(3 of 4)
But the face that was forever fascinating, eternally modern. In the '20s, the '50s and today, hers in a face as contemporary as it is extraordinary. In her early films, Brooks was hired just to look pretty. She was not hired to look pretty 80 years later. But she does. Her acting, or behaving, is modern as well. From the beginning, she seemed to recognize that her magnetism was something that needn't be asserted, only displayed a great star cannily judging her gifts.
But that's not what Brooks thought. She repeatedly claimed she was no actress. As for her famed beauty, she dismissed it. "That's why I was never an actress," she told Richard Leacock in the documentary Lulu in Berlin. "I was never in love with myself. I would go to a party and I would see Dolores Del Rio and Constance Talmadge and Constance Bennett, all these beautiful women, and I'd say, "You're the ugliest one here. You're black and furry, you've got freckles, your dress is not as attractive.' So, in the end, you can't be a great actress unless you think you're beautiful."
For a certain insouciant kind of woman, the '20s was the age of sexual emancipation in popular literature and film: Sally Bowles and Clara Bow, Lorelei Lee and Louise Brooks. Women had just got the vote in the U.S., and now they had the moves. Brooks was made for this medium, this decade.
Born Nov. 14, 1906, in Cherryvale, Kan., and raised in Wichita, by a lawyer father and a free-thinking suffragette with literary ambitions, Mary Louise Brooks was dancing at social events from the age of six. Ever precocious, she left home at 16 for New York to join Ruth St. Denis' and Ted Shawn's Denishawn modern dance company. That led to dancer-showgirl stints with George White's Scandals and The Ziegfeld Follies and, when she was still 18, a contract with Paramount Pictures, New York branch.
She got important supporting roles in A pictures like The Show Off with Ford Sterling and It's the Old Army Game with Fields. "She made a flurry of comedies in which she was a capricious femme fatale," Thomson writes, "playing with a reserve that unfailingly monopolized attention amid so much mugging." Then she was brought to Hollywood for more substantial fare.
In 1928 she was lent out to Fox for A Girl in Every Port, in which the young director Howard Hawks created the prototype for a fable he would elaborate on over the next 40 years: the love story between two men. Victor McLaglen and Robert Armstrong are sailors who whore and brawl their way through shore leave until McLaglen spots Brooks, as Godiva the Diver in her one-piece, plummeting from her high perch into a shallow pool. He falls for her, not realizing that Armstrong had been her beau a million miles away in Coney Island. (Of all the dive joints in all the world, he has to walk into this one.) As McLaglen polishes Brooks' shoe, she runs her hand through his hair, over his arm and down his leg. The slut! Armstrong renounces her, saying of McLaglen, "That big ox means more to me than any woman." Brooks is only the foil here, but her naturalness exposes the inanity of the male-bonding theme. Any man who'd choose luggish McLaglen over the beautiful Brooks is not worth having.
Much more solid was Brooks' next film, back at Paramount. Beggars of Life was based on a novel by hobo-author Jim Tully, and directed by William A. Wellman, who was fresh from Wings, the aerial drama that would win the first Academy Award for Best Picture. Its first scenes show Brooks at her Hollywood best. A tramp (Richard Arlen) comes into a house and begs for food from a seated man with his back to the door. Arlen moves closer and sees that the man is dead, with blood running down his face. A noise on the floor above introduces Brooks, who creeps down the stairs to tell her story: of how the man adopted her out of an orphans' home; how he abused her and, this morning, tried to rape her; how, when pressed against a wall, she reached back for a shotgun and killed him, All this is related in tellingly suggestive images superimposed over Brooks' gravely animated face. It's silent-film art at its most evocative, and Brooks inhabits every emotion of misery, anger and fear.