There is no such thing as too many images of Louise Brooks. Even during her Hollywood years, she was more photographed than filmed – appearing in portraits in movie magazines more often than she did on the big screen. Now, a fascinating discovery by the BFI shows us Louise Brooks in the roaring twenties as we have never really seen her before. In glorious two-strip Technicolor, posing, laughing and fidgeting with her costume in and out-take from the lost film The American Venus (Frank Tuttle, 1926). Check out that beaming smile!
The clip was found in a collection of Technicolor fragments in the BFI archive. They are stunning to watch. As well as Brooksie, don’t miss Hedda Hopper in Mona Lisa an Karl Dane gurning with a pipe. To read more about the discover of these amazing images, listen to the commentary by Bryony Dixon in the video below – and pick up the June 2018 issue of Sight & Sound, which contains the full story of the fragments’ discovery and is out next week (it also includes a feature by me on Pabst’s women).
(Impatient people can skip to 1.07 to see Brooksie, but there are many more treasures in this reel.)
Here’s the trailer to The American Venus, which was previously all that existed of it!
As Dixon says, the significance of this discovery is the Technicolor – but c’mon, this is a major discovery for Brooks devotees also. We’ve seen footage of her in this film before, in that trailer, where she performing a classic Brooksie strop. Here, she looks amazing, natural and even happy. This clip is also quite tantalising not just because it gives us a glimpse of Louise Brooks in her Hollywood years, but a suggestion of what she may have looked like when she was one of the prettiest girls on Broadway. She performed in the George White Scandals and the Ziegfeld Follies, which feature in the movie alongside the Miss America pageant.
Brooks plays a vamp of course, crossed with a “bathing beauty”, destined to lose the crown to a blonde (a recurring theme for her in Hollywood). This was a her first significant role too, after an uncredited appearance in The Street of Forgotten Men (1925). Brooks filmed the movie while performing in the Follies at night – and the moonlighting left her so tired that she would sneak off for a nap during filming “Look for Miss Brooks in a set with a bed in it,” instructed Tuttle. Apparently she once kipped on a high beam, while a carpenter and electrician were working away alongside her!
But she wasn’t just tired. She was sick and tired. Her greatest difficulty on set was, predictably, feeding the ego of her love interest Ford Sterling. “To help feed Ford’s undernourished amour-propre, between scenes I was expected to flirt with him and laugh very hard at his jokes,” she said. “In this capacity I was such a failure that he sulked and complained loudly about my timing.”
It was at this point that she decided to commit to her napping schedule and also squeeze in visits to her good friend WC Fields who was filming Sally of the Sawdust elsewhere in the same Astoria Studios complex. This is when Tuttle dropped his cutesy nickname for her: “Babbling Brooks”.
As shown in this clip, Brooks’s costumes for The American Venus were – brief. Either skimpily cut swimsuits or daring showgirl ensembles (including the risqué outfit pictured above that featured heavily in the film’s marketing). A studio publicist described scenes shot in Atlantic City thus:
“The motion picture unit was acquiring gooseflesh promptly bestowed by the autumn breezes that swept in on them from the ocean. Louise Brooks, the Ziegfeld Follies dances who plays ‘Miss Bayport’ in the film, dressed in the regulation bathing beauty outfit, rode in chilly state on on an elaborate float up and down the boardwalk while the cameras registered her pleasure.”
Pleasure? Seems like the newly discovered clip caught Brooks in one the few light moments during filming of The American Venus. Or is that smile really a grimace? What do you think?
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