In her last starring role and last European film — a French production titled Prix de beauté, Louise Brooks plays a typist stuck in a dull job who wins a beauty contest. Like Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, Prix de beauté is a tragedy in which misfortune befalls the character played by Brooks. In a sense, the film can be seen as the third in a European trilogy starring the actress. The film is notable for being the first sound film to feature Brooks, although her dialogue and singing were dubbed, as well as one of the earliest French sound films.
Production of Prix de beauté was problematic. Intended as silent film and based on a story by G.W. Pabst and Rene Clair (with the French Clair as the intended director), funding for the project fell apart, and its production delayed. This was at the time when the European cinema was transitioning to sound. Eventually, Prix de beauté was released as a “talkie” under the direction of Augusto Genina, an Italian, with the Polish-born Rudolph Maté acting as cinematographer.
In June, 1930 Morris Gilbert wrote an article on the changing French film industry for the New York Times. He noted that a handful of American stars were appearing in French productions, including “Louise Brooks, a product of young Hollywood, is starring in the French Prix de beauté.” Gilbert’s mention was one of the first the film received in the United States.
That same month, writing in the British journal Close-Up, Charles E. Stenhouse gave the film one its first English-language reviews. Stenhouse wrote, “Louise Brooks [was] looking very photogenic as Miss France but not acting as well as when directed by Pabst. Never has one of Pabst’s discoveries achieved more than when under his inspiring influence. Greta Garbo! Brigitte Helm! And now Louise Brooks! The big trick in Prix de beauté is its remarkable ending, which redeems the previous passages whose very mediocrity emphasizes the ending’s splendour. An exceptional one and for once not a happy one. . . . A trick – but really one of beauty and irony, and at last a morsel of true sound-film technique.”
Variety reviewed the film on September 3, 1930. Writing about the Berlin screening, Magnus gave Prix de beauté a mixed notice. “In itself this talker is neither better nor worse than most others. . . . It shows the right conception for facts, a natural way of looking at things and reality. . . . This talker is very interesting, if only for the scene when the little girl has sunk back dead in her chair and her tune-picture continues singing from the screen. . . . Owing to bad synchronization this talker is a failure. . . . The acting is very good. Louise Brooks looks charming and she knows how to move.”
Miss Europa, as it was titled in Germany, did poor business, and reportedly only played for five days in August 1930. The film played across Europe — from Iceland to Poland, as well as in now former French colonies, like Algeria and Haiti. The film was not shown in the United States until decades later.
Lucienne, a typist, decides to enter the ‘Miss Europe’ pageant sponsored by a French newspaper. Her jealous boyfriend violently disapproves and tries to get her to withdraw, but it’s too late; Lucienne is named Miss France and quickly whisked off to the Miss Europe finals, where admirers swarm around her. Among them is a maharajah and a prince. Andre shows up and gives her an ultimatum — return to France with him within the hour, or their relationship is over. Lucienne is torn, but chooses Andre. They return to their previous life, but Lucienne is miserable and longs for the life of glamour for which she seemed destined.
The film was shot mostly around Paris between August 29 and September 27, 1929, specifically at the Studios Joinville, Joinville-le-pont, Val-de-Marne, France. The scenes of the Miss Europe beauty pageant held in San Sebastian, Spain (an actual event) were filmed in Paris at the Jardin d’ Acclimatation, where thousands of spectators had gathered.
Under it’s French title, Prix de beauté, documented screenings of the film took place in Algeria, Belgium, Haiti, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland, and Turkey. Elsewhere, this motion picture was known to have been exhibited or written about under other-language titles including Vanidad (Argentina); Miss Europa (Czechoslovakia); Der Schönheitspreis (Czechoslovakia); Beauty Prize (England); Miss Europe (England); Miss Europa (Germany); Preis der Schönheit (Germany); Der Schönheitpreis (Germany); Fegurdardrottning Europu (Iceland); Miss Europa (Italy); Premio di bellezza (Italy); Regina di bellezza (Italy); Premija par skaistumu (Latvia); Miss Europa (Der Schonheitspreis) (Luxembourg); Miss Europa (The Netherlands); Schoonheidsprijs (The Netherlands); Skjønhetskonkurransen (Norway); Kobieto nie grzesz (Poland); Nagroda pieknosci (Poland); Nie Grzesz Kobieto (Poland); Prémio de Beleza (Portugal); Nagrada za lepoto (Slovenia); Zrtev velike ljubezni (Slovenia); Premio de belleza (Spain); Güzellik Ödülü (Turkey – contemporary); Приз за красоту (U.S.S.R.); Beauty Prize (United States); Miss Europe (United States); Vanidad (Uruguay); and Vanidad (Venezuela).
The film is extant. Over the years, the sound version has been released for home video on VHS and DVD. Prix de beauté has been restored in a silent version by the Cineteca del Comune di Bologna from a silent copy with Italian inter-titles from the Cineteca Italiana and a French sound copy from the Cinémathèque française. The silent version has been shown at various festivals, including the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in 2013 and International Istanbul Silent Cinema Days in 2015. The silent version has not been released on home video.
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