Arguably no movie star has ever been so thoroughly rehabilitated in popular esteem—going from footnote to icon—as Louise Brooks. In her brief career heyday, she was a Hollywood up-and-comer whose career self-sabotage came too early to afford her the protection an established star might have had from executive wrath. The European films she traipsed off to do, now considered masterpieces, were neither critical nor commercial successes at the time; the “natural” acting in them that rivets us now was dismissed as monotonous and inexpressive. The last and least known of them, Prix de beauté, wasn’t even seen in the U.S. until nearly three decades later.
At the time it was hard to imagine Prix de beauté would be Brooks’s final starring role. The extent to which she’d burned her bridges back in Hollywood was not yet clear. In late 1928, as she finished The Canary Murder Case (playing the singing “canary” who’s murdered), her Paramount contract came up for renewal, and she fully expected her salary—which was minuscule compared to well-known flappers like Clara Bow and Colleen Moore—to get at least the minimum bump-up. Instead, the studio played hardball, saying she could stay at her current level or leave. They certainly didn’t expect her to do the latter. But then Brooks had always been an impetuous, hot-tempered type. She’d entered movies reluctantly, preferring stage work, and scrammed back to the East Coast every chance she got.
The advice to quit came from her wealthy then-lover, George Marshall (a laundry business tycoon, not the actor). Out of work, she accepted an offer—purportedly because Marshall wanted a European vacation—to make Pandora’s Box in Berlin for G.W. Pabst, an esteemed director with a famous property. (Though the Americans had, in fact, heard of neither.) That movie ultimately made Brooks a legend, but not for some time. When it was completed, she returned to the U.S., ignoring frantic messages from Paramount. The still-unreleased Canary Murder Case was being reworked as a part-talkie to cash in on the sudden sound craze. Brooks was urgently needed in California to shoot and loop dialogue. Though much money was dangled, she was still in a peevish (and travel-weary) mood. Her refusal forced the studio to dub another actress’s voice, and the fallout got her unofficially blacklisted.
Not that she cared, for the moment. Her beloved Pabst, the only director she’d ever enjoyed working for, bade her return to Europe to make a film for René Clair, which the French director had written specifically for her. But upon her arrival in Paris, Clair greeted her with the news that the film’s financing was in disarray and might never come together; he was quitting the project. Forced to wait it out by the contract she’d signed, Brooks got another bailout from Pabst, this time offering immediate work in the quickly put together Diary of a Lost Girl. Shortly after that film was finished, Prix de beauté came to life again, with accomplished Italian expatriate Augusto Genina now directing a version of Clair and Pabst’s screenplay.
It was a role perfect for Brooks’s fresh, indelible “look” and for her natural high spirits. She plays Lucienne, a Parisian typist who enters a newspaper beauty contest as a lark and is informed she’s won just as she’s begging to pull out because of the furious objections of her beau André (Georges Charlia). Competing against women of other nationalities for the title “Miss Europe” (also one of the film’s release titles), she enjoys all the glamour, excitement, and opportunity that had been absent from her humdrum life, including the amorous attentions of a prince (Jean Bradin). But André’s jealousy and possessiveness know no bounds and ultimately take the film down a darker road.
Beauty pageants were still a relatively novel object of public curiosity at the time, and Genina brings a near-documentary feel to much of the early film. More novel still was the ambitious script’s gender dynamic. While a typical movie of the era (and for many years after) found the career girl coming to her senses and realizing that all she really wants is to stay home and do hubby’s washing, here Lucienne is clearly oppressed by André’s controlling love.
The production went smoothly enough, despite Genina’s frequent exasperation with his star who saw no reason to slow down her partying just because she was working all day. In his memoirs he recalled that they “set her up in a big chair and made her up [for the scene] while she was still sleeping.” Nonetheless, she looks gorgeous and is guilelessly appealing. Friends later said it was the performance that most resembled her offscreen personality.
Even that didn’t get said until much, much later, however. Astonishingly, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl had been dismissed by press and public, in part because these silent features had arrived just in time to be considered passé in a new “all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing” world. Released in mid-1930, Prix de beauté seemed even more anachronistic. Its creakily pasted-on sound effects and few, awkwardly post-synched dialogue scenes were so two-years-ago. (Brooks’s voice was dubbed by a French actress.) Even as Brooks earned some kudos for her performance, particularly from the French critics, the film was a quick flop in Europe and didn’t even merit a U.S. release.
Never a wise guardian of her earnings, Brooks was soon in need of a job and glumly traipsed back to her detested Hollywood. Now it was Hollywood’s turn to show its disdain. The best she could do was a dreadful two-reel comedy (playing a scandalized movie star in Windy Riley Goes Hollywood under the pseudonymous direction of scandal casualty Fatty Arbuckle), supporting roles in two mediocre programmers (It Pays to Advertise, God’s Gift to Women), and nondescript leading lady roles in two grade-Z westerns (opposite Buck Jones in Empty Saddles and the pre-Stagecoach John Wayne in Overland Stage Raiders). She was still her own worst enemy, career-wise. When Beggars of Life director William Wellman wanted her again against all odds for an important role in the gangster classic Public Enemy, she blew off that golden opportunity to visit yet another boyfriend in New York. By 1940, the situation was dire enough that she moved back to a hermit-like existence in her native Wichita, Kansas. A few years later she returned to the Big Apple.
She had truly been forgotten. Then, starting in the early 1950s, Pandora’s Box began being dusted off and hailed as a masterpiece—and its MIA star as a revelation. Painstakingly trying to remake herself as a writer (she wrote, and burned, two complete memoirs), Brooks was variably amused, grateful, and typically cranky about a gradual resurrection that fast developed elements of cult adulation. For her, the best aspect was finding new creative expressions hotly sought after—several of her jewel-like, autobiographically tinged articles on Hollywood, Pabst, and fellow stars are preserved in the collection Lulu in Hollywood, which underwent a second printing before her death in 1985 at age 78.
Less frequently revived than her other European films, Prix de beauté has been recently restored in a silent version by the Cineteca del Comune di Bologna from a silent copy with Italian intertitles from the Cineteca Italiana and a French sound copy from the Cinémathèque française.
Presented at SFSFF 2013 with live music by Stephen Horne