Friday, April 27, 2018

Film fragment discovered: Louise Brooks like you've never seen her before

Pamela Hutchinson / Silent London helped break the news that a previously unknown, 3 second fragment of technicolor film featuring Louise Brooks has been discovered at the BFI National Archive (British Film Institute). The all-to-brief piece is from The American Venus (1926), one of the earlier examples of the use of Technicolor. Hutchinson wrote up the discovery on her wonder-filled Silent London blog. The news was also covered by the BBC, which ran this story "BFI finds movie gold of silent era star Louise Brooks." The June 2018 issue of Sight & Sound (out next week) will contain the full story of the fragments’ discovery.

(The use of Technicolor in The American Venus was considerable: there are three scenes which utilize the process. One is of the boardwalk parade of beauty contestants at the Atlantic City beauty pageant, the second is of series of artistic tableaux, and the last is of a fashion revue.)

Via YouTube, here is a 8:17 compilation of the various newly discovered fragments, many of which are repeated because they are so brief. Louise Brooks enters the fray around 1:00 minute in. (But do watch the entire video. It is fabulous.)

In The American Venus, Brooks plays Miss Bayport, a beauty contestant and mannequin (then a term for a fashion model). The film -- which was sometimes screened in the UK under the title The Modern Venus -- includes a few tableau, which amount to a kind of still-life fashion show. This fragment may be from one of those tableau (notice the pole at Brooks' feet, used to position and steady the model), or it may be a screen test/color test, as BFI curator Bryony Dixon suggests in her narration over the YouTube video.

It might be a test, or it might be a censored cut from the Frank Tuttle directed film.

At the time of the film's release, newspapers and local censorship boards complained about the skimpy outfits worn by many of the women in the film. To our eyes today, this is pretty tame stuff. But back then, such skimpy outfits amounted to nudity. (The term "nudity" was in fact used in a few critiques of the film.) As is evident in the above clip, Brooks' belly button and midriff are clearly visible. At the time, such exposure was pushing the boundaries of decorum.

The American Venus was a big success, and was widely reviewed. Rose Pelswick, writing in the New York Evening Journal, stated “Famous Players-Lasky tied up with the recent beauty contest, and the result is a bewildering succession of events that range from artistic tableaux to a Keystone comedy chase.” However, Quinn Martin, writing in the New York World, called the film “A glittering piece of dramatic trash, as cheap a thing and still as expensive looking as anything I have seen from the Paramount studio…. It presents a raw and effortful desire to photograph scantily attired women without any sensible or appreciable tendency to tell a reasonably alive or plausible story. Any nervous high school boy might have done the plot and there isn’t a director in captivity who could not have told the cameraman when and where and how to shoot.”

Soon-to-be famous poet Carl Sandburg liked it, calling the film a "a smart takeoff on our national custom." The film also found favor with playwright Robert E. Sherwood. Writing in Life magazine, Sherwood call the film “The primmest bit of box-office bait ever cast into the sea of commercialism…. The American Venus is to cinematographic art what the tabloid newspaper is to journalism. It is designed to appeal to those charming people who fill out the coupons and enclose their dollars for ‘Twelve Beautiful Photographic Studies of Parisian Models in Nature’s Garb’. Not that it is the least bit immoral. On the contrary, it is flamingly virtuous and teeming with the highest principles of 100 per cent American go-gettery.”

The American Venus had enough eye candy appeal that it remained in circulation for nearly two years. In one of its last recorded theatrical screenings, The American Venus is shown at the Ramona theater in Phoenix, Arizona on December 30, 1927.

The American Venus is considered a lost film. That's a shame, because it pictures Brooks in all her youthful beauty. (The film was shot in the Fall of 1925, and officially released in early 1926.) In the late 1990’s, a few minutes of material was found in Australia. The surviving material includes fragments, variously in black and white, tinted and in Technicolor, from two theatrical trailers. These surviving trailers, each about 180 feet in length, are housed at the Library of Congress and at the Pacific Film Archive. The two trailers were screened at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in 2002, and can be found on the DVD box set, More Treasures from American Film Archives 1894 – 1931. Via YouTube, here is a technicolor trailer.

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