Archive for louise brooks

Clara Bow and The Wild Party (1929)

Posted in Books, Dailies with tags , , , on April 6, 2009 by leclisse

Today, I came to the end of David Stenn’s breezy volume on the inimitable “IT” Girl, Clara Bow. On the whole, I quiteFashion plate! enjoyed Stenn’s examination of one of the most “neglected and underrated of all film actresses” – a sentiment not to be taken lightly coming from the likes of Louise Brooks. Aside from the scandals and revelations that wracked Clara’s life, there were a few lighter details of note that I found quite interesting:

  1. While on a European tour to promote 1932’s Call Her Savage, Clara made a stop in Germany.  According to Stenn, in Berlin “a starstruck Adolf Hitler presented her with a signed copy of Mein Kampf. ‘For my most esteemed friend Clara,’ he wrote, ‘with the wish that she derives the same pleasure reading this book as I did writing it.  Adolf.'”  “Madness” was all Clara had to say.
  2. In an interesting twist on Clara’s hedonistic youth, 1964 saw her supporting arch-conservative Barry Goldwater in his bid for the presidency.  Clara wrote to fellow sexual rebel-turned-political reactionary Lina Basquette that “[o]ur dollar has shrunk to a dollarette and people run around seeking more pleasure, less work, more pay.  The Fabian Socialists are ruining us.”  In a letter to Hedda Hopper, she also accused choreographer Agnes DeMille of being a communist.

Despite the attention showered on Clara with the publication of Stenn’s biography, I was unable to find much else in the way of substantial critical analyses of Clara or her films.  Scholarly journal articles appear to be nil – I found one discussing the role of It within the context of rising female consumerism in the 1920’s, and second article looking at the flapper comedienne.  I suppose my expectations were somewhat inflated with the relative wealth of academic work on Louise Brooks that is readily available (not to mention her own scholarly work for the film journal Sight and Sound, among others).

Lobby card from THE WILD PARTYIn the wake of this Clara Bow high, I tried to find some of her other films through the Interlibrary Loan system, but was only able to get a hold of The Wild Party (1929).  Directed by Dorothy Arzner and co-starring Frederic March, The Wild Party sticks close to formula but is notable as Clara’s first talkie.  Clara plays Stella Ames, the party girl with a heart of gold at an all-girls college.  Stella falls for the handsome new anthropology professor, Dr. Gilmore (March), but their love is threatened by disciplinary expulsion from the college.  I think the film stands as an item of curiosity, mainly from the contributions of its star and director (Arzner was one of the few female directors in Hollywood at this time, and the first one to direct a talkie – 1928’s Manhattan Cocktail).  Other than that, however, the film creaks and clunks along due to the primitive state of sound technology in Hollywood at the time.  Come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever seen an early talkie that I would honestly call good.  It’s a wonder I was able to make it through Coquette (also 1929).

I feel like opening it up for general discussion – which early talkies would you consider to be good films?  By “early” I’m referring to the period from 1927 with Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer to about 1930.  By 1931, sound films hit the ground running with the likes of The Public Enemy (which made a star out of Jean Harlow in a role that, incidentally, almost went to Louise Brooks), Dracula, Frankenstein, and M.


Q&A: How did it all begin?

Posted in Dailies, Silent Film with tags , , , on March 29, 2009 by leclisse

From Movie Viewing Girl:

Who was the actor/actress that you were first interested in?
Claudette Colbert.  I remember seeing So Proudly We Hail and It Happened One Night while on vacation at my grandparents’ house.  My grandma always took my brother and me to the library to check out movies for the week, and for some reason these caught my interest.  I was so captivated by Colbert that I had to see every one of her films that I could get my ten-year-old hands on.

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Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)

Posted in Dailies, Silent Film with tags , on March 28, 2009 by leclisse

Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)I always make the mistake of comparing Diary of a Lost Girl with the preceeding Brooks/Pabtst collaboration, Pandora’s Box (also 1929).  Because of this, I have always preferred ‘Pandora’ because there was something, quite indefineable, that made me uncomfortable while watching ‘Diary.’  I gave the film another viewing this afternoon and I think my reservations became a little clearer, or at least a little more articulate.

The contrast between Thymian, as portrayed by Louise Brooks, and the slithering cast of characters that surround her is made as clear as what one feels while in the midst of a nightmare.  Initially, Thymian is oblivious to the fact that her father is a sexual predator.  She cannot comprehend the fact that he has dispensed a beloved housekeeper who is pregnant with his child, and trustingly turns to his pharmacy assistant, Meinert (played to the hilt by Fritz Rasp, a favorite Murnau villain) to explain “what happened to Elisabeth.”  Brooks moves through the trauma of this scene as if through a dream.  She loses consciousness once Meinert takes her in his arms, and steals her away to the secrecy of the back room in order to reenact for the unconscious Thymian the downfall of Elisabeth.

Louise Brooks as ThymianThe exaggerated performances of Andrews Engelmann and Valeska Gert as the director and his wife, respectively, take the film’s ethereal atmosphere to a higher level.  Thymian is thrown from the cliff of hypocrisy when she is sent to a reform school for girls, headed by Engelmann and Gert, whose characters at times border on caricature.  They are the figures of nightmares, exacting unrealistic standards of obedience from the cowering, terrified pupils.  Gert, especially, derives an orgiastic pleasure from the rigors of descipline inflicted. 

Thymian escapes this harrowing world with the aid of an old family friend, Count Nicolas Osdorff and her fellow prisoner, Ericka, who brings her to a brothel, the next stage of her journey.  The girlish and unassuming Thymian is immediately taken in and made the belle of the establishment.  Once again, she is collapses in unconsciousness as she is taken to a private room by her first john.

It is this feeling of being in a nightmare that sets ‘Diary’ so much apart from ‘Pandora.’  Brooks channels that inimitable feeling of helplessness that is all at once terrifying and numbing.  ‘Diary’ unleashes horrific destruction on the life of Thymian, which hinges the sexual domination of women and the conventional Western double-standard that does nothing about this domination. 

Louise Brooks as Thymian (candid)I have read that Director G.W. Pabst planned a very different ending for this film, which would have included Thymian becoming the madame of her own brothel.  While this conclusion would have exacted some sort of justice for the trauma that Thymian has suffered, I do not believe that it would have been appropriately within keeping of her character.  After all, Thymian turns to prostitution because she only has the clothes on her back.  Her family doesn’t want her, her illegitimate child is dead, and she has no practical vocational skills.  It is difficult to say how Pabst would have handled this ending, however, so perhaps judgment is best left to oneself.

What is indisputable, however, is the is the gravity of Brooks’ performance.  She is delicate, subtle, vulnerable, intuitive, and a host of other immortal adjectives.  The Kino version of ‘Diary’ includes the rare short ‘Windy Riley Goes to Hollywood,’ which was directed by the disgraced Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle some years after the Virginia Rappe scandal.  Watching this crude film drives home the injustice of Brooks’ brief career, especially when watching this following ‘Diary’ or ‘Pandora,’ both of which I consider to be some of the finest offerings from the age of silent cinema.

Pandora’s Box (1929)

Posted in Silent Film with tags , on February 28, 2009 by leclisse

I watched Pandora’s Box again this evening.  It is upon this film that I base my love of Louise Brooks, and I consider it to be the finest silent film I have ever seen:

"No smoking in here!"

I read Barry Paris’ quintessential biography of Louise this past summer, which included an insightful anecdote about the making of Pandora from one of Louise’s articles written for the film journal Sight and Sound:

My final defeat, crying real tears, came at the end of the picture when he [director G. W. Pabst] went through my trunks to select a dress to be “aged” for Lulu’s murder as a streetwalker in the arms of Jack the Ripper. With his instinctive understanding of my tastes, he decided on the blouse and skirt of my very favourite suit. I was anguished. “Why can’t you buy some cheap little dress to be ruined? Why does it have to be my dress?” To these questions I got no answer till the next morning, when my once lovely clothes were returned to me in the studio dressing-room. They were torn and foul with grease stains. Not some indifferent rags from the wardrobe department, but my own suit which only last Sunday I had worn to lunch at the Adlon! Josephine hooked up my skirt, I slipped the blouse over my head and went on the set feeling as hopelessly defiled as my clothes.

Louise’s anguish in this scene translates into Lulu’s most vulnerable and, ultimately, redemptive scene when on the brink of death at the hands of Jack the Ripper.  Lulu offers herself entirely without affectation, without the coy flirtation that colors her previous history with both men and women alike.  Jack is without his knife, and Lulu is unable to advertise her sexuality.  They are reduced to the basest form of humanity — mere survival — but offer each other a sympathy and understanding they are unable to find elsewhere.