Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Lulu in Hollywood

I mentioned in a previous post how I was finally afforded the opportunity to see It’s the Old Army Game (1926), a silent comedy starring W.C. Fields that later became the basis for one of his sound classics, It’s a Gift (1934). Silent screen siren Louise Brooks co-stars alongside Fields as his assistant, and after watching this movie I put into my DVD player another movie featuring the always radiant Brooks: Beggars of Life (1928).

Reams and reams of paper have been devoted to discussing the mystique of la Brooks, and since so many individuals have analyzed this phenomenon far better than I could ever hope to do, I’ll sum up Brooksie’s appeal for me in terms both short and sweet: her mere presence in a film positively mesmerizes me. Of all the sirens—Harlow, Dietrich, Hayworth, Monroe, etc.—in the history of cinema, only Louise has the power to make me weak in the knees. When she’s onscreen, I literally cannot take my eyes off her.

For a cinematic icon, Brooks’ movie career was relatively brief; her fame relies mostly on her appearances in two films by acclaimed German director G.W. Pabst: Pandora’s Box (1928) and Diary of a Lost Girl (1929). (Box finally received the DVD treatment it was due this year in a sumptuous set by Criterion; Diary has been available from Kino for some time in a nice DVD that also contains a 1931 short—directed by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle under his nom de directeur of William B. Goodrich—entitled Windy Riley Goes Hollywood.) But her American output, with such films as Beggars and A Girl in Every Port (1928), clearly demonstrates her one-of-a-kind allure.

Take Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em (1926), for example. (I watched this one after Beggars, having also obtained it from Sunrise Silents.) It’s a slight comic melodrama, starring Evelyn Brent as a hard-working department store gal who takes a week’s vacation, entrusting her boyfriend (Lawrence Gray) to keep a watchful eye on her little sister (Brooks). (Why anybody would abandon common sense and leave their boyfriend in the company of someone like Brooksie is left for the viewing audience to ponder.) Gray is powerless to resist Louise’s charms, and the two of them quickly become an item—much to the dismay of Brent, who's returned from her vacation early in order to accept Gray’s marriage proposal. As the film progresses, Louise gets into trouble when the money she’s collected for the store’s charity dance has been frittered away playing the ponies—and because Evelyn promised their mother on her deathbed that she’d always watch out for Baby Sis, she agrees to retrieve the missing funds from a skeevy gangster-type played by Osgood Perkins (Anthony’s pop.) (I love the title card that introduces Perkins’ character, which informs us that he “spent three years curing himself of halitosis—only to find out he was unpopular anyway.”)

Director Frank Tuttle instructed Brooks to play the role of Janie Walsh perfectly straight (withholding from her the info that Love ‘Em was a comedy), which is why I think her performance is so effective here. Her “bad sister” character has no morals or scruples whatsoever; she’s a flirtatious vamp who receives not a nonce of comeuppance for her misdeeds but instead can be seen cozying up to one of the store’s high muckety-mucks by the end of the picture. In fact, one of the funniest cuts in the film occurs when a title card reminds the viewer of a statement Brooks made to Brent earlier, that she won’t have any fun at the dance knowing Brent is having to do the heavy lifting by coming to her rescue and seducing the distasteful Perkins to obtain the missing scratch—and then we see Louise kicking up her heels in wild abandon doing a furious Charleston.

In Beggars of Life, Brooksie plays Nancy; a young girl who’s just shot and killed her foster father in self-defense after the amorous reprobate has once again forced himself on her. The aftermath of this murder has been discovered by Jim (Richard Arlen), a freewheeling vagabond who reluctantly agrees to help Nancy get to Canada by showing her the ropes of freight train-hopping. In their attempts to stay one step ahead of the law, the young couple have a series of misadventures that culminate in a suspenseful confrontation inside a hobo camp where Nancy’s identity is discovered and Jim’s fellow tramps plot to turn her over to the authorities in order to cash in on the reward—including a self-styled “king of the road” known as Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery).

Beggars is, by all rights, Beery’s picture (the film’s original release included a sound sequence of him singing) but once again, the kvorka of Brooks allows her to maintain a magnificent presence despite Beery’s propensity for scenery chewing; it is arguably her best American film. The DVD of Beggars that I watched is available for purchase through Grapevine Video, and even though it’s not a pristine print (though to Grapevine’s credit, it is the best available) it’s still most enjoyable, with fine acting (I was tickled to see Roscoe Karns—an actor I associate with fast-talking roles in films like Twentieth Century and It Happened One Night—in this one as a gimpy hobo named “Lame Hoppy“), cinematography (the visuals are simply breathtaking), writing (it was co-scripted by Jim Tully from his novel) and direction by William Wellman. Wellman’s filmic resume has been highlighted by classics like The Public Enemy (1931), A Star is Born (1937) and The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)—but his career in silents was every bit as impressive…it’s just sad that so very few of these movies have survived today.


Campaspe said...

I also adore Louise Brooks but am ashamed to say I have seen very few of her movies. I got to know her via her writing, having DEVOURED Lulu in Hollywood when it came out some years ago. I wasn't even aware that this many of her pictures are available. I definitely need to see Beggars.

Have you read Barry Paris's bio of her? it's quite good, and he deconstructs some of the areas in Lulu in Hollywood where she fudged or embellished the truth, particularly the "Gish and Garbo" essay.

Anonymous said...

"Beggars of Life" was one of the films featured at this year's San Francisco Silent Film Festival at the Castro Theater. They announced it as being a new 35mm print, blown up from Paramount's 16mm vault copy which is, apparently, the best quality version of the film known to exist. So, perhaps, we can look forward to a Kino/Criterion DVD release in the future - or, at least, an airing on TCM as a future Silent Movie Sunday feature.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Campaspe: I've not read the Paris bio, but it sounds like a book I'll need to scribble down on my annual list I give out to famiily members when they want to know what I'm requesting for Christmas. And if you're interested in tracking down a source for Brooks' films, I stumbled across this website the other day which even has a section devoted to her. (I'm currently in negotiations with my wallet as to picking up a copy of God's Gift to Women.)

Anonymous (I can't say that I blame your decision to remain so, by the way--you don't want people to know you're hanging out with the likes of yours truly): Thanks for the info on the recent Beggars screening; if I were a gambling man, I'd bet Kino will move on this before Criterion but it would be nice to see a first-rate DVD release all the same

Toby said...

I've always meant to see 'Pandora's Box', as I performed in a stage production of both Lulu plays over twenty years ago. So I've just added that and 'Diary of a Lost Girl' to my queue at Netflix....