When I was asked to do a short piece about G. W. Pabst as a director I thought first I’d better do some research to sharpen up my memory. For it was back in 1928 and ’29, almost 30 years since I had worked for him.
My first bit of research rather staggered me. I read Six talks on G. W. Pabst, which included interviews with Marc Sorkin and Paul Falkenberg, who were Mr. Pabst’s assistants when I made both The box of Pandora and Diary of a lost girl. They were so marvellously technical, so intellectual in their interviews. And what did I Know about how Mr. Pabst prepared his scripts, chose his actors or his camera angles, cut his pictures? Nothing. Or his politics and ethical views – what did I know of them? I even had trouble telling my left from my right in dancing school.
Deciding then, since I knew so little about him as a director in comparison with these men, to concentrate on Mr. Pabst in a completely personal way, I came to my second bit of research, which positively rocked me. But this time with laughter.
It was a footnote in a book called The film since then. And among other things it quoted me as saying. “None of us who knew Pabst well felt that we ever knew him at all. He was all things to all men, and nothing consistently. He would argue any side of any question with apparent complete conviction and sincerity, but to see this happen over and over was to suspect that he had no convictions at all”.
Now, to say in a single sentence first that I knew Pabst well and then that I didn’t know him at all was pretty Alice-in-Wonderland. But to hop right back in the very next sentence to prove that I knew him so well that I could analyze him like a regular old Freud was a form of innocent idiocy that I, though no great shakes in the brain department, hope somehow to have escaped.
Nevertheless, the idea of my chopping Mr. Pabst up in the clinical double-talk was so comical that it gave me a reason, a starting point for my article.
When we made Box of Pandora Mr. Pabst was a man of 43 who astonished me with his knowledge on practically any subject. I, who astonished him because I knew practically nothing on every subject, celebrated my twenty-second birthday with a beer party on a London street set soggy with some choking, smelly staff supposed to be fog.
And about the only times I remember applying myself to the way his mind worked were, once when I was figuring out a way to wheedle him into letting me off work to go to the Davis Cup tennis matches, and another time when after he had had me called to the set four times, I kept him waiting a little longer, getting him a lot madder while I thought up something to prevent him from bawling me out in front of the whole company.
Not that Mr. Pabst wasn’t usually very kind and gentle. But he ran the company with army-like discipline, and no backsliding, mind you! Hot or cold, every morning during the shooting of the whole picture, I got up at six to join the rest of the actors working that day, in an old Daimler limousine to drive to Staaken. And on the way, every day we had to stop and wait at exactly the same time and the same place while a man and his geese ambled across the road. I never found out whether they were under contract to Mr. Pabst, too.
I was under contract to Paramount at the time Mr. Pabst wanted me for Lulu. It happened to be the time when they were converting to talkies and studio executives had to come in out of the sun and think, and frightened actors were whispering to one another that even John Barrymore had to have his lines written on a blackboard back of the camera. It also happened to be the time when my option came up, and B. P. Schulberg was running the studio. And he, like all the other studio heads, now forced into unprecedented decisions, decided to begin with the actors, the least palatable, the most vulnerable part of movie production. It was such a splendid opportunity, anyhow, for breaking contracts, cutting salaries and taming the stars. Clara Bow, for me, was permanently undone with diction lessons, a destructive attempt to change her perfectly suitable Brooklyn accent to Ruth Chatterton stage English.
Me, they gave the salary treatment, I could stay on without the raise my contract called for, or quit, Schulberg said, using the questionable dodge of whether I’d be good in talkies. Questionable, I say, because I spoke decent English in a decent voice and came from the theatre. So without hesitation I said I would quit. And with even less hesitation, Schulberg said I would be back working for peanuts. And then, as a sort of postscripts he told me about Pabst wanting to borrow me from the studio for Box of Pandora, a job I was now free to take or not as I pleased.
And it pleased me on the day I finished the silent version of The Canary murder case to leave Hollywood for Berlin to work for Mr. Pabst.
And here, perhaps, is a good place to insert the sequel of my departure from Paramount. When I got back to New York, after finishing Box of Pandora. Paramount’s New York office called to order me to get on the train at once for Hollywood. They were making The Canary murder case into a talkie and needed for retakes. When I said I wouldn’t go they sent a man round with a contract. When I still said I wouldn’t go they offered me not only Schulberg’s peanuts but practically any amount of money to save the great expense of reshooting and dubbing in another voice. In the end, after they were finally convinced that nothing would induce me to do the retakes, I signed a release (gratis) for all my pictures and they dubbed in Margaret Livingston’s voice.
But the whole thing the money Paramount was forced to spend, the affront to the studio – made them so mad that they sent out a story, widely publicized and everywhere believed, that they had let me go because I was no good in talkies. Odd, so much rancour after Schulberg had allowed me to leave with less concern than he would drop a crumpled Dixie cup.
That was the first thing I loved about Mr. Pabst. The way he treated me. In Hollywood, I was a pretty flibbertigibbet whose charm for the executive department decreased with every increase in my fan mail. In Berlin I stepped to the station platform to meet Mr. Pabst and became an actress. And his attitude was the pattern for all. Nobody offered me humorous or instructive comments on my acting. Everywhere I was treated with a kind of decency and respect unknown to me in Hollywood. It was just as if Mr. Pabst had sat in on my whole life and career and knew exactly where I needed assurance and protection.
And just his understanding of me reached back to the knowledge of an unspoken past, so it was with the present. For although we were together constantly on the set, at lunch, often for dinner and the theatre except for routine matters he seldom spoke to me. Yet he would appear at the dressmaker’s at the moment. I was about to go into the classic act of ripping off an offensive wedding dress, banish a call boy who roared at me through the dressing-room door louder than St. John the Baptist, refuse, after the first day’s rushes which secretly upset me, to let me see them ever again ... all that I thought and his reactions seemed to pass between us in a kind of wordless communication. To other people surrounding him he would talk endlessly in that watchful way of his, smiling, intense; speaking quietly with his wonderful hissing precision; a quality that made even an unknown tongue comprehensible when sometimes in directing a cast of Russians, Czechs, German, French and me – an American he would match on of us up with the wrong language. But to me he might speak never a word all morning, and then at lunch turn suddenly and say: “Loueess, tomorrow morning you must be ready to do a big fight scene with Kortner”. Or “”This afternoon in the first scene you are going to cry”.
That was how he directed me. With an intelligent actor he would sit in exhaustive explanation; with an old ham he would speak the language of the theatre. But in my case, by some magic he would saturate me with one clear emotion and turn me loose. And it was the same with plot. Mr. Pabst never strained my mind with anything not pertinent to the immediate action. The first day of shooting on Box of Pandora a big fat translation of the script was given me to read which, after less than ten minutes, I dropped on the floor beside my chair and happily never saw again.
But if I made that picture with only the dullest notion of what it was about, on my second picture with Mr. Pabst, Diary of a lost girl, I had no idea at all of its plot or meaning till I saw it 27 years later at Eastman House.
And it was during the making of Diary of a lost girl on the last day of shooting, to be exact, that Mr. Pabst moved into my future.
We were sitting gloomily at a table in the garden of a little café, watching the workmen while they dug the grave for a burial scene when he decided to let me have it. Some weeks before in Paris he had met the friends, the rich Americans with whom I spent every hour away from work. And he was angry; first because he thought they prevented me from staying in Germany, learning the language and becoming a serious actress as he wanted; and last because he looked upon them as spoiled children who would amuse themselves with me for a time and then discard me like and old toy. “Your life is exactly like Lulu’s” he said “and you will end the same way”.
At that time, knowing so little of what he meant by ‘Lulu’, I just sat sullenly glaring at him, trying not to listen. Fifteen years later in Hollywood, with all his predictions closing in on me, I heard his words again – hissing back to me. And listening this time, I packed my trunks and went home to Kansas.
But the strangest thing of all in my relationship with Mr. Pabst was the revelation tucked away in the same footnote by Richard Griffith from which I quoted before. Speaking of me, he wrote: “Louise Brooks, whom Pabst brought to Germany from Hollywood to play in Pandora’s box, whose whole life and career were altered thereby”. After all these years, I finally understood why I wouldn’t go back to Hollywood to do those retakes on The Canary murder case.
Louise Brooks, Mr. Pabst, "Image", nr. 5, George Eastman House, September 7, 1956