In her day, Louise Brooks was never considered a major star. And her career, relatively speaking, was brief. Brooks appeared in only 24 films between 1925 and 1938 — a period spanning 13 years, four of which she was absent from the screen. By comparison, her contemporary Clara Bow (the “It” girl ) appeared in 57 films over 11 years, while superstar Colleen Moore appeared in 48 films over 18 years. Of her 24 films, Brooks “starred” in only three. She was given second or third billing in most of her American silents.
As film curator Paolo Cherchi Usai and others have suggested, few actors have gained such a large reputation on so few films. Today, Brooks’ popularity rests on her iconic look – while her cinematic renown rests largely on her role as Lulu in the once derided, now celebrated German silent, Pandora’s Box. That film, often ranked among the greatest of the silent era, was long forgotten until its rediscovery in the late 1950s. Since then, and especially in the last few decades, Brooks’ other films have been reevaluated, and her reputation as an actress has grown.
Brooks made her screen debut in 1925, playing a moll in an uncredited role in Herbert Brenon’s The Street of Forgotten Men. Under contract to Paramount, she was soon playing the female lead in a string of light comedies, receiving good reviews while being featured alongside such major names as Adolphe Menjou, Ford Sterling, and Wallace Beery. Among her co-stars was W.C. Fields, who Brooks played opposite in It’s the Old Army Game, a film directed by Brooks’ future husband Eddie Sutherland.
In 1927 and 1928, Brooks was cast in more dramatic roles, including The City Gone Wild, an early gangster film directed by James Cruze. Important later works include the Howard Hawks directed A Girl in Every Port and the William Wellman directed Beggars of Life. Those two films are widely considered the actress’ most significant American movies. Of her early silents, five are lost. Two others, including Just Another Blonde from 1926, exist only in fragmentary form.
Brooks is best known for the three films she made in Europe, Pandora’s Box (Die Büchse der Pandora), Diary of a Lost Girl (Tagebuch einer Verlorenen), and Prix de beauté. They form a kind of trilogy. Both Pandora’s Box (1929) and Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) were directed by G.W. Pabst, one of the great German directors of the time; he, along with the French director René Clair, co-authored the story behind Prix de beauté (1930), which ended up being helmed by an Italian, Augusto Genini.
When Brooks returned to Hollywood, few noticed. “Nobody burned more bridges than Louise Brooks,” biographer Barry Paris wrote, “or left prettier blazes on two continents.” Brooks’ stardom was eclipsed, and her career went into decline. Regarded as difficult, she was cast in small roles in lesser films. The best of her sound films is God’s Gift to Women, in which she has a supporting role. It was directed by Michael Curtiz. Brooks’ last screen credit was Overland Stage Raiders, a B-Western starring a young John Wayne.
Twenty-one of Brooks’ films were made in the United States. Two were shot in Germany, one in France. Of those 24 movies, 15 were released as silents. Three were released during the transition from silent to sound: Beggars of Life was released as a silent film with sound effects, while two others, Canary Murder Case and Prix de beauté, were released simultaneously in both silent and sound versions. Brooks’ seven final roles were in sound films, or what were then called “talkies”.
If you want to see what the fuss is all about, or wish to watch just one film, try Pandora’s Box. Some find it tough going, and its theme dark. Nevertheless, it is a tour-de-force and Brooks is sensational. Otherwise, an excellent overview of Brooks’ career can be found in the Emmy-nominated documentary, Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu. It is well worth checking out and contains clips from different films from throughout Brooks’ career. It serves both as an introduction to Brooks’ life and sampler of her film work.
The titles listed below link to informational pages (which include cast and credits, production history, story synopsis, images, reviews, etc….). Dates given represent the year of release, not the year of production, which is sometimes different. Titles marked with an * are considered lost. Titles in bold are or have been available for home viewing in some format (VHS, LaserDisc, DVD, or Blu-ray). Occasionally, Brooks’ films are screened at festivals or in theaters, or shown on television in the United States, Europe, or Australia. Poor quality copies can also be found online.
Feature Films with Louise Brooks
The Street of Forgotten Men (1925)
Prix de Beauté (1930)
Empty Saddles (1936)
Overland Stage Raiders (1938)
Documentaries & television programs devoted to Louise Brooks
Film Firsts: Louise Brooks (1960) – television short
Lulu in Berlin (1985)
Arena: Louise Brooks (1986)
Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu (1998)
E! Mysteries & Scandals: Louise Brooks (1999) – television
Louise Brooks – Cinq pas vers le mythe (c. 2004)
Naked on My Goat (2014)
Documentaries which include Louise Brooks
The Love Goddesses (1965)
Memories of Berlin: Twilight of Weimar Culture (1976)
Hollywood [“Star Power” episode] (1980)
Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood [parts II and VI] (1996)