“Lulu always wants to do what the folks don’t want her to.
When she struts her stuff around, London Bridge is falling down!
She’s the kind of smarty who breaks up every party,
Hullabalooloo, don’t bring Lulu, I’ll bring her myself!”
These lyrics from a popular 1925 Ray Henderson tune could’ve been written about Louise Brooks, the most incandescently fatal woman ever to Charleston her way through film history. Once Brooksie swung into party mode, you might expect the whole world to evaporate under the scorching heat of her peculiar alchemy of hedonism and innocence. Her borderline-apocalyptic beauty could not breathe in any other medium but cinema.
I suspect Brooks would bristle at the fact that her black helmet hairdo and “decadent… Aubrey Beardsley makeup” have been seared as a static afterimage on our collective cultural retina, as a stripped-down icon of flapperdom.
Brooks as a floating face with pearls. Brooks staring down the camera in a gallery of scornful publicity portraits. Brooks striking an oblique Follies pose.
These photographs resonate even in their stillness. Thousands of people who have never seen Brooks’s films—and aren’t likely to—could doodle the minimalist curves of her exotic glamour as an archetype of the Roaring Twenties. And that’s both a glory and a pity.
Brooks’s sorcery captivates an audience by the way her spirit billows forth unreservedly from her movement, as if the camera had “caught her by surprise,” in the words of Henri Langlois. Recognizing Louise Brooks without watching her dance through the most mundane of tasks, gestures, or scenes is like recognizing a bird without ever having seen one fly.
I wanted to write about Love ’Em and Leave ’Em (1926), a skillfully executed but pretty standard dramedy, because even in her role as an aspiring vamp, Brooks displays the dazzling naturalness that would shine so brightly in her later celebrated performances for Pabst. The film also seems to have been one of her more felicitous Hollywood experiences. I can’t find a negative word out of her about the production—a rarity, for sure, since she had to put up with everything from surly co-stars to predatory producers to overprotective directors and wrote about it in exacting detail afterwards.
Brooks praised her director, Frank Tuttle, as “a master of easy, perfectly timed comedy which demanded that kind of acting rather than the wildly energetic style popular in Hollywood. An intelligent man, he never interfered with two classes of authors—great actors and non-actors.” Indeed, Tuttle had a knack for giving unknown or up-and-coming talents the space they needed to deliver breakout performances, as he would demonstrate two decades later with Alan Ladd in This Gun for Hire. The director deployed “non-actor” Brooks’s dangerous appeal to great effect.
In Love ’Em and Leave ’Em, Brooks essays an early variation of the role that would define her on and offscreen: the eternal problem child, too clever, too beautiful, and too reckless for her own (or anyone else’s) good. She is the chief plot obstacle in both storylines—stealing her sister’s beau and nearly getting her sister jailed for money she stole. And yet the audience cannot bring itself to condemn this pouty, precocious con artist. She doesn’t think she’s doing anything wrong, so, consequently, it’s hard to blame her.
From the outset, Brooks serves as the terrific pay-off to a carefully drawn-out introduction. Our story begins in a cramped boarding house, where dutiful Mame (Evelyn Brent) wearily arises for a day of work, after waiting up in vain for her wildcat sister. The intertitles inform us that Mame’s mother made her promise to watch over Janie. As the put-upon goody-two-shoes lurches over to the window, she notices the Jazz Age still life of kicked-off pumps, lingerie, and a wisp of a dress strewn on the floor. Then Mame opens the window to let in dawn’s tender rays that fall on her girlish, still dozing sister, looking as innocuous as a china doll. Really? This is the wicked babe we just heard about?
Big sister pauses to pick up a doll from the floor and examines its conspicuous tag: “Ladies 1st Prize, Charleston Contest.” As a playful sibling reproach, Mame puts the doll’s motorized dancing feet against Janie’s. And then and only then do we watch sleeping beauty turn into a lippy hell-raiser as she swings up from her pillow and starts bossing her guardian around, telling Mame to go wake up her boyfriend down the hall.
She goes to meet this total dud, Bill (Lawrence Gray), whom even the intertitles mock as “a ninety million to one shot for President of the United States.” While the drippy pair are arguing about who gets to use the communal water supply first, Janie flounces unceremoniously in front of the camera into the bathroom. So long hot water, hello snow showers.
Mame and Jane work at one of those ubiquitous silent movie departments stores, populated by the usual assortment of pretty young ground troops and officious managers who boss the harried workers around. (I kept hoping Harold Lloyd would show up and woo Janie with his devamping routine out of Girl Shy, but, alas, to no avail.)
Mame trudges along, giving all the credit for her artistic window dressing to Bill. Meanwhile pert, popular Janie has honed her Pollyanna charade so well that she’s been appointed treasurer for the Employee Welfare League, charged with collecting money for the annual costume dance.
Now, this is one of those movies where the characters act like they’ve never seen a movie, which is odd, because we even see characters go out to the cinema for a date. Janie, you see, has a penchant for betting whatever cash comes into her lily-like hands on horses—with Lem (Osgood Perkins), the oily n’er-do-well who lives in the boarding house, acting as her bookie. Seriously, Janie? You’re going to leave the Welfare Dance money with Lem? Have you not seen The Cheat? Fortunately, the actors are so delightfully shady that these sorts of concerns barely trouble us.
In fact, Brooks, who shared screen time with quite a few fine actors, named Osgood Perkins (father of Anthony) as the best she ever worked with.
Years later, in an interview with Kevin Brownlow, Brooks praised Perkins and explained how he bolstered her performance: “You know what makes an actor great to work with? Timing. You don’t have to feel anything. It’s like dancing with a perfect dancing partner. Osgood Perkins would give you a line so that you would react perfectly.”
Brooks and Perkins do an elegantly choreographed comic two-step in their routines together, all tease and greed on her part, all lust and greed on his. Once, while Jane turns around to count her money, Lem surreptitiously inches closer to her, though leaving a safe margin of I’m-not-touching-you hover space. Janie, without so much as a backwards glance, instinctively elbows him away with a coy little stab. She is apparently well-versed in the ways of oily creepers.
But back to Plotline A: Mame decides that she wants a vacation to think over Bill’s marriage proposal and asks Janie to help him out with his window dressing work while she’s away. Good thinking, Mame. Leave your jelly-spine boyfriend and your conniving nymphet of a sister to arrange a luxurious boudoir window display. Faster than you can say “Hotsy-Totsy,” Janie is practically wearing Bill as her anklet.
And this is where Brooksie gets her big scene.
Night. The department store. Whereas Mame would be actively sharing her best ideas with Bill, Janie arranges two creepy Harlequin dolls to look like they’re kissing. When Bill objects, she sulks and admires herself by the beauty display, sampling the pricey products. Her hands put on a little ballet for us, dabbing on powder with a huge, cottony puff and dotting scent on her lips.
Having sufficiently beautified herself, Janie slinks over to a divan and flashes her come-hither stare at Bill. He tries to pull her off the sofa, but she gives him a coy smile and shakes her head no. Since Bill, despite his faults, does possess a Y chromosome, he succumbs and flops on top of Janie who lies there immobile, her hand resting on his back like a talon. As Bill plants his clumsy kisses on Janie’s disdainful face, Tuttle inserts a wry shot of the Harlequin dolls falling onto each other.
Seized by the sudden realization that this is wrong, Bill bolts to a safer corner of the room. Janie, angered and vexed by this reaction, sits up and hatches a cunning improvisation. She dips her hands into a nearby fishbowl, wets her cheeks with artificial tears, and proceeds to cry her crocodile tears. “You hurt me,” simper the intertitles. And the battle is lost for William the Conquered.
It’s hard to imagine what Janie sees in Bill, who has all the personality and verve of a packing crate. I can only deduce that she’s practicing, to keep her skills sharp.
Throughout her career, Brooks was pursued by the accusation that she simply didn’t act, and that she didn’t try. In my opinion, that’s a compliment to the purity of her performances. For instance, in the scene above, the only conscious theatrics she projects come when she starts acting within the scene, acting her faux devastation for Bill’s benefit. The anti-theatricality of this seduction scene adds to its hilarity. The true vamp has to practically do the Dance of the Seven Veils before devouring her prey, but not Janie. I tend to think of parody as exaggerated, but this parody makes the viewer chuckle at the inevitability of Janie’s ruse—a complex ruse that goes as follows:
1. Sit there and look sexy.
Yep, that’s about it. Sprinkle a few fake tears here and there and you’ve got comedy gold. As Brooks remembered, Tuttle discouraged her from giving an overblown bogus performance by deliberately concealing the tone of the scene from her. “I didn’t even know I was playing comedy until I saw that picture with an audience. I played it perfectly straight, and that’s the way he wanted it.”
Whether prancing out to the ball after wrecking her sister’s life or dancing like a fiend in the middle of a crowd of tame store employees, Brooks’s Janie is too self-centered to consider that she might be funny. You have to play it straight to be this crooked.
Though lacking the electric charisma of her co-star, Evelyn Brent manages to engage our sympathy with a thoroughly likable comic performance. When Bill tells her she smells “like a rose,” she responds with charmingly paced pause of dry incredulity at this poetic outburst before finally replying, “Marmalade!”
She also pulls off some awfully funny knockabout comedy at the end. In a droll reversal of the typical dramatic crosscut conclusion, which often sees the fragile heroine being attacked by a slime-ball, it’s the tough, athletic Brent who ends up tackling seedy Osgood Perkins, wrestling him for his wallet. Instead of the cavalry arriving to save her virtue, it’s just useless Bill who finds her in control of situation. She tells him…
While sister Mame is grappling for the cash with Lem, Janie is shocking the community with her frantic dance moves in a room of tame, older employees. Tuttle indulges us with a slow tilt up from her melodic legs to her waving arms. She does this erotic shimmy to enthrall Mr. Schwartz, the window manager, appropriately dressed as Mephistopheles. Her gobsmackingly obvious bid for his, ahem, favor succeeds. Actually, it succeeds more than even Janie intended. The last we hear of Janie, she’s upgraded her window manager date to a better conquest, the store manager! An intertitle announces that she’s gone off in his Rolls Royce.
Dancing with the devil has its rewards in the rather cynical universe of Love ’Em and Leave ’Em. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy this film so thoroughly. That girl’s gonna be okay, we think, smiling at Vice Triumphant. Call me a philistine, but I relish a movie that ends with a badly behaved rebel making her getaway and laughing at us all. It’s certainly more enjoyable than a film in which she winds up passionately stabbed in a squalid garret. There’s something to be said for wish fulfillment. Louise Brooks certainly had a taste for it; her own favorite films were An American in Paris, Pygmalion, and The Wizard of Oz.
They say that tragedy becomes comedy in time, so maybe comedy is just tragedy paused before the real denoument. Janie’s Rolls Royce gets off at the comedy stop. Brooks’s story didn’t. But I’m not sure she would’ve wanted it any other way.