Reopening "Pandora's Box"

Dennis Harvey November 7, 2006

Many stars are forgotten for a while, then “rediscovered” and newly appreciated by a later generation. But the case of Louise Brooks is somewhat unique — she was, really, only a “star” in retrospect. Her Hollywood profile was headed that-a-way when she foolishly (according to the industry) abandoned it to make a couple European movies. When she returned, her moment had passed.

A paltry if promising career and early dead-end-at the time, it constituted barely a blip on the radar. Yet those European films grew in stature over ensuing years, and with that the gradual realization that Brooks had been one of the great screen presences, however briefly. Her striking look — porcelain skin, alert features, sleek jet-black flapper bob — and naturalistic acting haven’t dated at all.

As a result, it seems there’s more interest in her with each passing year. The latest evidence is critic and historian Peter Cowie’s new book “Louise Brooks: Lulu Forever,“ published in time to commemorate the centenary of her birth. He’ll be signing copies and presenting a special commemorative film program at the Balboa this Sunday. The evening promises a rarely screened feature, a short and trailers showcasing Brooks, as well as “special guests, door prizes and more.” (Cowie will also appear the prior night at the Smith Rafael Film Center to screen a new 35mm print of her best-known vehicle “Pandora’s Box.”)

Why the fuss? Why, indeed, is there such a thing as The Louise Brooks Society (which is co-presenting this event with The Booksmith)? The explanation is all on-screen, in any role where she wasn’t entirely wasted.

Kansas-born Brooks started out as a dancer, first in touring troupes and then in Broadway revues. This led to Hollywood in 1925, where bit parts led steadily to larger ones, finally female leads in two good 1928 Paramount releases: Howard Hawks’ rollicking “A Girl in Every Port” and William Wellman’s more delicate “Beggars of Life.”

She hadn’t set the world on fire yet, but was certainly expected to graduate from starlet to star. Paramount was not pleased, however, when she chose — just as “talking pictures” were becoming the rage — to end her contract and accept a silent-film offer in Germany. This was G.W. Pabst’s “Pandora’s Box,” drawn from Franz Wedekind’s play “Lulu,” and with beguiling lack of affectation she played that titular seducer/destroyer of both men and women, herself finally destroyed by Jack the Ripper. Perhaps even better (if less shocking) than that famous classic was a second Pabst movie, “Diary of a Lost Girl,” in which her victimized innocent is indelibly touching. She also starred as an exploited beauty-contest winner in a French film, 1930’s “Prix de Beaute.” These are all wonderful movies in which she was superb. But for a long time they were little seen outside their home countries — particularly in the U.S., where silent cinema was already stone-cold-dead.

Returning to Hollywood, Brooks was now — at age 24 — a has-been. She unwisely turned a couple good offers and accepted a handful of humiliatingly poor ones, including bit parts. Those few who remembered her considered her “difficult” and past expiration date. Her last movie role was a nondescript heroine in a nondescript 1938 “Z” western, “Overland Stage Raiders” — one of a zillion such that John Wayne starred in before becoming an “A”-list star.

Found living in seclusion in the mid-‘50s, Brooks was surprised and delighted that latterday film buffs not only remembered but worshipped her. She returned the favor by writing very intelligently about her own movies and the art form in general (mostly famously in the essay collection “Lulu in Hollywood,” which is still in print). She admitted sabotaging her own career as readily as she enjoyed her new iconic status in retirement, dying at a no doubt satisfied age 80 in 1985 — secure in the knowledge that her legend would continue to grow.

[“Pandora’s Box” plays Sat., Nov. 11, at 7 pm, Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 4th St., San Rafael. $6.25-9.50. (415) 454-1222. “Celebrating Louise Brooks: An Evening of Rare Films,” issues Sun., Nov. 12, at 7:30 pm, Balboa Theatre, 2630 Balboa, SF. $6-8.50. (415) 221-8184.]