Warning: Plot spoilers at end of review.
Why did I give up the movies? I could give you 700 reasons, all of them true.
—Louise Brooks, New Yorker interview with Kenneth Tynan, 1979
A contradiction lies at the heart of Augusto Genina’s Prix de beauté. Filmed as a silent in 1922 but dubbed in French for talkie release in 1930 (see the dvd extras for instructions to theaters on managing the volume), the film traces a beauty queen’s rise and fall. While Lucienne Garnier is enamored of stardom, by numerous accounts, the woman who plays her, Louise Brooks, did not share her dream. Prix de beauté‘s typist-turned-Miss Europe was her last starring role.
Like many a ‘20s starlet, Brooks got her start as a dancer, appearing in Ziegfeld’s Follies before Paramount drafted her to Hollywood. As bit and supporting parts followed, her Charleston and flapper’s hairstyle captured attention. She became a junior star in the system, but she was frustrated with Hollywood. When Paramount bosses attempted to strong-arm her into taking a low-salary renewal (a common tactic as sound took hold), Brooks opted out. G. W. Pabst, a German director of whom she’d never heard, had seen her in Howard Hawks’ A Girl in Every Port and wanted her for the lead in his adaptation of Wedekind’s Lulu. She set off for Berlin to take the role Pabst had been about to hand to Marlene Dietrich.
The subsequent film, Pandora’s Box, is the major reason Brooks has a cult following today. Sexually charged for the times, it reportedly boasts screen’s first lesbian scene and ends with Lulu’s death at the hands of Jack the Ripper. Pandora’s Box was heavily censored, particularly in the U.S., where Brooks’ performance didn’t appeal to critics used to the pantomime technique of early silent films. More than two decades would pass before French critics “discovered” it as a gem and began celebrating Brooks. (Defending his decision to feature a huge photo of the actress at a 1955 exhibition, Cinémathèque Français director Henri Langlois exclaimed, “There is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! There is only Louise Brooks!”)
Brooks stayed across the pond, filming her other classic, Diary of a Lost Girl, with Pabst, and then Prix de beauté, from an idea by Pabst. Lucienne starts the film as a typist romanced by André (H. Bandini), a linotype operator who’s more than a little possessive. He scolds her for frolicking at the beach while men stare in admiration: “Stop showing off. Everyone’s watching. Aren’t you ashamed?”
Lucienne isn’t. She craves the spotlight, going so far as to send her photos to a contest seeking the new Miss France. André detests the very idea—beauty pageants should be outlawed, he tells her—and so she doesn’t even say goodbye before fleeing to Spain for the Miss Europe final. When Lucienne wins again, her pool of suitors turns more glamorous. A prince woos her, as does a maharajah. “Love clutches me like an eagle,” he tells Lucienne. “I possess a land more vast than Europe, yet to live there without you would be a harsh exile.”
Brooks looks stunning throughout Prix de beauté, though Genina wrote in his memoirs that she drank all day and night and had to be carried on to the set. “She would have been the ultimate actress,” he declared, “if it hadn’t been for the alcohol.” Sober or no, she plays Lucienne as alternately stifled and aglow, a young girl only truly engaged when gazing at her own reflection, whether on the screen or in another’s eyes.
Just so, Lucienne is swayed when André finds her in Spain and issues an ultimatum: leave with me now or never see me again. Unfortunately for both of them, Lucienne’s second try at domesticity doesn’t stick. Bored in their Parisian flat, she says goodbye by note when the prince reappears with plans to make her a screen goddess.
That decision sets up a chilling, memorable denouement. André tracks her down in the movie house where Lucienne is viewing her screen test, a performance of “Je n’ai qu’un amour, c’est toi,” the song she used to console him at the film’s start (legend has it, the songs were performed by Edith Piaf). Though she’s still swearing her devotion to “you,” that now encompasses every man who can see and hear her on the screen, and André does not wish to share her.
Lucienne’s dreams are dashed because she asks for too much. She wants glamour and love, but she also wants freedom—and the men in her orbit can’t agree to that. It’s a lesson Brooks would learn herself in the years following the film’s release. Hollywood’s rulers made specific demands of actresses, and Brooks would submit neither to the casting couch nor studio demands. She followed her own fun straight into has-been status, and would have remained there had a new generation of admirers not come along more than two decades later.
Happily, Brooks emerged from her second, heartier wave of acclaim as a film essayist (see the collection, Lulu in Hollywood). Her accounts of Pabst, Humphrey Bogart, and other Hollywood figures revealed another side of the helmet-haired icon. Imagine fans’ delight: the silent-film star speaks… and speaks… and speaks.