Every little breeze, seems to whisper Louise…
This is only the fourth time I’ve seen Brooksie on screen (did I miss the rush or something?) still, preferring quality over quantity, I’m happy to wait for the right occasion and tonight I was rewarded and more than that: I was mesmerised. Even on intermitted full-beam, Louise Brooks burns on screen like few others – there really is no Garbo or Dietrich, let alone Crawford, Davis or Hepburn.
I’ve watched the sound version of Prix de Beauté a number of times and it’s always fallen short in spite of good moments and very good Louise but this silent version makes so much more sense especially given Stephen Horne’s uncanny accompaniment and a room full of silent post-grads relishing this rare opportunity.
The film had a troubled gestation and involved both René Clair and Brooks’ mentor G.W. Pabst – the former developing the script from the latter’s story with moments of pure cinema originating from both even under the eventual direction of Augusto Genina.
|Louise Brooks and Jean Bradin|
This was the 2012 Cineteca di Bologna’s recreation based on the sole surviving silent copy with muted sections included from the French sound version filling gaps here and there. Geoff Brown, who introduced the film after giving a witty and fascinating movie-illustrated talk on Silent to Sound: Britain and Europe in Transition explained that the two versions were filmed separately with Clair’s original vision being a silent one. The sound version presented a smaller frame as space was given over to the sound track so we not only see more screen as well as a longer film.
It’s not Pandora’s Box by any means but it is a fuller and more rounded film than before and one that impresses more consistently with a visual coherence and conceptual strength provided by Genina and his ace cameraman, Rudolph Maté who had worked on Dreyer’s Joan and would go on to collaborate on Vampyr too.
|Brooks and Georges Charlia|
The opening section in the public pools has a documentary quality like People on a Sunday and Brooks is introduced feet – or rather calf and thighs – first before blowing the audience away with, vivacity and a smile to brighten even the darkest metropolitan day. There’s more exceptional footage at a fairground as Brooks’ character suddenly starts to regret passing up her chance to become separate from the common men pressing all around her. Amidst the smiles and tom-foolery Brooks’ face is a mask of despair as realisation drives even the faintest smile from her lips.
In the sound version this section appears much earlier – before she wins the contest – yet here it serves a greater purpose in showing how she regrets the opportunity just presented and how she can no longer live her life with Andre. It’s a longer and more detailed sequence in silence and a key part of Lucienne’s emotional journey.
|Lucienne can't smile for the funfair photo|
It’s hard to resist drawing parallels with the star’s own situation in this film: she’s followed onto a train by press and paparazzi after winning the chance to represent France at the Miss Europe pageant and subjected to male attention at every stage. Her big break finds her conflicted between opportunity and loyalty to her man, Andre (Georges Charlia), a choice that made her burn a fair number of real-life bridges. Finally, she gets a chance in a talking picture whilst even in 1931 she was getting offers from Wild Bill Wellman to star in a thing called The Public Enemy (Jean went with that one…).
|On her way to success...|
Brooks once described herself as an actor who largely just played herself and that’s enough if you’re picked for the right roles and well directed. But she does have to work a bit harder than Lulu as Lucienne Garnier, a sweet secretary who dreams of bettering herself through her beauty: you can’t imagine LB being so naive. She larks with her modest boyfriend – a typesetter at the newspaper where she works – and he is already jealous of the attention she attracts from other men at the pool and everywhere else. Andre doesn’t like beauty contests and Lucienne can’t even bring herself to admit she’s entering.
Executive types look at pictures of the contestants and one stands out: no one’s going to complete with that hair, those eyes… Whisked away to San Sebastien in Spain, Lucienne is soon competing in the beauty contest (actually filmed in Paris with thousands of extras). The documentary feel is again present with candid shots of the public mixed in with key players from high society (and low morality) including a maharajah (Yves Glad) and Prince Adolphe de Grabovsky (Jean Bradin).
Naturally applause is loudest and longest for Lucienne who easily beats Miss Germany and Miss England to take the crown. Now its cocktail parties and offers of jewels and riches from her betters – Lucienne sails through as if it’s one childlike adventure: never has the Brooks smile been so much in evidence.
But Andre has been in pursuit and unaware how she could possibly have upset him (he is a bit of a grump and control freak) Lucienne decides to head back to Paris with him.
Louise was just 23 when she made this film and it was to be her last starring role in a feature: mid-life redemption and eternal fame all lay ahead but first Brooksie had to get lost for a while. Prince Adolphe advises that Andre will never understand her and we get the feeling he has a point.
Shadowy days in a meagre apartment lie ahead for Lucienne and she is as imprisoned as their pet budgie ironing and cooking for Andre. He tears up her fan mail and bans all talk of Miss Europe but the fresh Prince tracks her down and makes her a fateful offer.
Then comes the funfair and those moments of doubt all leading to a change of heart and the stunning closing sequence (usually attributed to Clair). I used to think that was pretty much the best part of the film but with this silent version there is so much more to see and Louise Brooks is so much more powerful without the clumsy dubbing. Above all she is a spectacular vision and the effects are special enough as they are without the need for sound: personally I can’t watch and listen to dialogue at the same time when Brooksie’s on screen.
|Andre watches as Lucienne is drawn away...|
Stephen Horne has already accompanied the reconstructed silent in San Fransicso and Istanbul and his experience showed with a delicately interwoven score featuring flute, kalimber, piano and accordion. You don’t need dialogue with this sonic pallet and Stephen adds so much emotional value to a film: carefully interpreting mood and always respecting the source material right the way down to that famous - but tricksy – ending. No musical spoilers: you really have to see this show yourself.
The stars were particularly well-aligned tonight in the warm atmosphere of the Cinema Museum: not just for the music but the audience and, across the decades, in sound and in silence, the actress…