Louise Brooks Turns 100: Overrated Film Icon?

“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 [actually, Brooks was a leading lady in several films of the late 1920s]. 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 had refused to dub her dialogue in the 1929 silent-turned-talkie The Canary Murder Case]. 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.”

It's about one hour and a half past midnight, California time, so this post is a little late, but above is a brief excerpt from Time magazine's Richard Corliss article on Louise Brooks, who celebrated (from the Great Beyond) her 100th birthday yesterday, Nov. 14.

In his article, Corliss attempts to explain why the second-rate silent film star became a first-rate silent film icon. That's easy: All Brooks needed was some excellent publicity (mostly thanks to the Cinémathèque Française's Henri Langlois); lots of stunning film stills; a couple of performances in prestigious European productions; a gossipy book of recollections; and a severe case of groupthink disease.

In other words, If Langlois and assorted lofty film critics and scholars said (and many still say) that Brooks is greater than Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Marie Dressler put together, then, well, she must be, and we must all worship her. Of course, I'm fully aware that some people would have admired Brooks regardless of what anyone had to say, just like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Rudolph Valentino would have their fans today even if an early death hadn't granted them iconic status. That said, if Langlois and his followers had promoted Janet Gaynor (also born in 1906) instead of Louise Brooks, the 7th Heaven star would be the one with a huge following, myriad birthday celebrations, and a lengthy Time article in 2006. (Read the San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalles' remarks on Louise Brooks.)

Now, it's time for someone to rediscover Constance Talmadge, Norma Talmadge, Eleanor Boardman, Corinne Griffith, Alice Joyce, Laura La Plante, Billie Dove, and Renée Adorée, silent film actresses who – in my invariably humble opinion – were more attractive, more talented, and considerably more alluring that Brooks ever was.

Note: Brooks actually looks quite interesting – if unrecognizable from her bobbed-hair days – in the aforementioned 1938 “cheapo Western” Overland Stage Raiders, directed by George Sherman, and starring John Wayne, Ray Corrigan (a handsome, likable actor who should have been cast in Wayne's Stagecoach role), and Max Terhune as the Three Mesquiteers of the New American West. Brooks has the leading lady role in this B-Western, though her long, jet-black hair, sharp features, and penciled eyebrows would have made her presence more appropriate to one of Universal's horror films or to the films noirs of the following decade.

Louise Brooks Society website.

Wrapping up, here's San Francisco Chronicle film critic and author (and Norma Shearer admirer) Mick LaSalle on both the term “actor” – as in “actor Julia Roberts” – and cult figure Louise Brooks.

But there are other silent actresses who are more beautiful, more interesting, more innovative and more talented, whose bodies of work are more distinguished, and yet they remain, mute and still, languishing in film cans through critical neglect and archival uninterest. Still, I give Brooks credit for one thing. While other actresses slept with producers to get a career, Brooks realized the significance of sleeping with film scholars in order to fix that career in the public consciousness. Producers forget, but scholars tend to be endlessly grateful.

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5 Comments to Louise Brooks Turns 100: Overrated Film Icon?

  1. David M.

    By the way the Talmadge's have no allure, that's why they are forgotten.

  2. David M.

    I agree with Paul Anderson 100 %.

  3. Paul Anderson

    First of all, all of your opinions seem to be arbitrary without any thought explanation for them. Also, this lack of thoughtfullness seems to show a lack of real intelligence of any depth or scope.

    Yes, there are people who follow the latest trends and will use a Time article (which I have never seen) to get on the latest bandwagon. That does not mean the subject of the article isn't worth the attention. I don't care if millions worship Louise or just a handfull appreciate her and the rest of the population never heard of her. That would change who she was-and usually such individuals are above the ability to be truly appreciated by people like yourself.

    By the way, just why “should” Ray Corrigan have been cast in Stagecoach? This line seems typical of your review-a flip comment with no backup. Perhaps it is true, but I wouldn't know it by your writing. I checked out Ray after your comment. Yeah, he's “handsome” and likeable, in a totally uninteresting sort of way.

    I'll stick with John-and Louise.

    By the way, Louise adored John-and there's a rare photo of them dancing together at a party (perhaps the rap party for their film) and it is the only picture I know where Louise, as she is looking at him, looks vulnerable.

    I think your writing, and obviously your tastes, is as shallow as the public you seem to disdain. The difference between them and you is that you have dillusions about your importance.

  4. Andre

    James, thanks for writing.

    I believe that Louise Brooks would have her fans today regardless of what Henri Langlois said — and what future critics aped. I just don't believe they'd be as numerous or that she'd be featured in “Time” magazine in 2006.

    Norma Talmadge has her fans, too, but most people don't know — or care about — who she was and “Time” magazine wouldn't waste one sentence on that 1920s superstar because no influential patron has bothered to “rediscover” Talmadge for modern audiences.

    If that ever happens — say, Madonna, Brad Pitt, and Roger Ebert decide that Norma Talmadge is a Goddess — “Time,” “The New Yorker,” and “Newsweek” will be discussing Talmadge's allure, sophistication, girlish sensuality, etc. etc., and in 2057 her tens (hundreds?) of thousands of loving fans will be getting drunk in commemoration of the actress' 100th death anniversary.

    Now, I totally agree with you. It's a form of “cultural vandalism” to — at times quite literally — let old movies rot away in vaults. Universal, for instance, owns most of the pre-TV Paramount classics, but they don't do anything with them. At least here in the U.S. there's Turner Classic Movies, which shows loads of MGM, WB, and RKO oldies, plus some films — including non-Hollywood productions — they lease from other film libraries.

  5. James

    Unlike you I don't think Louise Brooks' reputation is a product of some French film critics' intellectual snobbery. I remember clearly seeing Pandora's Box for the first time (sadly only on the TV) and how after 20 minutes of being bored by it, she gradually seduced me into this otherwise not particularly engaging film. Judgements like this are of course always subjective, but for me she simply oozed sensuality, without ever doing anything overt or obvious, and she simply had great screen charisma. I could quite easily put her up there with Garbo as a screen icon, even though her body of work is so small.

    Everyone that has been fortunate enough to see enough film to know that it didn't all start with Star Wars, has their particular favourites that they think are under-appreciated, (mine include Ben Hecht, Carole Lombard, & Ginger Rogers as a comedienne), and I guess it's fine to argue the toss, but to me the bigger issue is the lack of value we put on these wonderful films. It's as if we all thought literature started with Stephen King, and Shakespeare's plays was no longer performed. There just simply should be more cinemas dedicated to showing old films. I was fortunate as I grew up when BBC 2 regularly showed old films, even things like a season of Jean Renoir lasting over many weeks, and lived in London when Steve Wooley was running the Scala cinema, and other London cimemas like the Electric had a very wide ranging repertoire. There was even a cinema club in the Mayfair Hotel devoted to just 1930's Hollywood, the Starlight Cinema Club. It was wonderful but nothing like that exists now. It is all so neglected now. It is almost cultural vandalism.