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Louise Brooks: a life in pictures

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Ahead of the world premiere of a new score commissioned by Opera North Projects for the 1929 silent film Pandora’s Box, Jo Nockels and Stuart Leeks investigate the life of its enigmatic star:

"In writing the history of a life, I believe absolutely that the reader cannot understand the character and deeds of the subject, unless he is given a basic understanding of the person's sexual loves and hates and conflicts..."   Louise Brooks.

Unwilling to bow to the film studio system of the 1920s; independent to a fault; unflinchingly clear-sighted and unsentimental in her analysis of herself and others, the actress Louise Brooks was an unusual Hollywood starlet, whose tumultuous rise, fall and rise again is as cinematic as her most famous role as the amoral young prostitute, Lulu, in GW Pabst’s Pandora's Box.

When she made Pandora's Box in Germany in 1928, she had come a long way from her beginnings in Cherryvale, Kansas, born to a work-absorbed father and an unmaternal mother. Her first sexual encounter had come early, and to her mind decisively: when she was nine years old, she was molested by Mr Feathers, an old bachelor of the town. Recalling the incident from later in life she said the experience had....

"forged another link between me and Lulu: when she had her first lover, she was very young and Schigolch, the man in question, was middle aged.  I've often wondered what effect Mr Feathers had on my life. He must have had a great deal to do with forming my attitude to sexual pleasure. For me, nice, soft, easy men were never enough- there had to be an element of domination".

Leaving for New York at 15, she worked first as a dancer, appeared in her first film aged 19, signed a five year contract with Paramount, and made six more films within a year. The part that changed her career was in A Girl in Every Port (Howard Hawks, 1928) in which she played a circus performer at the heart of a violent sexual triangle. The director GW Pabst saw it in Berlin and decided he must have her as his Lulu.

It nearly didn't happen, as Paramount was unwilling to release her to go to Europe, and Pabst almost cast Marlene Dietrich instead.  But a row over salaries, brought about by the arrival of talking pictures in Hollywood, meant that Brooks abruptly resigned from Paramount and Pabst could have his perfect Lulu. He was relieved, saying that Dietrich lacked innocence: she was "too old and too obvious- one sexy look and the picture would become a burlesque".

In Brooks' assessment, shared by some of the critics of the time, the picture was a flop: "that picture, Lulu, was a huge failure. They expected a femme fatale, a siren, a slinking woman with lascivious looks and leers... Lulu does nothing. She just dances through the film, she's a young girl, she leads a life she's always liked. She was a whore when she was 12 and she dies a whore when she's eighteen. How can an audience expect a girl at that age to reflect, to suffer?".

After two further European films, Brooks returned to Hollywood and a gradual but relentless fall from grace began, partly because of her refusal to sleep with the right studio bosses and partly because she turned down a part in The Public Enemy to follow her lover of the time to New York. Her career stalled dead and her declining fortunes saw her variously act in a radio soap, endure a second failed marriage (her first had ended in 1928), work as a salesgirl at Saks department store, and finally become the 'kept woman' of three successive rich men. By 1953, destitution beckoned.

But, in 1955 something miraculous happened. A major Parisian exhibition called ‘Sixty Years of Cinema' featured an enormous picture of Brooks as Lulu.... and her rehabilitation began. A new career as a film critic blossomed and she became perhaps the most incisive commentator on her own life and myth as one of the iconic figures and faces of the 20th Century. In her own words:

“Most people die before things like that happen- to find that to a certain extent you are admired. It's a wonderful blessing. But I was perfectly willing to face that I'd made my own personal hell..... I knew I'd done it all myself".

Jo Nockels (Projects Manager) and Stuart Leeks (Editor)

Pandora’s Box is screened with a new live score by Icelandic composers Jóhann Jóhannsson and Hildur Gudnadóttir. It will be performed live during the film screenings by Jóhannsson and Gudnadóttir together with clarinettist Dov Goldberg (Psappha), and  experimental turntable artist Philip Jeck, whose distinctive sound is created by expertly mixing, looping and layering extracts from old vinyl records.

31 Oct              Islington Assembly Hall, London

1 Nov               Howard Assembly Room, Leeds

2 Nov               Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester

3 Nov               Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry

For more information and to book tickets, click here.

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