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Hollywood's Rebellious Silent Star

Louise Brooks never fully embraced Hollywood’s atmosphere but within her brief career that lasted just shy of ten years, Louise Brooks made over 20 silent films, a few so provocative that the flavor of her persona can still be seen in popular culture today.

Brooks started out at a very young age as a dancer. At sixteen, she was accepted into the Denishawn Modern Dance Company. Their members included the one and only Martha Graham. Brooks would later attribute that: “I learned to act by watching Martha Graham dance, and I learned to dance by watching Charlie Chaplin act.” But her hard-broiled and stubborn nature caused her to be fired after just two years. It was when she became a featured dancer in Broadway’s Ziegfeld Follies that Paramount Pictures approached her with a five-year contract. She signed it, but not with stars in her eyes. “...It was just for the money, that’s the only thing. I could spend a week’s salary on buying clothes.”

Her debut role at Paramount, an uncredited one, was in “The Street of Forgotten Men” (1925), and, within a few years, she was famous for her independent, vivacious spirit and bobbed hairstyle. American movie-goes loved her, but critics argued whether or not Brooks could act. European audiences seemed to take particular interest in Brooks after her performance in “A Girl in Every Port” (1928). Quite popular, she was friends with top stars such as Buster Keaton and Marion Davis, but Brooks hated the Hollywood scene. She continued to refuse a number of studio demands including to record dialogue to “The Canary’s Murder” (1929). Her dialogue was eventually dubbed by Margaret Livingston. Unwilling to tolerate her behavior further, Paramount gave her an ultimatum – “Either work for $750 or leave.” Brooks did the latter. For her rebellion, she was punished by being blacklisted. Brooks did not care. She went to Europe with director G.W. Pabst to make films and enjoyed Pabst’s company, “...His attitude was the pattern for all. Nobody offered me humorous or instructive comments on my acting. Everywhere I was treated with a kind of decency and respect unknown to me in Hollywood. It was just as if Mr Pabst had sat in on my whole life and career, and knew exactly where I needed assurance and protection."

“Pandora’s Box” (1929) and “Diary of a Lost Girl” (1929) were two European films which not only created controversy and were censored at the time of their viewing but also placed Brooks in the realm of immortality due to their sexually-charged subject matter and her performances in them, particularly as LuLu in “Pandora’s Box.”

When Brooks returned to Hollywood in 1931, her roles were relatively minuscule. She was offered the lead female role in “The Public Enemy” (1931) in an effort to boost her career but Brooks turned it down. She continued taking small parts while splitting her time with love George Marshall in New York. Her last Hollywood picture would be with John Wayne in “Overland Stage Raiders” (1938). In the 1950s, her films were rediscovered, and Henri Langlois, the French film historian exclaimed, “There is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! There is only Louise Brooks!”

After her Hollywood career, Louise Brooks returned home to Wichita, Kansas to start a dance company. When her dance company failed, Brooks moved to New York to work as a clerk for various department stores. In 1980, Brooks published her witty and honest biography, “Lulu on Hollywood.” Louise Brooks’s provocative image influenced Liza Minnelli in her characterization of Sally Bowles in “Cabaret” (1972) and continues to impact pop culture, comic books and inspire modern musical artists like Madonna.

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