I don’t think I could define star power except to say that Louise Brooks has it. Brooks will forever remain relevant because she has the rare ability to stand outside of the time that made her. Unlike her contemporaries, she is able to avoid seeming dated by abstaining from the exaggerated overacting common at the time (this has helped Buster Keaton stay buoyant as well). But it is silent movies and their relative sexual freedom that made Brooks by giving free rein to her latent eroticism. In the era of sound during the production code, Hollywood’s most sexual beings had to let that side of them come out under the guise of innocence (Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield) and Brooks’ aggressive but detached carnality was mostly snuffed out (Jane Russell came close).
Just look at the way Brooks is dressed in Diary of a Lost Girl when her character, disciplined by her family after she bears an illegitimate child, sits down for supper in a reform school. The other students are dressed in drab jumpers and gray oxfords and Brooks arrives in a sultry suit, with a plunging neck line and bare arms. Of course, Brooks’ appeal is one of attitude as much as physicality. Many people can smirk, none could smirk like Brooks. There’s something punk about her anti-authority persona and her haircut belongs as much to outer space as it does the 1920s.
Brooks made two movies with the German director G.W. Pabst in the late ’20s, the greatest was Pandora’s Box (1928), one of the finest of all films, silent or otherwise, where she played a wild party girl whose wicked ways would eventually catch up with her in the form of Jack the Ripper. In 1929’s Diary of a Lost Girl, she is an innocent, the naive daughter of a pharmacist who is seduced by her father’s employee and subsequently sent to the strict boarding school with its terrible headmistress and her henchman, a bizarre bald-headed goon, who keeps a to-do list with entries like “Punish Erika.” Brooks is able to escape the reformatory and then the story gets mired into a garish melodrama of courtesanship and inheritance but serves its main purpose, to highlight Brooks’ remarkable presence. Lillian Gish remains for me the finest of dramatic silent actresses, the perfect combination of look, style and medium, but the two most striking female faces in silent cinema are Brooks and Falconetti. Falconetti with her trembling exaggeration, her emotions clear at every moment and Brooks with her icy cool, so suggestive without being expressive. Falconetti is totally subjugated, Brooks is totally in control. Take the scene when Brooks is “seduced” by the druggist’s assistant. Who truly is being seduced there?
Only a few forces have existed in the movies of such elemental attraction, stars that went beyond action but captivated us simply by having their likeness captured on film. Monroe was like that. So was Dean. I think there’s something also about these creatures leaving only a relatively small number of films behind them. Brooks burned too many bridges with her wild ways to stay in pictures too long.
The temptation when writing about a Brooks movie is to disregard the movie itself and just heap praise on its star but while Diary of a Lost Girl is no masterpiece there are some startling elements at play, not least of which, Pabst’s not-so-subtle intimations of lesbianism in the reformatory. There are scenes here where Brooks, now adorning the same drab uniforms as everyone else, has her signature hairstyle slicked back, more masculine. She is tortured and haunted by the headmistress and her husband until she leads a revolt in the bunks and busts out. This scene is a precursor to a similar one in Vigo’s Zero for Conduct, complete with similar homosexual undertones. The remarkable establishing shot pans across beds of women wrestling (or doing something else) until we arrive on Brooks, as always, a little outside the action. Also watch the pacing of the scene when Brooks becomes a courtesan, so easily is she beguiled into the faux glamour and high-living exoticism. The transformation happens in all but five minutes but it feels gradual. It’s a credit to the design of the scene as well-choreographed extras place drinks in Brooks’ hands and her resistance melts away, a rare moment when Brooks is seen to be acted upon and not the other way around. Later, when Brooks is “entertaining” guests at a high-class club she turns and sees her father, now estranged for some time. The father is shocked; Brooks quickly bats her eye and returns to her party. It’s her life. And I think it’s that idea that makes Brooks such a resistant figure to the march of time and changes in taste. She does what she wants to do. In Diary of a Lost Girl, her final rebellion puts into jeopardy her newfound wealth and respectability but she cannot be bought, she will not belong to someone or something. Brooks was able to give the audience that feeling and for it she will live forever.