Saturday, 13 July 2013

Louise Brooks wins… Prix de Beauté (1930)

Next week, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival will be screening a restored silent version of this film, complete with a new score from Stephen Horne - who is interviewed on the Louise Brooks Appreciation Society blog here!. The restoration has been completed by the Cineteca di Bologna and promises to further elevate the reputation of the silent version of Louise Brooks’ last starring feature to something close to her levels with GW Pabst.

Indeed Pabst worked with René Clair on the adaptation and script for the film which was eventually directed in France and Spain by Augusto Genina with some – mostly silent – style. The film was widely released as one of France’s first “sound films” and the version we mostly see today is the one with over-dubbed voices and music.

Louise Brooks and Georges Charlia
Whilst contemporary critical response was very positive and there was praise for the use of the new synchronised sound technology, the film’s best qualities are its quiet moments and visual finesse. Moving pictures were running very smoothly into their fourth decade whilst sound was still toddling… about to pull the pictures back into the static studio so they could fully meet in the middle. Yet this film was shot lin stylish silence and not as compromised as it may have been a year or two later.

Sadly San Francisco can’t be worked very easily into my routine and so I watched the Kino DVD with and without the over-dubs. It’s some 20 minutes shorter than the silent version and a good chunk of this can be put down to the fact that it plays far too fast in certain sections. As these are linked to the soundtrack, there’s no easy way to correct the pacing without switching away from the dialogue.

Augusto Bandini sneaks a peek
In this form, Prix de Beauté is flawed but still with more than enough narrative invention and high-performance acting to make it worth watching. Plus, of course, there’s the magically game-changing presence of Miss Louise Brooks.

The film starts with the same kind of cinéma vérité freshness as People on a Sunday as we see Parisians playing around, on Dimanche as it so happens… enjoying a very sunny day.

Anxious Andre
Genina very skilfully introduces his main characters and their relationships as Antonin the bespectacled joker (Augusto Bandini) tries to catch a glimpse of the lovely “Lulu” (see what they did?), Lucienne Garnier (Brooksie) getting changed into her swimming costume.

She’s a sight for sore eyes and a magnet for the male gaze, especially as she exercises at the edge of the pool. The local lads can’t believe their eyes causing her boyfriend Andre (Georges Charlia) to drag her over to the safety of his towel… a foretaste of the tribulations to come.

The three work at a newspaper and it’s fascinating to see hot metal production in action and the process is used very skilfully in the plot.

Temporary secretary
Lucienne has entered Miss France without telling the boys or even expecting to win and to the surprise of everyone but the audience; she wins and is selected to travel to Saint Sebastian to take part in the Miss Europe beauty pageant.

As she is swept away she forgets to tell her beau who finds out from their drinking buddies at their local café… life changed for ever: whatever he hoped to possess is possibly lost to him. He travels to the station in time to miss Lucienne’s train and looks to have been left behind.

Fifteen minutes... and counting...
Things move on very quickly (not just because of the wrong projection speed for many sections)  and Lucienne  is spotted by the wealthy and worldly Prince de Grabovsky (Jean Bradin) who presents her with gifts before the competition begins.

The contest itself is a fascinating document showing contestants lining up in front of the seaside crowd and the winner being decided on the length of sustained applause they generate. The is more excellent informal camera work as well as what looks like hand-held shots: all acting to underpin the everyday feel and the “reality”.

Jean Bradin skulks...
Lucienne wins (well, I was still clapping long after most had finished…) and is propelled into another level with Indian princes joining in the hunt with European nobility… the world has opened up to Miss Europe but what price will she have to pay?

Just as she takes off, Andre arrives to try bring her back to Earth… he tells her it’s him or the fame and fortune, heading of  back to the station in faint hope…

Only one winner...
But to Andre’s amazement, Lucienne decides at the last minute that the printer’s devil she knows is better than the princes she doesn’t. Has true love won out?

Back in Paris reality bites and Andre’s need to possess Lucienne's leads to him treating her like the pet bird they keep caged in their apartment. He rips up letters from well-wishes and generally tries to make her forgot her lost future.

But Lucienne cannot resist the lure of celebrity and re-connects with the Prince who begins to arrange her career. She leaves a sad letter for Andre and heads out to fulfil her personal destiny…

I won’t reveal the final sequence save to say that it is genuinely stunning. Rumoured to be René Clair’s idea it ends the film on a cinematically very strong note...

Lucienne watches herself as we watch Louise...
Clair’s next film was to be the excellent Under the Roofs of Paris whilst Pabst went on to film The Threepenny Opera and a confusing remake of L'Atlantide (featuring Brigitte Helm).

For Brooks, this was to be her last major role. For those in the business who she hadn’t already alienated, she served out a few more roles, most notably in God’s Gift to Women but blew her last major chance by saying no to old pal, “Wild Bill” Wellman and a little concoction known as Public Enemy… Would she have made more of the opportunity than Jean Harlow? Hard to say but there was a potentially great *actor* in Brooks who would have been fascinating to watch grow into older roles.

But she decided it wasn't to be and what we have is more than enough to marvel at what Brooks did achieve. Undoubtedly even the silent version of Prix de Beauté won’t be at the level of Pandora’s  Box but it’s very good and, even with her voice dubbed into French, she makes the most of the part.

Easily believable as un objet de beauté Brooks feels a little subdued at times as the conflicted and compliant “girlfriend”… Lulu and her flapper characters were more easily within her range but, a woman who decides her man is more important than her career and then changes her mind… that’s still pure Brooks!

The Kino DVD is still widely available and hopefully one day soon the silent restoration will be more generally available for comparison. In the meantime, enjoy yourself San Francisco!


  1. I was totally blown away by this film - especially by the unforgettable ending. If anyone doubts Brooks had star power, they need to see her in this.

    1. Agreed! She's never been anything less than magnetic in any of the films I've seen her in. I really want to see the silent version now.

  2. Hello, I'm here again, seeing updates. Excellent post, congratulations.
    Greetings from:

    1. Thank you Oz!

      Have you seen Dusty Video's blog? some interesting 70's euro-horror on there: