Louise Brooks Plays with the Shadows


Louise Brooks pictures seem to be quite popular. Here’s one from http://theendofbeing.blogspot.com/

Hope to get my hands on THE CANARY MURDER CASE soon. A Paramount silent Philo Vance murder mystery with William Powell as the Great Detective, it was sonorized while Louise was off in Europe, I think. Anyhow, she refused to have anything to do with the sound version, so they used another actress’s voice. And this may have started the story that her voice was no good — that, and her absence in Europe for a year or two, basically killed her Hollywood career.

You can hear her talk in the B-western OVERLAND RAIDERS, with John Wayne, and in interviews conducted years later. Nothing wrong with her voice.

UPDATE: grabbed THE CANARY MURDER CASE, and a very odd bird it is. William Powell is Philo Vance, of course, the right man in the right role (although a bit too B-movie for Powell’s aspirations, it seems. There’s at least one Basil Rathbone Vance movie, which is going to seem odd: Rathbone playing a different detective

What’s peculiar about TCMC is the way they’ve “sonorized” it, preserving all the expensive wide shots from the silent shoot, even though they move at the wrong frame rate. If you’ve seen Howard Hughes’ HELL’S ANGELS you’ve already seen this kind of thing in action. As in HA, a bit of dubbing has also occurred, but it basically centres on Louise’s character, who speaks mainly with her back to the camera, or over other people’s closeups (a double was used, extremely effective, for many of the rear views). Then we cut to a beautiful closeup of her as soon as she’s finished speaking. It’s all done with the maximum of craftiness, making the best of a bad job, but it’s goofy and demented rather than convincing. The voice they’ve chosen is pretty horrible, but suits the trashy showgirl character, I guess. I haven’t seen this kind of counterintuitive cutting elsewhere save for a couple of the more tortuous moments in Welles’s OTHELLO (moments of weird cutting justified by the synchronisation problems, and rendered strangely more glaring in the restored, fully sunk-up version).

In short: I like it! This kind of B-thriller requires, in no particular order:

1) A charismatic leading player. Check.

2) Plot, and lots of it. Check.

3) Some kind of peculiar quirk, either intentional or accidental. (The PERRY MASON films have all kinds of these, from gaping plot holes to ill-advised tonal shifts to the way they keep shuffling the Warners players around: you get different actors playing the same role, and the same actors playing different roles. Even Perry himself changes, twice. Watch three back to back and it’s literally dreamlike.) And that’s where the panicked last-minute soundtracking really scores.

18 Responses to “Louise Brooks Plays with the Shadows”

  1. Louise Brooks: all the beauty, majesty and mystery of the cinema embodied in a single individual.

    The interview film is great. So are Brooks’ articles.Several remain uncollected inlcuding one she did for “Film Culture” dealing with Chaplin on the occasion of the making of A Countess From Hong Kong ( a film maudit much deserving of another look.)

  2. Brooks “knew” Chaplin from way back, having yielded to his advances when she was a Follies girl. Chaplin would go into raptures when reminded of her “breasts like young peaches” or something.

  3. They were well-matched for an affair, but not a long-term relationship. She had nothing but the utmost respect for him as an artist.

  4. Thanks for the correction, Guy! You are herewith granted the position of Shadowplay’s fruit and vegetable consultant.

    Chaplin is a pretty good litmus test — any artist who can’t see the brilliance of Chaplin can be regarded with a degree of suspicion.

  5. I did hear Louise’s voice in God’s Gift To Women, though I doubt it was more than a handful of lines, and it sounded fine to me.

    Those Perry Masons are the weirdest series of films done at one studio I’ve ever run across. Not only is the tone inconsistent between films (moreso than even Philo Vance, which had the excuse of changing studios), but the locations are changed as well (the first one is some sort of generic Los Angeles, the second is unmistakably San Francisco). And they plunk in a parody Mason into the middle of the series as well. Only the last, with Donald Woods as Mason is much like the TV series.

  6. I accept the position. Do I get to wear a uniform? I’m guessing maybe a lab coat.

  7. A lab coat is good, maybe with an array of representative types of carrot in the breast pocket.

  8. Watched this a couple weeks ago — good fun. Fields rehearses a few of the routines perfected in It’s a Gift. A little person is used instead of Baby LeRoy, allowing Fields to be much more brutal (stepping on her arms!)

  9. Christopher Says:

    Thats a stunning film clip at the beginning of that Brooks interview..I love listening to her talk about the old days..Shes so sharp and lively…and still cute for her age…

  10. Here’s an essay written May 2007 about PANDORA’S BOX, by Gordon Thomas, found here:


    Entitled “Of Sexual Hate and Lonely Death”, Chaplin’s month-long affair with Brooks is referred to briefly in a footnote, with The Little (by then Old) Tramp waxing rhapsodic over Lulu’s pears.

  11. Fixed the link. Thanks!

    The clip, I should have mentioned, before the interview, is from Prix de Beaute, which was also converted to sound after production, with someone singing in place of Brooks. It’s not a particularly distinguished movie — though perfectly good — but the ending is simply stunning.

  12. Something of the aged Louise that reminds me of Ruth Gordon in HAROLD AND MAUDE.

  13. Yes, I can see that! The interview comes from a time in her life when Louise wasn’t going out much — so she’s interviewed in her dressing gown. She did carry on a lively correspondence with cartoonist Guido Crepax, however, whose pornographic comic strips featuring a Lulu-inspired vamp were much admired by Brooks.

  14. To think that Louise came that close to losing the part of Lulu, what with Marlene waiting in Pabst’s office, about to be handed the role. Having just seen THE SCARLET EMPRESS only two days ago for the first time, it makes one appreciate just how extraordinary a film PANDORA’S BOX really is. THE SCARLET EMPRESS is genuinely fun, visually sumptuous, and imbued with vigor and flair, but still at the end of the day very much a product of Paramount, of Hollywood. Pabst’s film, on the other hand, is this singular convergence of star and director, time and place, script and source material. Truly poetic, haunting in its richness, after finally seeing it for the first time this past summer I fully understand the reason for its status as a highly-regarded work of cinematic art.

  15. I’m sure Pabst would have done something interesting with Dietrich, but we can be thankful he latched onto Brooks instead. Dietrich for Sternberg, Brooks for Pabst, that’s how we like it.

    Scarlet Empress is simultaneously very Hollywood and totally strange — I like Sternberg’s little autobiographical touches, like the harness young Catherine must wear, which stems from his own childhood. And all the horse references! Countless. Presumably motivated by that story of Catherine dying while attempting sex with a horse. VERY pre-code, if you follow the inference.

    But Pabst is just in another place altogether, his obsessive study of Brooks with his camera is near-pathological.

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