face a clear outline and strong black and white contrast. Brooks' shingled and lacquered hair (her 'helmet') was a deep blue-black, and she set it off with thick white make-up, "as white as a camellia" (thus effacing her freckles). She herself described it as looking like an Aubrey Beardsley ink drawing in its definition and massed regions of black and white, as well, no doubt, as in its suggestion of decadence. The effect was intensified by her long neck and large, dark eyes, outlined in black for emphasis, eyes whose neutral gaze was often directed straight into the camera.
Thus Brooks' face became a kind of logo, depending not on the expression of inner soulfulness or on the intensity of her look, as with her peers Asta Nielsen or Greta Garbo, but on a dynamic surface and instant visual impact. Even compared with Dietrich, her other obvious rival, her face is flat and clear-cut rather than modulated by Von Sternberg's virtuoso lighting to bring out the underlying bone structure and nuances of contour. In Pandora's Box this cartoon look was right for the film: Pabst was aiming to move beyond Expressionism, to create a 'modern' cinema. The simplicity of the Brooks mask and haircut, like her implicit 'Americanism' in the German context, created the impression he wanted.
Henri Langlois associated the immediate visual impact made by Louise Brooks with the idea of the `photogenic', derived from the writings of the great French theorists of silent cinema he read in the 20s, Louis Delluc and Jean Epstein. Langlois was particularly influenced by Epstein, who, like Hawks, was a director whose works he made a special effort to collect for the Cinematheque. In 1953 Langlois organised a homage to Jean Epstein at the Cannes Film Festival and the following year Epstein's sister, Marie, came to work with him at the Cinematheque. There she joined Lotte Eisner, the German author-in-exile of The Haunted Screen, the classic book on German cinema of the 20s (published in Paris in 1952), which contained a poignant chapter on 'Pandora's Box and the Miracle of Louise Brooks'. The Cinematheque thus became the natural place to knot together the 20s French theory of photogenie, the 20s 'Americanism' of Hawks and Hollywood, and the miraculous translation of Louise Brooks, by Pabst, into Weimar Germany.
Epstein, in his programmatic essay of 1924 'Certain Characteristics of Photogenie', singles out the role of movement in the cinema as its aesthetic essence. As well as Brooks' visual look, it is important to emphasise her ease of movement. Pabst, sadly, was not a director given to long takes and complex camera movements, but a director of short shots, chiaroscuro and tilted angles. Nonetheless, Pabst gave Brooks the confidence to be herself as a performer, to live her part on the set as naturally as she could (and, in the case of Pandora's Box, as she points out, her part was one she was familiar with from her own time as a Follies showgirl and rich man's companion, from her own eclectic and impulsive sexual life).
Condemned to cinema
Because of its Hollywood base, Denishawn had a particularly close relationship with the movies. In its early years the Gish sisters studied there (Griffith sent all his leading ladies there for dance classes), as well as Mabel Normand, Blanche Sweet, Mae Marsh, Florence Vidor and many others. Brooks' predecessor at Denishawn was none other than Colleen Moore. Dance was an important avenue into silent cinema precisely because of the importance of bodily movement and mime. At Denishawn the young Brooks was taught basic ballet, Delsartean mime and Denishawn's own brand of modern dance, whose characteristic spins and outstretched arms can be seen performed (all too briefly) by Brooks in Pandora's Box. As a teenager she had already danced in concert opposite Shawn himself, playing a Hopi Indian princess in his Feather of the Dawn.
But the most important influence on Brooks at Denishawn was Martha Graham, then the company's up-and-coming new star, Ted Shawn's partner in their pioneering Mexican ballet Xochitl, and soloist in her own Serenata Morisca. Louise Brooks often remarked: "I earned how to act by watching Martha Graham dance." Her own ambition was to become not a Hollywood star, but what Martha Graham became: a great dancer. In 1979 she wrote: "Martha Graham is a superb actress whose unpopular monkey face in that period of candy-box prettiness kept her out of the theatre. So she turned dialogue into dance. What I would give to see her Hedda Gabler." Condemned to cinema by her beauty, that was what Brooks still aspired to: turning dialogue into dance, finding a form of expression appropriate for silent film in bodily movement. The 'photogenic' impact made by Brooks depended on her dance background, and, especially, on the Denishawn training which enabled her to make controlled movements appear natural.
If the rediscovery of Pandora's Box began in Paris in 1955 and was consolidated three years later by Langlois' retrospective of Brooks' films, for which she travelled to Paris in person to hang out with Lotte Eisner, Man Ray and Kenneth Anger, the full cult of Louise Brooks did not explode until it coincided with the rediscovery (or reinvention) of Weimar Germany as a site of 'decadence'. In 1966 the musical Cabaret opened on Broadway, to be made into a film by Bob Fosse in 1972. In Cabaret the most direct filmic reference is to Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel (1930), a study in female sadism, as it : is also in Visconti's The Damned (1969) and Cavani's The Night Porter (1973), both set in the ; context of Nazism. Louise Brooks had brought Pandora's Box back into fashion; now Pandora's Box, with its Weimar associations, fed back into i the cult of Louise Brooks. Her role, however, in c contrast to Dietrich's, is a study in masochism.
Pandora's Box was made the year before the reat Crash and portrays a shimmering world of revue and cabaret in which showgirls like s Lulu mingle with the rich and powerful, as well a as with a demi-monde of lesbian artists and lowlife pimps. Lulu's lover, patron and eventual husband is a powerful press baron (reminding Brooks of Hearst and Marion Davies, as well as Lord Beaverbrook and his showgirl protegees). But this high-bourgeois society which Lulu enters is one in which a jazz band plays at her wedding party and the bridegroom's attractive Young son is desperately in love with the bride. Above all, the lesbian relationship between Lulu and the Countess Geschwitz is vital to the film. Charles Weidman, the ex-Denishawn dancer, once observed: "Louise, everybody says you're a lesbian, but you're not really, you're a pansy." Despite all her evasions and demurrings, Brooks' androgyny was central to her cult allure. Her piquant autobiographical writings, published from the late 50s through to the 60s (many of them in Sight and Sound) only added to the confusion of documentary and and fiction, making her not only a wicked chronicler of Weimar (and Hollywood) decadence, but also a symbol of its polymorphous perversity.
Pandora's Box seems to end with an act of moral retribution. Lulu is murdered by Jack the Ripper, the first modern serial killer, whose chosen victims were all prostitutes. Just before the end, her killer, moved by her innocence and generosity (she offers herself to him as a gift), throws away his own knife, his murder weapon, only to find his gaze fixed obsessively on a kitchen knife lying by chance on the table in her garret. Prey to his compulsion to kill, he must reach out for it, even as he kisses her, and plunge it into her rapturous, unsuspecting body. She dies in the act of love. We know he will never be caught: he is Jack the Ripper.
Lulu is an oblivious victim. In the same way, she found a gun in her hand by chance when she killed her husband, and it too was an unwilled act, a strange but fatal compulsion. Lulu and Jack are doubles, equally innocent because equally unable to control their own actions, enfants sauvages. The obvious cinematic sibling of Pandora's Box is Fritz Lang's M (1931), the story of another infamous serial killer, the Dusseldorf child murderer. Lang's film is often seen as premonitory, the mass murders foreshadowing the imminent arrival of Nazism and the demented bloodbath to come. Yet Pandora's Box does not work in the same way. It is not a film about cruelty and vice, but about suf fering and martyrdom, even sanctity.
If Lulu is a femme fatale, she is one whose predominant quality is that of innocence, a lightness of being which is precisely what acts as a lure to those she carelessly fascinates, who crush her with their heaviness but must also share in her downfall. Her sexuality brings suffering to all it touches, not least herself, but she is not a vamp or a man-eater. She is an impetuous, uncalculating, unsocialised child of nature. Indeed, Pabst's choice of an American to play the role must have been determined by his wish to contrast America (perceived as young and innocent, energetic and impulsive: the New World) with Europe (perceived as old and corrupted, manipulative and morbid: the Old World).
Portent of doom