Monday, August 24, 2009

A significant find

The other day, I was scrolling through newspaper microfilm when I happened to notice a petite portrait of Louise Brooks. It wasn't something I was looking for, but there it was. It caught my eye. I suppose I've become trained to notice Brooks' image wherever it appears.

What I came across surprised me. It was something I had not seen before or even known about. And, as far as Louise Brooks and film history is concerned, I think it may be a significant find.

What I came across was an item in a column by Louella Parsons. The clipping is dated February 1, 1929. At the time, Hollywood studios were undergoing the transition from silent films to talkies. Also undergoing great change were the careers of many actors and actresses. Some, with weak voices or heavy accents, failed to make the transition to talking pictures.

According to the clipping I came across, Louise Brooks sent a telegram to the famous, nationally syndicated columnist Louella Parsons asking her to help put out the word that her voice was not bad, and that the reason her voice was dubbed in the then just released Canary Murder Case was that she was simply unavailable to do the job. (The film, released in 1929, was originally shot as a silent in 1928 and was adapted as a sound film.)

The column reads, "Louise Brooks sends a wire to this desk begging me to say that the reason Famous Players-Lasky used a voice substitute was because she could not leave New York when The Canary Murder Case was being synchronized. 'Please,' asks Louise, 'deny that they used a substitute because my voice was bad. I was tied up in New York and could not come to the coast. That is the real reason.' We are big minded and are not going to get Louise in bad if we can help it. So please heed the contents of her telegram."

What revelatory about this brief piece is that 1) it shows Brooks' awareness and concern over the poor notices her voice was receiving in early reviews of The Canary Murder Case, and 2) it supports Brook's long held contention (debated by some film historians) that some studios knowingly wrecked the careers of actors - often using the "bad voice" gambit - during this turbulent period in the industry's history.

Apparently, Brooks' considered herself a victim of studio sabotage as far back as 1929. What's also interesting is that Brooks is here attempting to make her case in the court of public opinion. That's unusual. I don't think she ever did anything as proactive again - or at least until she turned to writing about film in the 1950's and 1960's.

What do you think? Barry Paris does not mention this item in his outstanding 1989 biography.

Interestingly, in her own review of The Canary Murder Case which ran on February 8th, Parson commented "He was handicapped by no less a person than Louise Brooks, who plays the Canary. You are conscious that the words spoken do not actually emanate from the mouth of Miss Brooks and you feel that as much of her part as possible has been cut. She is unbelievably bad in a role that should have been well suited to her. Only long shots are permitted of her and even these are far from convincing when she speaks."

Brooks' part in The Canary Murder Case marked her last important role in an American silent film. With her career in turmoil, Brooks worked in Europe. (There, she made what many consider to be her three best films. Each was a silent film.) When Brooks eventually returned to work in America in 1931, newspapers and magazines usually referred to an attempted "comeback." All that was available to the once popular actress were supporting roles in largely B-movies.


  1. significant indeed.

    fantastic research as always...
    thanks for discovering this treasure.

    vincent, in buffalo

  2. it IS interesting but i would take anything written by Louella Parsons with a grain of salt. The journalistic integrity of her or Hedda Hopper is questionable at best. It also seems totally at odds with all other info about Louise and her behavior during that time, no?

  3. The way I read it, Brooks stopped short of asking Parsons to say her voice was not bad; and "big minded" Parsons stayed mum about its quality, San Simeon nothwithstanding. ... Later in life, Brooks referred to "Louella Parsons' powerful movie column" and her own fear of being "exterminated from" or suffering "banishment" from it should a jealous Marion Davies so decree. Those two occasions when she avoided being alone with W.R., she acted proactively; or, as George Eastman would say, she took time by the forelock.

    "I just moved by instinct all my life," said Scrubbie.

    Barry Paris does tell the story of George Marshall intercepting, and replying to, Ziegfeld's cable to Brooks on the S.S. Majestic in October, 1928, calling Marshall "her unofficial agent and Svengali". Perhaps he advised her on the telegram to Parsons -- or even saw to it himself. But they were having their own turbulent period....

    Paris also quotes Alexander Walker ("Shattered Silents", Morrow, 1979): "The first case of voice 'doubling' actually exposed publicly was [...] The Canary Murder Case. ..." On March 11 "Mordaunt Hall suspected (that Louise's) voice did not belong to her; and soon it was admitted".... Paris and Walker must have missed the February 1 column you found.

    Both Parsons's and Brooks's phrasing suggests the "doubling" issue was already in play ("Famous Players-Lasky used a voice substitute ... because ... The Canary Murder Case was being synchronized"; "Please deny that they ... "), but was Brooks's awareness of it raised by poor notices in reviews as early as January (for a movie released mid-February), or might a little bird have told her They'd said her voice was bad?

    The "real reason" given by Brooks wouldn't hold water. She could have given Them something more clever. Or -- Paris again -- "After the long ocean voyage, the last thing she wanted was a grueling four-day train trip to California ...". The Majestic, the Twentieth Century, the Super Chief; I can't take it!


    Trying to get a handle on "Please deny that they ...", I checked Webster's New International, Second Edition, Unabridged, 1934/37 ... and found "deny" was a lulu of a word choice:

    (...See NEGATION.)
    1. To declare not to be true; gainsay;
    contradict;--opposed to affirm, allow,
    or admit.
    "That common, false, cold, hollow talk
    Which makes the heart deny the yes it breathes."
    2. To refuse (one who asks).
    "When youth and love are hard to be denied."
    4. To disclaim connection with or respon-
    sibility for; to refuse to acknowledge;
    to disown; abjure; disavow.
    "Thou thrice denied, yet thrice beloved."

    PEPI: Rēly. Dēny. Bēlie.

    P.S. Mordaunt Hall said, Malcolm St. Clair's "flashes of the Canary swinging on the trapeze in a theatre are so excellent that they bring to mind the photographic feats in 'Variety.'"

    Variety, photographed by Karl Freund, was the consensus Best Picture of 1926 among 218 movie critics (2. Ben-Hur 3. The Big Parade 4. The Black Pirate 5. Beau Geste 6. Stella Dallas 7. The Volga Boatman 8. What Price Glory? 9. The Sea Beast 10. La Boheme).

    MUSIC: You've Got Me Crying Again


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