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Lulu-Louise at 100

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JOHN KOBAL FOUNDATION / GETTY

American actress Louise Brooks.

She was a flapper in the 1920s, when Hollywood had hundreds of those pert girls. She made 15 silent movies in New York and Hollywood, none in the lead role. She went to Europe and starred in three films, none of which made an impression at the time. When she returned to America, ready to make her mark in talking pictures, the movie industry blackballed her. She was, she later recalled, invisible to the stars and moguls who had courted her a few years before. "It isn't that people turn their heads not to speak to you — they don't see you.... They look right at you and you don't exist." She made her last movie — a cheapo western with a pre-Stagecoach John Wayne — in 1938, and by 1946 she had to take a $40-a-week job as a sales girl at Saks Fifth Avenue.

That story, with minor alterations, could fit many women, perhaps most of them, who have come to Hollywood with dreams of stardom that never materialize. But if that were all there was to say about Louise Brooks, we would not be celebrating her centenary today. The Victoria Theatre in San Francisco would not be holding "Happy Birthday, Louise" party to accompany a performance of Lulu, a play based on her signature film Pandora's Box. The Criterion Collection would not be issuing a double-disc edition of the Pandora's Box DVD. And Rizzoli would not have published Louise Brooks; Lulu Forever, a handsome volume with more than 100 large photos and a warm consideration of her career by Peter Cowie. (Yes, that's the same Peter Cowie who wrote a Janus Films book that I reviewed last Friday. He's a one-man Book of the Week Club.)

Somehow, decades after her brief fame, in a last-minute rescue so late it was nearly post-mortem, Brooks triumphed. In 1953, Henri Langlois of Paris' Cinematheque Francaise spearheaded the revival of her reputation by proclaiming, "There is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! There is only Louise Brooks!" The cue for his effusion was George Wilhelm Pabst's 1929 German melodrama Pandora's Box, in which Brooks plays Lulu, an innocent beguiler who radiates sexuality so unself-consciously toxic that it drives men mad — beyond lust, to disgrace and murder.

Received with no special enthusiasm in Europe, cut by censors into incoherence in the U.S., Pandora's Box had to wait a generation to find its audience. But when recognition for the film, and even more so for Brooks, did come, it didn't stop. The Anna Karina character in Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre sa vie was based on her, as was Melanie Griffith's Lulu in Jonathan Demme's Something Wild. An adoring 1979 New Yorker profile by Kenneth Tynan (calling Brooks "the most seductive, sexual image of woman ever committed to celluloid") cemented her celebrity, and suddenly the Rochester, N.Y., recluse was up in the silent-movie Pantheon with Garbo and Lillian Gish.

Brooks had gone to Rochester at the urging of James Card, head of the George Eastman House film division, where she busied herself in research on silent films. It was there she found a second career, writing memoir-essays on her early days. These trenchant pieces, on Chaplin and W. C. Fields, Gish and Garbo, and of course Pabst and Pandora's Box, were collected in the volume Lulu in Hollywood, and proved Brooks a stranger creature than the moguls could imagine: a beauty with a brain. The flapper could write!

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