Pandora’s Box

Lulu in Hollywood

by Louise Brooks
Knopf, 109 pp., $15.00

Louise Brooks
Louise Brooks; drawing by David Levine

During the switch from silent movies to sound in 1928, a number of film studios refused to grant promised raises to their stars, ostensibly because they didn’t know which performers’ voices would be suitable for talking films. Most stars, even the biggest, didn’t protest, but one young actress at Paramount exercised her option to quit, and walked out. The actress was Louise Brooks, a twenty-two-year-old, five-foot-two-inch-tall former dancer, whose relaxed, natural acting style, distinctive shiny black hair, and extraordinary beauty had already propelled her well on the way toward being a star.

When Brooks quit, B.P. Schulberg, Paramount’s West Coast chief of operations, told her she was now free to accept an offer that Paramount had previously refused without consulting her: the German director G.W. Pabst had asked to borrow Brooks for a film called Pandora’s Box. Brooks immediately told Schulberg to cable Pabst saying she would come.

Pabst’s film was based on two plays by the late-nineteenth-century German dramatist Frank Wedekind. Wedekind’s plays, Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box) and Erdgeist (Earth Spirit), feature a prostitute named Lulu, whose careless amorality destroys men and ultimately causes her own violent death. Lulu is not a symbol of vice or degradation: her appetite for pleasure is childlike and unself-conscious, her fearlessness is a passive quality. She is, in Wedekind’s words, “not a real person, but the personification of primitive sexuality, who inspires evil unawares.”

Pabst’s film is only one of several adaptations of the Lulu story (Alban Berg’s opera Lulu is perhaps the most famous), but of all the actresses who have played Lulu in one form or another, Louise Brooks is considered by many to have been the truest. A great deal of energy has been devoted to describing what precisely was—and still is—so stirring about her performance. William Shawn, in his introduction to Brooks’s new book about her past, Lulu in Hollywood, summarizes the prevailing enthusiasm: “Many people think she possesses an erotic eloquence unmatched by that of any other woman ever to have appeared on the screen…. Louise Brooks presents herself to the camera squarely, totally, without equivocation; and what results is the sort of sublime acting that is not like acting at all.”

Brooks’s performance arguably should have made her a great star. But the reactions of German critics were mixed (many of them objected to an American playing their “German Lulu”), and the film was not distributed widely outside Germany. It was twenty-five years before this late masterpiece of the silent era began to be recognized.

In the meantime, Brooks had returned to New York, where Paramount tried to persuade her to dub her own voice for the soundtrack of The Canary Murder Case, her last film for them, which was being made into a “talkie.” Brooks refused, despite their offers of larger and larger sums of money, and she also rejected a contract offered her by…

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