- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Posthumously, Louise Brooks has achieved a secure esteem as the most dazzling and haunting starlet of the twilight period of silent movies. If the Brooks phenomenon remains a mystery to you, the legend will be clarified by her most famous showcase, “Pandora’s Box.” A n ominous and sardonic classic of 1928, directed in Berlin by the exceptionally skillful and sophisticated G.W. Pabst, the movie is now available in a handsome DVD edition from the Criterion Collection.

The two-disc set includes an informative career chronicle, “Looking for Lulu,” commissioned in 1998 by Turner Classic Movies and written by Barry Paris, the author of the most extensive Brooks biography, published in 1989, a few years after her death. A vintage interview shot with the subject herself, “Lulu in Berlin,” has been dredged up for the occasion. Documentary filmmaker Richard Leacock managed to corner Miss Brooks at her apartment in Rochester, N.Y., in 1971. Nearing 65 at the time, she submits to his less-than-expert line of questioning while dressed in her bathrobe. She rescues a potentially misguided intrusion through the force of enduring vivacity, candor and eccentricity.

Who is this Lulu who keeps being invoked by admirers, the ill-fated playgirl-streetwalker protagonist of two plays written by Frank Wedekind near the end of the 19th century? Louise Brooks was 21 when Pabst sought her as his embodiment of the seductive, heedless Lulu, who has a way of bringing out self-destructive, forlorn and wrathful traits in her consorts. The actress’s father was a Kansas attorney; her liberated mother abandoned family life for the lecture circuit. Miss Brooks migrated from Kansas to New York City at the tender age of 15 in order to enroll with the Denishawn dance company, a revelation during a stopover in Wichita. Her outward-bound odyssey acquired aspects of the weird, perilous and fabulous to rival Dorothy Gale’s travels in Oz.

Talented but easily bored and distracted, Miss Brooks was dismissed by Ted Shawn for lack of dedication. She rebounded while still in her teens as a chorus girl in George White’s “Scandals” and Florenz Ziegfeld’s “Follies.”

By 1925-26 she was also a photogenic favorite with magazines, due in part to the distinctive “Dutch bob” haircut of the decade. Jet-black bangs were cut low across her forehead and scalloped around her ears. The hair provided a flattering frame for her dark eyes and a selection of smiles, from roughly the inquiring to the ecstatic. She carried her head regally and her limbs and torso blithely. The Brooks look had been specifically borrowed for a popular comic-strip about an irrepressible flapper, Dixie Dugan.

In Hollywood she began to emerge as a promising newcomer, particularly opposite W.C. Fields in “It’s the Old Army Game” and while stirring rivalries between Victor McLaglen and Robert Armstrong in “A Girl in Every Port,” directed by Howard Hawks, and then Richard Arlen and Wallace Beery in “Beggars of Life,” directed by William Wellman. She also married one of her directors, comedy specialist Edward Sutherland, but each remained ill-suited to domesticity or fidelity.

A turning point came after she had completed “The Canary Murder Case” with William Powell. It had been shot silent, but Paramount was preoccupied with the transition from silents to talkies. Hoping to cut overhead, the studio declined to renew several contracts, including that of Miss Brooks. Later the management thought better of it and urged her to return for a talkie revamp of “Murder Case.” She refused to cooperate and undermined her Hollywood prospects as a consequence.

While estranged from Paramount, Miss Brooks learned there was a prestige European director, Pabst, keen on casting her in his next movie. Her informant was her consort, George Marshall, the Washington laundry magnate and playboy who eventually became the owner of the Redskins. His informant was a helpful Paramount director, Monta Bell. In Berlin the celebrated Pabst, then unknown to Miss Brooks, had been holding out for a leading lady who promised something fresh and astonishing in the way of erotic provocation. He was willing to settle for a known provocatrice, Marlene Dietrich, but preferred not to, later explaining. “Dietrich was too old and too obvious — one sexy look and the picture would become a burlesque.”

To be precise, Miss Dietrich was 26, but the burlesque apprehension was perfectly justifiable. Anyway, she got her decisive opportunity to be erotically devastating two years later when Josef von Sternberg arrived in Berlin to film “The Blue Angel.” Miss Brooks remained a cinematic muse-temptress with untapped and unselfconscious potential when she encountered Pabst. His cagey methods of exploiting her beauty and latent expressive impact are recalled by the actress herself in the Leacock interview and in fragments from a later interview used in the TCM tribute.

The English critic Kenneth Tynan triggered the last great comeback of Miss Brooks’ wayward career when he devoted a New Yorker profile to her in 1979 — “The Girl in the Black Helmet,” alluding to her haircut. This homage encouraged the publication of a Brooks anthology, “Lulu in Hollywood,” reprinting seven of the reflective essays she had written for periodicals after moving to Rochester in 1956. She remained a kind of resident silent film eminence at the George Eastman House’s movie archive for the final three decades of her life. Both the Tynan profile and Miss Brooks’ memoir of Pabst are reprinted in a booklet with the DVD edition of “Pandora’s Box.”

Mr. Tynan was pretty far gone on Louise Brooks, and in the course of his appreciation he confessed, “She has run through my life like a magnetic thread, this shameless urchin tomboy, this unbroken, unbreakable porcelain filly … a temptress with no pretensions, capable of dissolving into a giggling fit at a peak of erotic ecstasy … the only star actress I can imagine either being enslaved by or wanting to enslave.”

It might be difficult to surpass this level of self-mocking adoration, but you understand the impulse while watching “Pandora’s Box.” Or looking at selected stills of Louise Brooks in her prime. I don’t think any critic can improve on Mr. Tynan’s summary of how her presence glorifies this witty and disquieting movie: “She resembles a glittering tropical fish in a tank full of predators.”

TITLE: “Pandora’s Box” (“Die Buchse der Pandora”)

RATING: No MPAA rating (made in 1928, decades before the advent of the rating system; adult subject matter, with systematic ominous elements, sexual allusions and occasional violence)

CREDITS: Directed by G.W. Pabst. Screenplay by Ladislaus Vajda, based on the plays “Earth Spirit” and “Pandora’s Box” by Frank Wedekind. Cinematography by Gunther Krampf. Art direction by Andre Andreiev and Gottlieb Hesch. German intertitles and optional English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 133 minutes

DVD EDITION: The Criterion Collection

WEB SITE: www.criterionco.com

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