NotebookMay 1, 2007 By: American Salon Staff American Salon
With Card, Brooks would screen her films for the first time, including two by German director G. W. Pabst, though Brooks later would admit she was drunk at the time. In 1928 in Pandora's Box, Brooks played Lulu, the free-wheeling call girl caught in a tangle of affairs with a newspaper magnate, his son, a circus entertainer, a lesbian, a dirty old man and Jack the Ripper. Set in the excesses of Weimar Germany before World War II, doom and gloom play to a dramatic end as Lulu unravels her life, standing trial for the murder of her newspaper magnate husband, then running off with his son to London where she's murdered by a dashing but demented Jack the Ripper. In her famous 1982 autobiography, Lulu in Hollywood, Brooks wrote: "The finest job Pabst ever did was to cast himself as the Animal Tamer of Pandora's Box, a film adaptation of Franz Wedekind's Tragedy of Monsters." Lulu may have taken a secret to the grave, but Brooks knew hers. At nine, she was molested by a house painter named Mr. Flowers who lived down the street. Brooks called him "Mr. Feathers." He damaged her for life, leading her to alcoholism and insatiable love, including affairs with Charlie Chaplin and CBS Chairman William Paley. The actress' films would parallel her real-life story. In Pabst's 1929 Diary of a Lost Girl, Brooks is raped, gives up her child, is sent to a reformatory, kept under sadistic surveillance by the headmistress and escapes only to be sent back, but this time as a society lady. In both of these films, as in all of her work, it isn't the plot that defines the actress but the undaunting intensity of her eyes combined with raw vulnerability, precision of movement and a haircut that no one ever forgets.
Born and raised in Kansas, Brooks was a cult classic who influenced a generation of women and girls who wanted to be her. But nobody could be her because the role of "Louise Brooks" was one of the most complex of all time. As she told Leacock: Pabst "knew instinctively that I was Lulu . . . He was a great psychologist. He treated everyone in a completely different manner . . . He was more a choreographer with me, and I was a dancer." Pabst would unleash her finest performances.
Brooks' mother, a staunch feminist who rallied for women's rights, took her to a barber when she was 10 to cut her braids, leaving her with a razor-sharp line of long bangs and a Buster Brown Dutch bob, identifying her for life. Director Howard Hawks, who worked with Brooks in 1928 said: "Just think how modern she looks." Brooks was modern enough to stand against Hollywood. In a legendary fight with Paramount executive Bud Schulberg, Brooks refused to stay on at $750 a week without raising her options. The Studios were saving their dimes at the advent of talkies, spreading false rumors that silent-film actors couldn't speak. But Brooks had a remarkable voice and a telegram waiting for her from Pabst. The director had seen her in the Hawks film and knew her lethal combination of innocence, style and deadly seduction was the ticket.