Saturday, February 16, 2013

Silent Film Starlet Louise Brooks Gets the Hollywood Treatment

It looks like Fox Searchlight has gotten the rights to adapt Laura Moriarty's novel The Chaperone.  The novel is about a 15 year old Louise Brooks and a fictionalized Alice Mills (Cora Carlisle in the novel), who chaperones her on her summer trip to New York City in 1922.  She's supposed to make sure Louise behaves.  Good luck lady.  Downton Abbey star Elizabeth McGovern is attached to the film and will play the chaperone. It's been on my to read list because it's set in the 1920s (my favorite era), and because Louise Brooks is my favorite silent film star.  I can't wait to find out who will get to play her.

 Louise at about age 16, circa 1923

In her day, Brooks was apparently considered a "second-tier star".  We'd probably consider her a B-list celebrity if she was around today, but she became an icon over the years.

Her early years weren't always good.  A bachelor she dubbed "Mr. Feathers" or sometimes "Mr. Flowers" molested her when she was nine years old.  It was a memory she would block out for decades.  She ditched high school, left Wichita, Kansas and began her career dancing in 1922 after Ruth St. Denis invited Brooks to her dance company.

After being fired from the dance company she was hired to be a chorus girl in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1925.  Once a producer saw her in the Follies, she was given a contract with Paramount.  She was 19 years old.

Brooks had a reputation for being direct, and utterly unimpressed by Hollywood.  But the celebrity mags seemed to love her, especially her sleek black hair.  If Brooks got a mention in the fan magazines, so did her High-brow Bob.  Or her square bob.  Or her bangs.  Her love life - including her "wild and swift" romance with director Eddie Sutherland - was the source of endless fascination and speculation.

 Pandora's Box

Though half of her 14 films with Paramount are considered lost, it is her work outside of Paramount - 1929's Pandora's Box - that Brooks is most remembered for.  Originally, the film bombed, and the critics hated her performance ("Louise Brooks cannot act," one said bluntly), but as time went by, critics like Kenneth Tynan recognized her alluring paradoxes:
She has run through my life like a magnetic thread - this shameless urchin tomboy, this unbroken, unbreakable porcelain filly. She is a prairie princess, equally at home in a waterfront bar and in the royal suite at Neuschwanstein; a creature of impulse, a creature of impulses, a temptress with no pretensions, capable of dissolving into a giggling fit at a peak of erotic ecstasy; amoral but totally selfless, with that sleek jet cloche of hair that rings such a peal of bells in my subconscious. 
When she returned to Hollywood, her career in American films was practically over.  Silent film stars who wanted to stay in talkies had to make the transition fast, and she missed the opportunity by making movies in Europe for too long.

You can head on over to YouTube for a look at a rare interview with Louis Brooks in her later years.

Who would you cast to play Louise Brooks?

"The Girl in the Black Helmet" by Kenneth Tynan
"The Martyrdom of Lulu" by Dan Callahan
Photoplay Magazine (January-June 1927)

Further Reading
When Kenneth Met Lulu
Opening Pandora's Box by J. Hoberman


  1. Well, Lindsay Lohan, of course! If she can play Liz, she can play Louise! Oh wait, she couldn't really play Liz after all. Never mind. But seriously -- and I know this might seem like I'm kidding, but I'm not -- how about Miley Cyrus?

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