Louise Brooks made her first big splash in England in 1924, when she became the first person to dance the Charleston in London. That was at the city's famous Cafe de Paris, then only recently opened. Brooks, a precocious dancer and showgirl, was 17 years old at the time.
Now, more than 85 years later, the late, legendary silent film star is set to be the toast of London once more as two of her very best films are scheduled to be shown in the coming days.
On Friday, April 13th, the Classic Cinema Club of Ealing will screen Pandora's Box (1929) at the Ealing Town Hall. The film will be followed by a discussion.
And on April 29, Beggars of Life (1928) will screen at Barbican as part of its silent film & live music series. This screening will feature live musical accompaniment by The Dodge Brothers, with Neil Brand on the piano.
Today, Brooks is best known for her role as Lulu in the German-made Pandora's Box, G.W. Pabst's late silent masterpiece. Pandora's Box tells the story of Lulu, a lovely, amoral, and somewhat petulant show-girl whose flirtations lead to devastating encounters. Lulu was played by Brooks, an American actress especially recruited for the iconic German role.
Close Up, an English film journal of the time with a keen interest in adventuresome German cinema, noted "Louise Brooks is not chosen because she is Louise Brooks but because, for whatever reason, she looks likely to find it easier than anyone else might, to sink into and become a visual expression of Lulu in Pandora's Box."
Brooks inhabited her character thoroughly, and gives a great performance. Despite having appeared in 23 other films - some of them also very good, Brooks' role as Lulu is the one with which she is most identified. So much so, in fact, that it is not unusual for articles or web pages even today to refer to the actress by the name of Lulu. If you haven't seen Pandora's Box, don't miss this opportunity to see one of the great performances in film history on the big screen.
Long obscure, Beggars of Life is a film whose reputation picking up steam.
Directed by William Wellman the year after he made Wings (the first film to win an Academy Award), Beggars of Life is a gripping drama about a girl (played by Brooks) dressed as a boy who flees the law after killing her abusive stepfather. On the run, she rides the rails through a male dominated hobo underworld in which danger is always close at hand. An American film magazine of the time, Picture Play, described the film as "Sordid, grim and unpleasant," though added "it is nevertheless interesting and is certainly a departure from the usual movie."
And that it is. But what's more, this special screening is a fine example of how invigorating the combination of a great silent movie and contemporary live music can be. The Dodge Brothers, an Americana-drenched roots music quartet featuring film critic Mark Kermode on bass and harmonica, will set the musical mood. When The Dodge Brothers accompanied Beggars of Life at the British Film Institute a years ago, they wowed a packed audience.
April will also see the release in England of a new novel inspired, in part, by Brooks early life. Laura Moriarty 's The Chaperone (Penguin) tells the story of Brooks' 1922 journey from Wichita, Kansas to New York City to join the Denishawn Dance Company, then America's leading modern dance troupe. Brooks was only 15 years old, and she was accompanied by a middle aged chaperone, whose story the novel also tells. It is a good read.
Thomas Gladysz is an arts journalist and pop culture historian. He writes on various topics for various websites, blogs and print publications. In 1995, Gladysz founded the Louise Brooks Society, and online archive and international fan club devoted to the silent film star. He has organized exhibits, contributed to books, appeared on television, and introduced the actress's films around the world.