In her day, Louise Brooks was never considered a major star. And her career, relatively speaking, was brief. The actress 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 celebrated contemporary Clara Bow (the “It” girl) appeared in 57 films over 11 years, while another contemporary, silent era star Colleen Moore, appeared in 48 films over 18 years. Of Brooks’ 24 films, she received top billing in only three productions. Notably, these were the three films she made in Europe. In the United States, Brooks was usually given second or third billing. In only one of them, Rolled Stockings, was she considered the lead — though just as often, this 1927 film was promoted as starring not Brooks, but the Paramount junior stars.
As film historians have pointed out, few actors have attained such a large reputation through so few films. Today, Brooks’ remarkable popularity rests on her iconic look — while her cinematic renown comes largely from her role as Lulu in the once derided, now acclaimed German silent, Pandora’s Box. That film, often ranked among the greatest of its time, was largely forgotten until its rediscovery in the 1950s. Since then, and especially in the last few decades, Brooks’ other surviving films have been reevaluated, and her reputation as an actress has grown significantly.
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 dramas and comedies with titles like A Social Celebrity and Love Em and Leave Em. The best of her early films may be The Show-Off, which was based on an acclaimed stage play by the Pulitzer Prize winner George Kelly. Generally speaking, Brooks received good reviews for her screen work as she appeared alongside such major names as Adolphe Menjou, Evelyn Brent, Richard Arlen, and Dorothy Mackaill. Also among her co-stars was the legendary W.C. Fields, who Brooks played opposite in It’s the Old Army Game, a film directed by the actress’ 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. Two other important works from this time include the Howard Hawks directed A Girl in Every Port, which starred Victor McLaglen, and the William Wellman directed Beggars of Life, which was based on a celebrated book by Jim Tully and starred future Oscar-winner Wallace Beery. These two films are considered the actress’ most significant American movies, while Beggars of Life is widely considered her single best American film. Of her early silents, five are considered lost. Two others, including Just Another Blonde from 1926 and Now We’re in the Air from 1927, are partially lost, and survive only in fragmentary form.
Brooks’ career pivoted around The Canary Murder Case. She was given the title role in the 1929 film, a murder mystery based on the popular novel by S.S. van Dine which starred William Powell as detective Philo Vance. The film, an important Paramount production, was first shot as a silent. However, by the time the decision was made to adapt it to sound — which would require Brooks to dub her role, the actress had left for Europe. Paramount was displeased, to say the least, especially since Brooks wouldn’t renew her contract with the studio after being refused a modest raise. When The Canary Murder Case was eventually released, critics commented on the somewhat poor quality of Brooks’ voice, which only some speculated had been dubbed by another. The talk around Hollywood was that Brooks’ voice didn’t record well, and the gossip was that the actress was difficult to work with.
Today, Brooks is best known for the three films she made in Europe, Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box) and Tagebuch einer Verlorenen (Diary of a Lost Girl) in Germany, and Prix de beauté (Beauty Prize) in France. They form a kind of trilogy, and mark the highpoint in Brooks acting and career. Both Pandora’s Box (1929) and Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) were directed by G.W. Pabst, one of the great European directors of the inter-war era; Pabst, along with the great French director René Clair, co-authored the story behind Prix de beauté (1930), an international production 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.” The actress’ career quickly went into decline. Brooks felt she had been blackballed after refusing to return to work on The Canary Murder Case. It may well be so. She also proved her own worst enemy by turning down important roles in films like The Public Enemy (1931) which might have restarted her career.
In need of work and still hoping for a come-back, Brooks accepted small roles and bit parts in indifferent films throughout the 1930s. One low point came in Windy Riley Goes Hollywood, a short directed by the legendary Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who was then working under a pseudonym and living through his own internal exile from Hollywood. The best of Brooks’ sound films is God’s Gift to Women, a pre-code farce directed by Michael Curtiz in which Brooks plays only a supporting role. Her character in King of Gamblers, a terrific crime film directed by Robert Florey, ended up on the cutting-room floor. The actress’ last screen credit came in 1938 with Overland Stage Raiders, a middling B-Western starring a young John Wayne.
Of Brooks 24 movies, 15 were released as silents. Three were released during the period when the industry was transitioning from silent to sound films: Beggars of Life was released as a silent film as well as a sound film with sound effects and a musical score; the sound version, unfortunately, is lost. Two others, The Canary Murder Case and Prix de beauté, were released simultaneously in both silent and sound versions. Brooks’ seven final films, made during the 1930s, were what were at first called “talkies”. One of her last was a musical, the Grace Moore vehicle When You’re in Love. Brooks had an uncreditted role in the film as a chorus dancer, and it’s nearly impossible to spot her.
If you want to see what the fuss is all about, or wish to watch just one or two films, start with Pandora’s Box. Some find it tough going, and its theme dark. Nevertheless, it is a tour-de-force and Brooks is sensational. Also a masterpiece in its own right and just as highly recommended is Diary of a Lost Girl. Otherwise, an excellent overview of Brooks’ movie career can be found in the Emmy-nominated documentary, Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu. It is well worth checking out. It is also a thoughtful introduction to Brooks’ life, and with its many clips, it serves as a sampler of Brooks’ work before the camera.
The titles listed below link to informational pages which include a story synopsis, cast and credits, production history, trivia, etc…. (Dates given represent the year of release, not the year of production, which is sometimes different.) Titles marked with an * are considered lost (meaning the film is thought to no longer exist). 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 in theaters, especially those which show classic movies, or at the many film festivals held all around the world. Over the years, a few have even been shown on television in the United States, Europe, and Australia. (Poor quality copies of a few films can also be found online; but don’t ruin it for yourself; if you have the chance, go see one of her films on the BIG screen, or track down a DVD, each of which makes for a far more enjoyable experience!) A few of Brooks’ available films can also be borrowed from public libraries.
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
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)
Documentary of a Lost Girl (forthcoming)
Other documentary films which include 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)