Thursday, August 25, 2016

Louise Brooks, Modernism, the Surrealists, and the Paris of 1930

Louise Brooks has long been popular in France, and in Paris in 1930, she must have seemed to have been everywhere. The actress was widely written about and pictured in the French capital's many  newspapers and magazines. I have collected dozens of clippings. Her image, as well, was also seemingly everywhere. There is even a picture, shown below, of Brooks' portrait on display in the window of a Paris photographer's studio. If anyone has a time machine handy, I would like to travel back to Paris and purchase a few prints.

Indeed, Brooks was the toast of Paris while she was in France making Prix de beauté. The press recorded her arrival, and profiled her in numerous pieces.

Prix de beauté was in production between August 29 through September 27, 1929, and debuted at the famous Max-Linder Pathe on May 9, 1930. A major American film star in an important French production was BIG NEWS, not at least due to the fact that Prix de beauté was also one of the earliest French talkies. (Sound and music are important visual motifs in the film, which was shot as both a silent and sound film.)

Prix de beauté was a huge success, and it went on to enjoy three month run in various theaters. After two months at the Max-Linder (and for part of that time also at the historic Lutetia-Pathe to accommodate the crowds), the film moved to the Folies Dramatiques, where it was advertised as an "immense success" and played nearly a month. This extended run was at a time when most films played only a few days or a week before moving on.

Remarkably, the successful run of Prix de beauté took place at a time when another of Brooks' films, the German production Diary of a Lost Girl (Trois Pages D'un Journal), was also playing in the French capital, at the Au Colisee. (It also was shown at the Rialto and Splendide theatres in Paris in 1930.) As was Beggars of Life (Les mendiants de la vie), at the Clichy-Palace in March of the same year. Like today, films being shown were advertised in the newspaper, and on one occasion, the two film's respective  advertisements sat side-by-side.

Diary of a Lost Girl continued to be shown on and off in Paris in 1930. It was even shown at the famous Ursulines theater in November as part of a trippple bill. As shown below, the evening's program begins with G.W. Pabst's Joyless Street, followed by Howard Hawk's A Girl in Every Port, starring Brooks, followed by G.W. Pabst's Diary of a Lost Girl, also starring Brooks.

A Girl in Every Port (which Blaise Cendrars called "the first appearance of contemporary cinema") debuted in France at the Ursulines, "one of the oldest cinemas in Paris to have kept its facade and founder's vision" as a "venue for art and experimental cinema." The Ursulines opened in 1926 with films by André Breton, Man Ray, Fernand Léger, René Clair and Robert Desnos. And in 1928, it premiered the first film of Germaine Dulac, The Seashell and the Clergyman, from a story by Antonin Artaud. The latter film was heckled by the surrealists, leading to a fight that stopped the screening.

Between 1926 and 1957, a number of now-classic films premiered at the theater, such as René Clair's Le Voyage Imaginaire and Erich Von Stroheim’s Greed. According to the wonderful Cinema Treasures website, "This little theatre with a balcony has a very charming facade looking like a romantic country house. At the beginning of talking movies, the premiere of Sternberg’s Blue Angel with Marlene Dietrich took place here, and ran 14 months." In December 1930, Diary of a Lost Girl and Blue Angel even shared the bill.

The Ursulines theatre was a kind of cinematic home to the Surrealists.... Which got me thinking about the affection some of the surrealists had for Brooks. It's known that Philipe Soupault, the great French Surrealist poet, mentioned the actress in his journalism and reviewed Diary of a Lost Girl. (A couple of images of the actress adorn the poet's collected writings on the cinema, Ecrits de cinema 1918-1931.) And it's also known that Man Ray was smitten by the actress. The great photographer and the film star met in Paris in late 1958, and Man Ray recounted how he had seen her image in Paris years before. Man Ray was fond enough of Brooks that he sent her a small painting in memory of their meeting and in memory of his memory.

Perhaps Man Ray also saw one or two of her films. Earlier, in 1928, A Girl in Every Port shared the bill with a short Man Ray film, L'Etoile de Mer, at the Ursulines during the months of October, November, and December. L'Etoile de Mer (The Starfish) was scripted by the surrealist poet Robert Desnos and "stars" Desnos and Alice Prin. Better known as Kiki de Montparnasse, Prin (Man Ray's one-time paramour) famously sported Louise Brooks-like bobbed hair and bangs.

Prix de beauté proved especially popular, and even influential. (A novelization of Prix de beauté was published in 1932. And in 1933, a short story by the French writer Leon Bopp was published which describes a character in love with Louise Brooks.) Similarly, A Girl in Every Port (which was one of the few American films to retain its American title in France) proved popular and was revived time and again in Paris in the 1920's and 1930's. [I wonder which of those showings was the one Jean-Paul Sartre took Simone de Beauvoir to on one of their first dates.] 

Of course, one could also Lee Miller to this piece. Miller, a sometime Surrealist photographer and one-time paramour of Man Ray, is known to have seen Louise Brooks dance on stage in Poughkeepsie, New York long before Brooks became a film star and Miller a Surrealist.... If any scholars of Surrealism can add to the information found on this page, please contact me.

I will close this blog with two collages from 1929, both of which include Brooks. The first is Herbert Bayer's "Facing Profiles." Bayer was associated with the Bauhaus. The second is Edward Burra's "Composition Collage." Burra was a English modernist. Obviously, something was in the air circa 1930.

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