Actors and Pabst spirit


          When I made movies there was no television  and consequently there were no talk shows. But if then I had been told that some day actors would be paid large sums to sit and talk to one another on television, and that an audience of millions would listen to them – I wouldn’t have believed it. For the talk show is merely a matter of transferring  a group of actors from a movie set where they sit and talk behind  the camera to a television set where they sit and talk  before the camera. This form of entertainment took shape during the production of the first movies when actors found themselves spending much of their time on the set, unused, ignored or forgotten. And actors cannot exist without an audience. When not working before the camera, they contrived a means of staying alive by putting on a show of their own behind it. Without a short time every actor had a repertory of entertaining routines suitable for directors, producers and other actors. Seen on a talk show, the actor’s is so obviously a mechanical performance posing as spontaneous wit that its inanimate spirit cannot engage the attention of a child for an instant. What holds adult attention is the rare electrifying appearance of an actor who smashes his plaster mask and brazenly expresses his natural animosity toward every other actor present or absent, living or dead.

            Coming from the theatre where actors were not obliged to love or to pretend to love other actors, where there were no popularity ratings backstage which might add to or subtract from success, I faced my introduction to a movie set with an awful question. Was this Cocktail party Spirit to prevail all day, every day for a month maybe even for six weeks? Almost at once Frank Tuttle, the director of The American Venus, dubbed me ‘babbling Brooks’ and I knew I was doomed I had no funny stories no charming conversation, nothing to make me babble. Double doomed! Because coupled with the Cocktail Party Spirit was the Dog Act Spirit, a rapt devotion to the master which most directors considered essential to their position of command.

            My first scenes were with Ford Sterling who had been a Keystone comedy star until 1914 when his salary demands led Mack Sennett to replace him with Charlie Chaplin. After years of oblivion he was given a part in Malcolm St. Clair’s The trouble with wives (1925) in which he made another comedy hit. Badly wanting stars for feature comedies, Paramount was preparing Sterling for such roles when The American Venus was filmed later in 1925 (he starred in one film, The show off in 1926, and returned to oblivion). To help feed Ford’s undernourished amour-propre, between scenes I was expected to flirt with him and laugh very hard at his jokes. In this capacity I was such a failure that he sulked and complained loudly about my timing in the chase through the hotel suite. My timing in yanking open and banging shut doors, he said, ruined his timing. To appease him, time and money were wasted making extra shots of each scene. Frank stopped calling me ‘babbling Brooks’ and I started disappearing between scenes. When I was needed, the assistant director could find me asleep on the nearest bedroom set.

            As a movie set performer that was still my depressed state when I went to Berlin in 1928 to film Pandora’s box with G. W. Pabst. What an exquisite release, what a revelation of the art of direction was the Pabst Spirit on the set! He actually encouraged actor’s disposition to hate and back away from each other, thus preserving their energy for the camera; and when actors were not in use, his ego did not command them to sit up and bark at the sight of him.

            The behaviour of the great actor, Fritz Kortner, was a perfect example of how Pabst used an actor’s true feelings to add depth and breadth and power to his performance. Kortner hated me. After each scene with me he would pound off the set and go there to coax him back for the next scene. In the role of Dr. Schön, Kortner’s feelings for me (Lulu) combined sexual passion with an equally passionate desire to destroy me. The theatre sequence gave him an opportunity to shake me with such violence that he left ten black and blue finger prints on my arms. Both he and Pabst were well pleased with that scene. For Pabst’s feelings for me were not unlike those of Schön for Lulu. In those two films, Pandora’s box and The diary of a lost girl, I think he was conducting an investigation into his relation to women with the object of conquering any passion that interfered with his passion for his work. He was not aroused by sexual love which he dismissed as an enervating myth. It was sexual hate which engrossed his whole being with its flaming reality.

            Mr. Pabst chose all my costumes with care, but in scenes motivated by sexual hate he chose them as much for their tactile, as for their sexual seductiveness. He wanted the actors working with me to feel my flesh under a dancing costume, a blouse and skirt, a night-gown. In turn, he wanted me to love the actor’s touch. With adroit perversity he selected Gustav Diessl to play Jack the Ripper in Pandora’s box, and Fritz Rasp to play the lascivious chemist’s assistant in The diary of a lost girl. They were the only actors in those films whom I found beautiful and sexually alluring.

            There was no complexity in Pabst’s direction on the Jack the Ripper scenes. He made them a tender love passage until that terrible moment when Diessl saw the knife on the edge of the table, gleaming in the candle light. But conceiving the seduction scenes in The diary of a lost girl as a ballet with me (Thymian) as the seductress, he directed them as a series of subtle almost wordless manoeuvres between an ‘innocent’ young girl and a wary lecher. He chose Fritz Rasp not only for the restraint with which he would play a part verging on burlesque but also for a physical grace and strenght. When I collapsed in his embrace he swept me  up into his arms and carried me off to bed as lightly as if I weighed no more than my silken nightgown and robe.

Louise Brooks, Actors and the Pabst spirit, "Focus on film", nr. 8, February 1972

Index ] Pagina superiore ] [ Louise Brooks, Actors and the Pabst spirit ] Louise Brooks, Stardom and Evelyn Brent ] Louise Brooks, Funny screen experiences - No no Nanette ] Louise Brooks, Ein wenig Louise Brooks ] Louise Brooks,Marlene ] Louise Brooks, Letter to Andrew Sarris - Checklist nr. 27 ] Louise Brooks, ZaSu Pitts ] Louise Brooks, The white hell of Pitz Palu ] Louise Brooks, Mr. Pabst ] Louise Brooks, Why I will never write my memoirs ] Louise Brooks, Buster Keaton ] scrittifundamentals.pdf ] Louise Brooks, Joan Crawford ] Louise Brooks, Charlie Chaplin remembered ]