By Daniel Barnes
Some people have argued that the black bob haircut popularly associated with Louise Brooks was first sported onscreen by actress Colleen Moore. This may be true, even if pre-fame photos of Brooks show her with an evolving version of the bob haircut, but it doesn’t matter one bit. James Dean wasn’t the first actor to wear a red jacket over a white t-shirt either, yet no actor could ever do it again without invoking his spirit.
It’s the same with the Louise Brooks black bob, with its timelessly chic and elegantly suggestive shape that stops at her mouth, practically pointing to her lips. The fact that Brooks’ short, banged hairstyle has remained in vogue through several generations of women (as well as modern movie characters ranging from Melanie Griffith in Something Wild to Christina Ricci in Speed Racer) makes her allure that much more immediate. She was really ahead of her time in many ways, and was unofficially blacklisted in Hollywood after leaving for Germany to make two landmark silent films with director G.W. Pabst.
Their first collaboration was Pandora’s Box, an ambitious, morally ambiguous morality play that was quite daring in its progressive portrayal of sexuality. Brooks’ seductive party girl Lulu has a wickedly inviting smile and exudes a sexual charisma that entrances every man (and woman) she meets, but Pabst neither puts her on the analyst’s couch nor coldly condemns her. Those who do mostly look foolish or insane – at one point, a prosecutor compares Lulu to the Pandora of Greek myth, a charge that probably should have been introduced during the discovery phase of the trial (have TV/movie courtrooms ever accurately portrayed their real-life counterparts?).
She feels like an outsider in this world because she is infused with a vivid freshness, especially in comparison to the dour and gloomy Germans that surround her. Unlike Theda Bara’s Vamp from A Fool There Was, who is explicitly conceived as a harbinger of death and decay, Lulu stands out because she is so much more alive than everyone else. Lulu can be calculating and selfish, but it is the men in her life who are weak, disappointing, violent, alcoholic, greedy, exploitative, vain, and psychotic.
The film is laid out in a strange, semi-successful eight-act structure, and right from the start Pabst lets us know this will not be a strident tale of a good girl who falls from grace. Lulu is already the happily kept woman of a successful newspaper editor when Pandora’s Box opens, a comfortable situation upset only by his impending marriage. Sexual hypocrisy is a major theme – the affair is an open secret known even to his adult son, but the editor scoffs at the idea that he could ever marry “that sort of woman”.
When he succumbs and does finally marry her, it’s an instant disaster, and he urges Lulu to commit suicide only to prevent him from becoming a murderer. After a struggle, he is shot and killed instead, and she becomes the show pony in an over-hyped celebrity trial. She eventually becomes a fugitive from justice, enticing the editor’s possibly gay son Anwa to follow her into this moral sewer, a situation that drags him into depths of drunkenness and degeneracy.
A few issues hold Pandora’s Box back – the pace lags in spots, the character of Anwa is a gloomy dope who eats up too much screen time, and some scenes veer uncomfortably between absurd and upsetting, especially that disturbing final sequence with Lulu and the stranger.
There are also some slapstick touches that fall flat, including a bumbling Jewish stage manager who seems especially odious given Pabst’s eventual collaboration with the Nazis (Pabst filmed some nationalist heroic tales during WWII at the party’s insistence, but made several harsh condemnations of the Nazis post-war). There is also a racially dicey scene where Lulu is sold “white slavery”-style to a very pale-looking Egyptian character.
Even with some hangups, Pandora’s Box remains a complex examination of sexual hypocrisy, with a payoff that packs a wallop. Of course, the real reward here is the performance of Louise Brooks – she is an incredibly attractive screen presence, still very modern in her sex appeal, but also quite contemporary in her flexible sexual identity. Lulu wears white at her wedding and a black veil at her trial, and late in the film even blows out her bob to fit her the role of a high-stakes casino floozy.
At the same time, she is outwardly unashamed of herself, brazen without being brassy, and she smiles throughout the majority of the film, even as spiritually crippled men threaten to wring her neck (in that sense, she is a bit Bara-like). Brooks never received work in Hollywood as meaty as her roles with Pabst. She was reduced to bit parts in the early 1930s, and was done altogether by the end of that decade, yet another actress too smart, talented, complex, and mature to be a Hollywood movie star.