Louise Brooks, Lost Girl

By Thomas Gladysz

On first glance, the silent films Beggars of Life and Diary of a Lost Girl appear to have little in common, except that each stars the luminous actress Louise Brooks. Yes, should you need to be reminded, that Louise Brooks, the actress equally famous for her beauty and bobbed hair as well as for her role as Lulu in the sensational 1929 film, Pandora’s Box.

Brooks, once described by a surrealist critic as “The only woman who had the ability to transfigure—no matter what the film—into a masterpiece,” appears on the Brattle screen in early September. Recently, both Beggars of Life and Diary of a Lost Girl were digitally restored and released on home video by Kino Lorber. In fact, the restored Beggars of Life has just come out on DVD / Blu-ray for the first time.

Beggars of Life (1928) is an American film. It has a rural setting, and is dry, earthy, and hot. Based on the bestselling memoir by the celebrated “hobo author” Jim Tully, Beggars of Life was directed by the multiple Academy Award winner William Wellman the year after he directed Wings (the first film to win the Oscar for Best Picture). It is a rough and humble story about an orphan girl (Brooks) who kills her abusive step-father and flees the law, dressing as a boy and riding the rails through a hobo underground ruled over by future Oscar winner Wallace Beery. Danger, and the threat of danger, is always close at-hand.

Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) is a German film. It has an urban setting, and is damp (it sometimes rains), ordered, and cool. Based on the controversial book by the feminist author Margarete Böhme, Diary of a Lost Girl was directed by G.W. Pabst less than a year after he worked with the actress on Pandora’s Box. Just as sensational as that earlier film, Diary is a disturbing story about a naive teenager (Brooks) who is seduced by her Father’s business associate. Pregnant, she is forced to give up the baby, and is sent to live in a kind of reform school ruled over by a sadistic couple (one of whom is played by the legendary avant-garde dancer Valeska Gert). She escapes, and wanders the streets among the down and out before ending up in a house of prostitution.

These two films are different in many ways, but share a few similarities below their surface. Essentially, in each, Brooks plays a vulnerable young woman who is sexually assaulted, and is then “cast out” as a consequence. Made worlds apart (though not in time), these two films reflect not dissimilar attitudes towards women and women’s sexuality.

It should be mentioned that Brooks herself, as a young girl, was a victim of sexual abuse. A certain neighbor named “Mr. Flowers” lured the then 9-year-old Brooks into his home where he abused her. When Brooks told her mother, the child was asked what she did to provoke the incident.

Beggars of Life author Jim Tully too experienced a difficult childhood. After his mother died in 1892, Tully’s father was unable to care for his children, and the six year old boy was sent to a Catholic orphanage in Cincinnati, Ohio. At age 12, Tully’s father removed him from the orphanage and gave the child to an abusive farmer who employed the boy as a laborer. Within a couple of years, Tully ran away, and was quickly lured into life on the road. Beggars of Life, his 1924 novelistic memoir, tells the story of his early days, with certain characters changed for the 1925 stage adaption and later film. (The 2012 biography of Tully is a terrific read.)

Diary of a Lost Girl author Margarete Böhme also had a secret, one which I feel was submerged in her 1905 book, originally titled Tagebuch einer Verlorenen. It purportedly tells the true story of Thymian, a young woman forced by circumstance into a life of prostitution. When it was first published, it was said to be a genuine diary, and Böhme claimed only to be its editor. The book’s wild popularity (it was filmed twice, adapted for the stage, parodied, and was the subject of scorn, censorship, and lawsuits) led to ongoing speculation as to its actual authorship. As such, it anticipates the “falsified memoirs” of today.

By 1929, when Pabst came to make his film of Böhme’s book, Diary of a Lost Girl had sold more than 1,200,000 copies, making it what one contemporary scholar has called “Perhaps the most notorious and certainly the commercially most successful autobiographical narrative of the early twentieth century.” Up until the early 1930’s, when right-wing groups in Nazi Germany drove it out of print, Böhme denied authorship of this lost girl’s diaries.

The question is why. What was the secret, or the shame, hidden in the pages of Böhme’s book? My 2010 “Louise Brooks edition” of Böhme’s Diary of a Lost Girl attempts to answer the question.

Does Brooks’ own experience as a victim / survivor of sexual abuse appear on the screen? It is hard to say. But then, in some oblique way, how could it not have? The actress seldom saw her own films—some she only saw for the first time late in life; others she claimed not to know what they were about, as was the case with Pandora’s Box, where again her character is sexually manipulated and coerced.

What we do know is that Brooks’ experience as a child marked her entire life. She said so. It certainly contributed to her lack of self esteem and self-destructive ways. It also isolated the actress. Writing about Diary of a Lost Girl in 1938, an Italian critic commented, “She suffers and remains unmoved. And precisely this is what counts most: with an almost total lack of acting, she has created around herself a dense atmosphere of intense emotions.”

Ultimately, Brooks’ own story is one of redemption. She spent the last half of her life out of the limelight, virtually forgotten for decades, striving to understand what had happened to her life and aborted career. She experienced an emotional and spiritual tumult before settling into a kind of gin-soaked intellectual understanding late in life. The result of her striving is her 1982 bestseller, Lulu in Hollywood. To find out more about Brooks, be sure and check out Barry Paris’ beautifully empathetic 1989 biography of the actress, Louise Brooks.

Louise Brooks never made it to Cambridge, as far as I know. But she did appear in Boston on a couple of occasions as a teenage member of Denishawn, then the leading modern dance company in America. This was before her film career, and before she appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies. On January 17 and then again on March 2, 1923, the Denishawn company (which included the 16-year-old Brooks, Martha Graham, founders Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, and others of note) performed at the Boston Opera House. Touring the country, Denishawn returned to the Opera House one year later, performing again on April 11 and 12, 1924. Late in life, the one–time actress stated all she ever wanted to be was a dancer. [Brooks’ entrance into Denishawn is a plot point in the forthcoming film of Laura Moriarty’s bestselling novel, The Chaperone, from PBS Masterpiece. It is currently in production.]

Beggars of Life, as with all of Brooks’ American films, was shown in Boston when first released. It played at the Metropolitan theater in late September, 1928, where it was well received in the pages of the Boston Post and Boston Herald. In its pages, Harvard’s The Crimson simply noted, “Tramp, Tramp, the hoboes are coming to town.” More than a few years later, in 1989, critic Jay Carr described Beggars of Life in the Boston Globe as “Louise Brooks’ best American film before she went to Germany.”

Diary of a Lost Girl was not as fortunate. The film debuted in Berlin on October 15, 1929. And by December 5, it had been banned by the state censor and was withdrawn from circulation. After cuts were made, the ban was lifted and the film re-released on January 6, 1930. However, Diary of a Lost Girl was poorly received, not only because sound was coming in and there was diminishing interest in the silent cinema, but because the film continued to be censored and cut (according to local standards) wherever it was shown, leaving its already problematic story in shambles. Rudolph Leonhardt, the film’s screenwriter, wrote that he saw it in Paris at the time and stayed in his seat at the end because he thought the film had broken.

The many negative reviews the film received sometimes had little to do with the movie. Some German critics, no doubt disliking the pointed social critique found in the film, instead devoted their columns to savaging Böhme’s then 25 year old book! Siegfried Kracauer, a critic at the time, was among them. In his famous 1946 book, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, Kracauer wrote about the Pabst film and its literary source—“the popularity of which among the philistines of the past generation rested upon the slightly pornographic frankness with which it recounted the private life of some prostitutes from a morally elevated point of view.”

Diary of a Lost Girl was not shown in the United States until the 1950s, and it did not receive a theatrical release in America until the 1980s. Such were the fortunes of silent film in the age of talkies. Recent restorations, however, have brought renewed attention, and in the eyes of some critics including myself, Diary of a Lost Girl is considered the near equal of the better known Pandora’s Box.

Fortunately, the Kino Lorber prints of Diary of a Lost Girl  restore just about as much footage as possible, bringing the film back into a broad semblance of what it was like when initially released. The same can be said for the Kino Lorber Beggars of Life, which was digitally restored from 35mm film elements held at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York.

Both films, I suggest, are worth witnessing—not only for what is on the screen, but for what can be seen below their surface.

Thomas Gladysz is the Director of the Louise Brooks Society, a website and online archive launched in 1995. He has written numerous articles on the actress and the silent film era, and authored / edited two books, the “Louise Brooks Edition” of Diary of a Lost Girl, and earlier this year, Beggars of Life: A Companion to the 1928 Film. Gladysz has organized exhibits on Louise Brooks, and introduced her films around the world. His audio commentaries can also be heard on the Kino Lorber releases of Beggars of Life and Diary of a Lost Girl.