Silent screen siren and cinema scholar Louise Brooks has been dead for a quarter century, but some of her thoughts on movies are only now being revealed.
Brooks kept private research journals from 1956 until her death in 1985 and left them to the George Eastman House with instructions that they remain sealed for 25 years.
That date passed in August, and the staff of the Eastman House has been poring over them in preparation for making them available to the public.
There are 29 research journals, ranging from 20 to 120 pages, containing Brooks’s notes and thoughts recorded during her research for her book and other writing projects.
The Eastman House provided Variety with the first exclusive excerpts.
Written in longhand, the journals include analysis of her own movie contemporaries and cutting observations on icons of the time: Jacqueline Onassis was “exactly like a gargoyle”; Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover and Joe McCarthy all “freeloaders.”
She was more analytical, though not necessarily kinder, in analyzing thesps’ work in classic pics.
Seeing Greta Garbo in “Anna Christie” in a 1957 screening, she wrote:
“She strains terribly — wrinkles between eyes — mouth contortion — to express emotion — voice, except for one sequence at end with Father kept to lowest register. Intensity with which she tries to act with voice keeps her speaking on, no breath — Is made to read line on top of line without pauses for mental transitions — concentrating on her voice saying lines makes them meaningless — amateur sing-song — nailed to chair on floor without being allowed the physical movement necessary for right emotion and disregard for “lines.” No help from actors — especially Marie Dressler who could have set her right in 10 minutes (with Garbo’s silent film experience) on making lines come out of thought and visible movement — taking time, accent bad — Especially J — But already using the singing S. Looks beautiful in slicker, boots, hat.”
Marion Davies in “Cain and Mabel,” which she saw on TV in 1959, earned a harsher critique:
“Marion’s sweetness and gaiety can not be called a comic gift – Like (Norma) Shearer she is unable to throw away the picture of herself trying to be funny. And the very essence of comedy lies in the ability to consume oneself in the fire of a perfectly envisioned character…. Her voice is firm, low straightforward, with fine diction. The shy, stupid, stutter which she had cultivated to please Mr. H (Hearst) – gone with the silent pictures.”
Of Marlene Dietrich in “The Lady Is Willing,” which she also saw on TV, she wrote:
“Dietrich’s lids, drooped by the heavy false long eye-lashes give her eyes the expression of a puzzled bloodhound. Lacking the loneliness, the inner failure that makes the actress, before she turned Garbo after ‘The Blue Angel,’ she was still fascinating as a personality, extravagantly healthy, happy, amoral and consciousless. Afterwards, her pleasant, meaningless voice, her flat professional tears and tantrums, unsuported [sic] by any acting ability, deprived her of human dimensions, so that if she turned out to be a Disney cartoon heroine no one would be surprised.”
But she had a soft spot for Bogey. Of “Dark Passage,” she wrote:
“Perfect picture for Hump and Lauren Bacall. His love and her strength give it power. His appeal lay in the fact that beyond any man I know, he loved women – to be with them, to look at them, to listen and laugh. It was always to women he turned for advise [sic] and help. And this essential quality caught the audience with the sweetness of his devotion. Bacall was perfect for him because her beauty and strength seemed worthy of possessing this rare love.”
Brooks’ name began to pop up in Variety in 1925, noting her as cabaret performer and a “looker” dancing the Charleston in the Follies. Not long after Variety’s “News From the Dailies” reported “A caption under a picture of Louise Brooks, ‘Follies’ girl, in a morning tabloid says that attentions Charlie Chaplin recently lavished on her have set Broadway’s Tongues a wagging.”
She had a tempestuous career in pictures in the 1920s. After a dispute put her on the outs with the studios, she decamped for Europe, where she achieved her greatest success.
She eventually returned to Hollywood with her star much dimmed and, after a few forgettable pics, gave up acting. Divorce and bankruptcy followed. By 1950, Daily Variety’s Alta Durant was left to wonder, “Whatever happened to Louise Brooks?” She was living in obscurity in New York but was rediscovered a few years later. Young fans encouraged her to move to Rochester and become a film scholar. Her book “Lulu in Hollywood” reignited interest in her during her final years.
Seeing her own 1936 oater “Empty Saddles” in a 1959 screening at the Eastman House, she struck a contemplative tone — up to a point.
“First time I ever heard my voice on the screen — wide range, dynamic, rich, “cultured.” — without direction, restraint, stillness, purity of movement excellent — Bad sway back from dancing with Dario.”
Brooks was half of ballroom dancing act Dario and Brooks in the mid 1930s before making a brief return to Hollywood.
Her sway back, she noted, was “corrected during exercises 1938-43.”