Thursday, April 21, 2022

Actors in uncredited bit parts in The Street of Forgotten Men, part 4 Louise Brooks

On May 10th, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival will screen its new restoration of Herbert Brenon's The Street of Forgotten Men - Louise Brooks' little seen first film. More information about that special event can be found HERE

This month, and ahead of that special event, I am running a few excerpts from my forthcoming book, The Street of Forgotten Men, from Story to Screen and Beyond, which I expect will be published later this year. This excerpt is the forth of four focusing on some of the actors who had uncredited bit parts in The Street of Forgotten Men. Here, I profile Louise Brooks (1906-1985).

Louise Brooks never intended to become an actress. She had started as a dancer, performing locally in her native Kansas before joining the Denishawn Dance Company and later George White Scandals. Following her return from London in February 1925, she landed a job as a dancer in Louie the 14th, a musical farce produced by Florenz Ziegfeld. She began to make a name for herself, and by June of that year, Brooks was a featured member of the chorus in the Summer edition of Ziegfeld’s Follies, whose other cast members included future film stars Will Rogers, Lina Basquette, and W.C. Fields.

The Follies were widely celebrated, and all manner of notables turned out to see the shows; some of them made a bee-line to the performer’s dressing rooms, including Brooks’. Key among them were writer Herman Mankiewicz, film star Charlie Chaplin, and producer Walter Wanger, the latter a Paramount talent scout. Wanger was dazzled by Brooks. According to the Barry Paris biography, he had heard Edmund Goulding (the British-born screenwriter and director then working in the States) rave about her, and so Wanger and Townsend Martin (a writer and another dressing room visitor) arranged to test her for a role in The Street of Forgotten Men, which was already filming at Paramount’s Astoria Studios on Long Island. Brooks agreed, thinking she might shoot movies during the day and dance in the Follies at night.

Brooks’ screen test was overseen by director Allan Dwan. It went well, or at least well enough, with the result being Brooks was given a bit part as a moll, a companion to Bridgeport White-Eye (played by John Harrington).* Brooks started work on the film on May 20, and appears in the second from last scene in the film, in which there is a brawl in a bar. Brooks’ scene lasts just 4 minutes. Not surprisingly, no reviewer or critic took notice of Brooks, except for an anonymous Los Angeles Times writer who said, “And there was a little rowdy, obviously attached to the ‘blind’ man, who did some vital work during her few short scenes. She was not listed.”

Throughout her career, Brooks reportedly didn’t bother to see herself act on screen. The one exception, seemingly, was her bit part in The Street of Forgotten Men. In a late 1928 interview with Pour Vous regarding her just completed role in Die Büchse der Pandora, Brooks told the French magazine that she had not seen the German film, as it was a principle for her “not to go see herself on the screen. ‘I did,’ she said confidently, ‘during my first film. I won't do it again, though I can't say why. Seeing myself gives me an uncomfortable feeling’." 

Later in life, Brooks said little about her first film, except to acknowledge her role in it. In Lulu in Hollywood, she dryly commented, “In May, at Famous Players-Lasky’s studio, in New York, under Herbert Brenon’s direction, I had played with no enthusiasm a bit part in Street of Forgotten Men.”

Truth-be-told, Brooks’ acting is a bit much in her screen debut. At first, she was asked to be solicitous, and she vamps. Then, feigning fright as a brawl begins, she retreats across the barroom floor like a frightened though graceful dancer. The novice actress thought she had done poorly, but Brenon and various studio executives did not. 

Despite any self-consciousness she might have felt, Brooks must have thought her acting not so bad that she wasn’t willing to accept a compliment. In 1928, after she became an established star, the Spanish film magazine El Cine carried a syndicated bit about her debut and her reaction to praise sent by a fan. “Louise Brooks must have been very satisfied when she received her first fan letter from a girl in Brooklyn who said she saw her in The Street Men, because after reading it, she immediately took a photograph of herself that she had hanging in her dressing room and sent it to the girl in thanks.” 

* Brooks path to an acting career may have been more circuitous than suggested. Four days prior to beginning work on The Street of Forgotten Men, the aspiring actress accompanied Herbert Brenon to the 1925 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. The race, filmed as a newsreel by Fox, was won by Flying Ebony.


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