This post is an extended version of the screening notes and on-screen introduction I contributed to the recent Hippodrome Silent Film Festival screening of Prix de beauté (Augusto Genina, 1930), with accompaniment by Stephen Horne.
Every film fan knows the face of Louise Brooks. The jazz-age dancer from Kansas who shimmied her way from Broadway to Hollywood and then ran away to Europe to make three stunning, complex films that would secure her legacy as one of the great actors of the silent era. This film, 1930’s Prix de beauté, is the final film she made in Europe. It’s also the last silent film that she ever made, and without giving away the ending, it is an almost too-apt finish to her silent career.
Europe was Brooks’s sanctuary at the end of the 1920s, after she escaped from Hollywood. First, there were two German films. She was the unforgettable Lulu in GW Pabst’s dark, decadent adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s Pandora’s Box. Then she played a waif who finds refuge in a brothel, in Diary of a Lost Girl, also directed by Pabst. Her third and final European film was this French title, Prix de beauté, shot by an Italian director. It was also Pabst’s idea.
After shooting each of her German films, Brooks returned to New York, not Los Angeles. She was through with American movies; only her Berlin director could entice her back on to a film set. “I wouldn’t go to Hollywood – I would go to Pabst,” she later said. The first time Pabst called her back it was for a film René Clair was shooting in Paris, Prix de beauté. Clair jumped ship when he saw the financing was unlikely to come through, and the project stalled. So Brooks hung around for a while causing mischief in Paris, before following Pabst to Berlin to shoot Diary of a Lost Girl. Eventually, after another sojourn in New York, the money for the French film was arranged, and Brooks was given a star’s welcome on her return to Paris. Her new director, Augusto Genina, met her at the station with a cheering crowd, and the city’s best salons were advertising copycat Louise Brooks haircuts. She was thrilled.
Prix de beauté (AKA Miss Europe) is a hybrid: partially silent but with intermittent dialogue and audio effects. It was released in English, French, German and Italian versions, with the dialogue dubbed into different languages and the all-important ending is designed around a sound effect. In fact the film builds and builds to the arrival of sound film, the story of a young woman praised for silent beauty, who is given more and more opportunities: eventually, a screen test for the talkies. Sounds plays a huge role in the film, from the way that Brooks’s character finds respite in music, to the roar of the crowds, captured on a clapometer, that seal her fate. As in Pandora’s Box Brook’s character is constantly caught in frames: we first seen her spied through a car window, a voyeuristic glimpse framed by black. Across the course of the film we see her face reproduced and confined, in photographs and magazine covers, until she finally only exists within the frame of the screen.
Nevertheless, the critics largely scoffed at the sound techniques of Prix de beauté, which doesn’t much matter as you’ll see that it plays beautifully as a silent film. And that famous ending exploits the tension between the coming of sound and the passing of the silent age: freezing Brooks’s image on the cusp of that transition for ever. The beautiful restoration available on DVD from the Cineteca di Bologna is silent, made from both an Italian silent copy and a French sound copy.
And as Brooks tells it, making Prix de beauté was a relatively happy time. She was shooting in Paris, with an Italian director, Augusto Genina, and instead of learning the language she came and went from the set each day in silence, curing her familiar hangover with three swigs of gin. “The happiest time I ever had, looking back, is when I was making pictures in Paris and didn’t speak French,” she later wrote. “I’d get up in the morning and go to the studio, and didn’t have to discuss anything with anyone. I didn’t have to talk at all.” It wasn’t that she minded the work, she just hated having to explain herself. And there was a lot to explain. It wouldn’t have been a Brooks film without tension on set, after all. Genina was frustrated by her hedonistic lifestyle, which he said stood in the way of her becoming “the ultimate actress”. Artists had to apply her makeup while she slept off the booze in a chair, and on the day they came to shoot the final scene, she was so far lost on a bender that they had to call the police out to track her down. Brooks had her own complaints: she was outraged that Genina kept asking her to smile. You’ll see that re-enacted within the film, when Brooks’s character refuses to smile for a photographer at the fair.
It’s a shame, because she was working with some remarkable people. The film was the brainchild of GW Pabst, the Austrian director who had made Brooks’ wonderful German films, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl. The great French director René Clair worked on the script, and this would have been his first sound film, but he left the project after making the production boards, and his talkie debut was the classic Under the Roofs of Paris instead. Pabst, who had already secured his reluctant protégée for the lead role, further worked on the film in Clair’s absence. Italian director Genina had made one film for the French production company Sofar (Société des Films Artistiques), which was founded in Berlin in 1924 by a Russian, Romain Pinès, but had recently moved to Paris, so he was drafted in to helm the film. He brought with him a collection of international influences, a breezy, naturalistic style and a useful bias towards stories about spirited gamines.
Genina was born in Rome in 1892, who began his career as a drama critic and comedy writer. He was persuaded to work in the movies on the advice of Italian screenwriter Aldo de Benedetti and he directed his first film, La moglie di sua eccellenza/His Excellency’s Wife, in 1913. He worked all over Europe and was inspired by global cinema – his films are vivacious and modern. After the coming of sound, he spent many years in Europe making multilple-language talkies before returning to Italy. He won Mussolini cup at the Venice Film Festival, the prize for best Italian film, twice: in 1936 for Lo squadrone bianco and in 1940 for The Siege of Alcazar. Genina was recently honoured with a retrospective at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, though for years his name was little known outside Italy. This is undoubtedly because he was tainted by association with the fascist regime, having continued to work in Italy, even making propaganda films, throughout the Second World War. He made his final film, a French comedy called Frou-Frou, in 1955 and he died in 1957.
Prix de beauté was not an easy film to make: Genina had inherited not only an unbiddable, and hard-drinking, Hollywood star, but a film script, Prix de beauté, that had been worked and reworked by French Clair and Austrian Pabst already. Not only that, but there were the difficulties inherent in shooting for sound, as well as in the silent style. Luckily, Genina, Pabst and Clair had both travelled to England to study sound film technique before working on the film. The Italian director wisely kept the finale that Clair had scripted. He wrote in his memoirs that “A film can be wrong in the beginning, in the middle, but never at the end”.
The Polish cinematographer Rudolph Maté had worked throughout Europe, most notably with Carl Th Dreyer on films including The Passion of Joan of Arc. He would go on to photograph many classic Hollywood films from Stella Dallas to Gilda, before becoming a director in his own right. In this film, the camera seems to be as light on its feet as Brooks herself. Not only that, but polylingual Maté stepped in as a sympathetic translator between exasperated director and sulky star.
Brooks plays Lucienne, a young woman who enters a beauty contest, much to the chagrin of her old-fashioned, controlling fiancé André, played by Georges Charlia. When she is crowned Miss France, Lucienne is soon torn between the prospect of marriage to André and the temptations opened up by her new-found fame, including the rich and charming Prince de Grabovsky (Jean Bradin), and the prospect of a new career as an actress in the talkies… It’s a tragic story, but for comic relief, savour the screen time of Italian actor Augusto Bandini, who plays Andre’s chum Antonin. He and Genina had worked together before.
The title of the film is a rather poignant French pun: meaning both beauty prize, and the price of beauty. A win and a loss for Lucienne. The film’s key concern is social mobility: for a woman, her face can liberate her from domestic subservience to one man, but the stakes are high, and she may find herself, and her likeness, increasingly commodified and exploited, until all that is left of her is her image.
The melodrama of the plot is nicely balanced by the documentary realism of the street-level comedy scenes – you could say there’s a class divide engraved in the mise-en-scène. The opening sequence at the beach, introduced by the simple intertitle “Sunday”, is reminiscent of the German film People on Sunday, which combined a fictional narrative with elements of the City Symphony. The international beauty pageant scene was staged by prevailing on two Paris newspapers to put on a real contest, with hundreds of spectators. It looks real, because it largely is.
Further, the story of the film resonated with Brooks’s own backstory. She is beautifully cast as a dissatisfied young girl who discovers her face may be a fortune. There is a refreshing ease to her performance, which betrays, perhaps, how much the story struck a chord with her. She had left home to join a dance company as a teenager. Before she had hit her twenties she danced with the Ziegfeld Follies, and spent many an evening in the company of rich, powerful and famous men, who would offer her, in her words, “money, jewels, mink coats, a film job” for her favours. Part of the brilliance of Brooks’s performance here is that she conveys not just Lucienne’s sense of dissatisfaction with her home life and her controlling fiancé André, but the rush of excitement she encounters when she discovers a new world lies in store for her. Biographer Barry Paris suggests that in the story of Lucienne and André, Brooks found something to remind her of her own short-lived marriage to director Eddie Sutherland.
The final sequence, which is pretty much as Clair scripted and boarded it, remains one of the most haunting scenes in silent cinema, and in its talkie version, one of first great uses of sound film technique. It’s almost a farewell to the silent era itself, and a fitting finale of sorts for Brooks. With this performance, she had ended her silent career with three of her greatest films. While Prix de beauté is both artistically successful and socially progressive, critics were unimpressed by its awkward synch effects and dubbed dialogue, and its run in cinemas did not last long. However, viewed as a pure silent today it looks remarkable: a lyrical film with delicate cinematography by Rudolph Maté, vivid urban scenes that recall the rush and excitement of a City Symphony and a transcendent star performance from Brooks.
After making Prix de beauté, Brooks would face a largely unsuccessful return to Hollywood in the talkies, then far too many years of semi-obscurity in Kansas and New York. This could have been the last hurrah of her career. Except, happily Brooks returned in the 1950s – not to act, but to be celebrated for her silent work, feted in Europe and America. And via her published writing, her correspondence and her interviews, she was able to tell her side of the story. The history of filmmaking in its infancy as told by a rebellious starlet who refused to play by the rules. It helps to remember, when watching Prix de beauté, that Brooks’s own story ended rather differently to that of Lucienne.
- I highly recommend that if you have the opportunity to see a screening of this film with Stephen Horne’s accompaniment you snap those tickets up as fast as you can. It really is something very special. Especially, but not exclusively, at the ending of the film.
- You can order a DVD box set of four Augusto Genina films, including Prix de beauté (1930), from the Cineteca di Bologna. In this case the film is accompanied by an orchestral score from Timothy Brock.
- You can order my BFI Film Classics monograph on Pandora’s Box here, direct from the publisher, or from your favourite bookshop.
- Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page.