Louise Brooks, the silent film star best known for her bobbed hair as well as for her charismatic performance as Lulu in Pandora’s Box, is once again enjoying the spotlight. This year, 2017, promises to be a big year in the actress’ afterlife.
The American-born actress made relatively few films—24 in total, and most movie goers have likely seen only one or two of her European films. That should change now that Brooks’ best American film, Beggars of Life (1928), has been released on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber.
Digitally restored from film elements held at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, this new DVD marks the film’s first real release. For classic film buffs, it is a must see. [As the author of a new book on the film, Beggars of Life: A Companion to the 1928 Film, I am enthusiastically biased.]
Chances are, even if you are a film buff, you haven’t seen Beggars of Life—at least not like this. Though widely acclaimed when first released, the film fell between the cracks of movie history and was considered lost for decades. Only recently, since its digital restoration, has this once-obscure film returned to general circulation. The new print is bright and detailed and a thrill to watch.
Based on the bestselling novelistic memoir by the celebrated “hobo author” Jim Tully, Beggars of Life was directed by multiple Academy Award winner William Wellman the year after he directed Wings (the first film to win the Oscar for Best Picture). It is a rough and tumble story about an orphan girl (Brooks) who kills her abusive step-father and flees the law, dressing as a boy and riding the rails through a hobo underground ruled over by future Oscar winner Wallace Beery. The film also includes leading man Richard Arlen, as well as the pioneering African-American actor Edgar “Blue” Washington.
Movie goers will have a chance to see Beggars of Life on the big screen in the coming months. The Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts is set to screen Beggars of Life on September 5. The historic movie house will also screen Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), another digitally restored film starring the actress, on September 6. And on September 7, the Brattle reprises both films with special double bill.
The Cambridge screenings take place just before a larger Louise Brooks series at Film Forum in New York City. The famous repertory house is set to screen Diary of a Lost Girl on September 17, Beggars of Life on September 19, Pandora’s Box on October 1, followed by a reprise of Diary of a Lost Girl on October 14. Each film will feature live musical accompaniment by silent film pianist Steve Sterner.
Brooks is also the focus of a multi-film series in Helsinki, Finland. That country’s National Audiovisual Institute, KAVI, is set to show Beggars of Life on October 12 and 15, Diary of a Lost Girl on October 19 and 21, Prix de beaute on October 27 and 29, and Pandora’s Box on November 27 and December 1. Elsewhere, Pandora's Box will be shown in Manila, Phillipines on September 3 as part of the 11th annual International Silent Film Festival Manila.
In the United States, other screenings of Beggars of Life are set to take place in Cleveland, Ohio at the Cinematheque at the Cleveland Institute of Art on September 23 (with an introduction by Tully biographer Paul Bauer), and in Madison, Wisconsin at the University Cinematheque on December 1.
The new Kino Lorber Beggars of Life is a deluxe package. Besides being digitally restored, the Kino Lorber release has a fine audio commentary by actor William Wellman, Jr., the son of the film’s director; an audio commentary by yours truly, Thomas Gladysz; a booklet essay by film critic Nick Pinkerton; a graceful musical score by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra; and swell, original cover art by artist Wayne Shellabarger.
All this Louise Brooks activity (the DVD release, my book, and the subsequent screenings) comes after two major announcements earlier in the year.
In March, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival revealed that film preservationist Rob Byrne had found a 23-minute fragment of the long missing 1927 Brooks film, Now We’re in the Air, in an archive in the Czech Republic. Newly restored, the film made a well received world premiere at the San Francisco Festival in June, followed by a showing before archivists and historians at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. Next up for the once lost work is the prestigious Le Giornate del Cinema Muto | Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy in October, where Now We’re in the Air will be shown as part of the Festival’s “Rediscoveries and Restorations” program.
That’s not all the news from Europe. The British Film Institute recently announced the forthcoming publication of a new book on Pandora’s Box by Pamela Hutchinson, a London critic who writes on early film for the Guardian newspaper and Sight & Sound magazine. Hutchinson’s book, an illustrated study of the once controversial film, will be published as part of the BFI’s familiar Film Classics series. The book will be released in Europe on November 21, and in the United States on December 19. Screenings of Pandora’s Box around England are in the works.
But wait, there’s more! In February, an opera with a Louise Brooks inspired character and with music by Stewart Copeland (the co-founder and drummer for the Police) opened in Chicago. The Invention of Morel will be staged in Long Beach, California in March 2018.
And in August, PBS announced that Columbus and Split star Haley Lu Richardson will play Louise Brooks in The Chaperone, joining Elizabeth McGovern in a period drama from PBS Masterpiece. The Chaperone, based on Laura Moriarty’s best-selling novel from 2013, is scripted by Julian Fellowes and directed by Michael Engler. PBS announced principal photography has started on the film, which will air on PBS stations nationwide after its initial theatrical run in 2018.
McGovern, who is also a producer, optioned the novel and worked with Fellowes (both were involved with the popular PBS series Downton Abbey) to adapt the story for the big screen. In The Chaperone, McGovern portrays a woman whose life is changed when she escorts a teenage and soon to be famous Brooks to New York in the early 1920s.
Notably, The Chaperone is the first film from PBS Masterpiece, and, it’s the first film to feature Brooks as a central character. That’s not bad for an actress whose last film was shot more than 80 years ago.
Thomas Gladysz is the Director of the Louise Brooks Society, a website and online archive launched in 1995. Gladysz contributed an audio commentary to the Kino Lorber release of Beggars of Life, and recently published a book on the movie, Beggars of Life: A Companion to the 1928 Film. He also had a small hand in the restoration of the lost Louise Brooks’ film, Now We’re in the Air. In July, Gladysz was a guest DJ on KDVS (90.3 FM in Davis, California), where he played Louise Brooks-related rock and pop music.