The Very Definition of “I Don’t Give A Damn…”

Posted on February 21, 2012

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Today’s post is guest-written by Imogen.

[Edited to add: Please leave a comment for her. No, seriously. Imogen's post has been getting a remarkable number of hits, but virtually no comments. Since only I can see the hits, she has no idea that people are reading this. So again, please leave a comment, even if it's just to say, "Nice post, Imogen."]

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You know, there are very few people who can truly say they never gave a damn about anything, they never cared a cent for what anyone else thought about them or did or said.

All except for one woman.

Mary Louise Brooks

Actress Louise Brooks in 1927, wearing bobbed ...

Mary Louise Brooks (circa 1927) -- Image via Wikipedia

Most people know her as just Louise Brooks, or even “Brooksy”.  This was the woman who captivated the world of silent cinema in the 1920s.  Her star rose, her star fell. Well, to put it bluntly Louise shot it out of the sky herself with a Beretta.  She never did things by halves.

“I don’t suffer fools gladly” she said.  “But if I ever bore you, it will be with a knife”.

Born in 1906, in Cherryvale, Kansas.  The daughter of a lawyer and an artistic mother who had no inclination to raise children at all, despite having three other children.  Indeed, some years later her mother Myra left the family home to go on lecture tours leaving the family to fend for themselves.

When Louise was nine years old, she was subjected to an horrific sexual assault at the hands of one of the family’s neighbours.  This act, this terrifying act, affected Louise for the rest of her life and may be in part what contributed to her “don’t give a damn” attitude.  She claimed it affected her ability to love men, to become attached to them properly.

At the age of fifteen, Louise won a place to study dance at the celebrated “Denishawn Dance Academy” in Los Angeles.  This time, these formative years in this place brought forth in her the celebrated caprice she became famous for.  She was fired from the troupe for “using the shows as a chance to showcase her own talents”, but didn’t go without work for long.  Places in the George White Scandals and the Ziegfeld Follies followed.

The Birth of a Sexual Being

A rare negative of Louise Brooks from one of her last photo-shoots.

However, it was during her film career in the 1920s that her true heart, colours and sexual appetites began to show.  A particularly memorable incident involved herself and Charlie Chaplin with whom she conducted a two month long affair during 1925, in which they ensconced themselves in a hotel room for a long weekend with another couple.  They stayed there for two whole days, drinking, smoking, sleeping with each other and playing Canasta (OK, I made the last one up).  At the end of the affair, they parted and never saw each other again.  So either Charlie was really bad in bed or Louise just got bored and moved on.  I’d like to imagine it was the former, but it’s more likely to be the latter.

Louise made a few silent films for the Paramount Studios under the watch of baby faced assassin BP Schulberg.  Most of the films were flapperesque, trading on the 1920s image of the fast and loose women of the time, all bobbed hair and loose morals.  Louise lived up to this image on screen and in reality (whereas her contemporary Colleen Moore played that way but in reality was the most staid person you could imagine).  She’d been a heavy drinker since the age of fourteen, smoked like the proverbial chimney stack and didn’t give a tinker’s toot what anyone thought about it.  She’d always worn her hair in a severe Dutch bob, jet black with short bangs, long before it was deemed fashionable by the newly emerging flapper culture.  Years later it was alleged that for a long period of her adult life she’d survived merely on a diet of gin and Oyster Crackers.  And sex. At many times in her life, it’s clear Louise could have benefited from alcohol abuse treatment, but in reality it just did not suit her lifestyle.

European Travels

In 1928, just as she was about to sign to stay with Paramount Studios, she was offered the chance to go to Europe to work with the celebrated director GW Pabst.  Everyone was sure she’d stay in America.  Everyone was sure she’d stay under the wing of Schulberg.  She didn’t.  Just as she was about to sign, she changed her mind, walked out of the studio and sailed to Europe.  She hated being bored.  The roles she was offered were good, but not challenging enough for her.  Despite not speaking a word of German, or showing any inclination to learn it, she went.

Germany offered her a new beginning.  Her first role for GW Pabst was that of “Lulu” in the film Pandora’s Box adapted from the novel by Franz Wedekind.  The story goes that Pabst literally had Greta Garbo in his office, about to sign on the dotted line to play the role when he got the call to say Brooksy was on her way.  Garbo was frogmarched out and Brooksy frogmarched in.

The infamous lesbian tango from Pandora's Box.

She and Pabst for the most part had a harmonious relationship that worked well, though he disapproved of her fast living, hard drinking and sexual proclivities.  He didn’t disapprove of them enough to stop himself from having a one night stand with her, but there you go.  Maybe it was the bob haircut that did it.  Louise had to be forcibly restrained from her new found passion for German nightlife.  Pabst was horrified by her “hangover salve” (three huge slugs from the gin bottle) to get her wakened up and onto set to perform.

Fractious Private Life

Her private life during the 1920s was just as fraught. Married for the first time to Edward Sutherland – she was rarely faithful and challenged anyone who referred to her as Mrs Sutherland, saying “My name is Mary Louise Brooks; don’t be calling me Mrs Sutherland”.

A second marriage in the 1930s to dancer Deering Davies was even less successful and even shorter lived.

Pepi Lederer

Her attractions swerved between both sexes, while predominantly attracted to men it is claimed she had various encounters with women during the time of her friendship with Pepi Lederer (Lederer was the troubled niece of Marion Davies; Louise was friends with Davies and her paramour William Randolph Hearst). Although Brooksy and Lederer were close it’s not clear whether they ever had a relationship.

Did she give a damn who she slept with?

No.  She explained why: ”After the first curious raptures making love is just another petulant way to spend the time until the studio calls”.

Swan Song

Her curtain call came in the late 20s.  She’d shot a film called The Canary Murder Case which was one of the first films made as a silent but turned into a talkie. She’d returned from Germany and was called by the studio to go in and record her part with dubbing. She flat refused. It proved her undoing. In revenge BP Schulberg put the story out that her voice was unrecordable. The picture ended up badly dubbed with the voice of a totally unsuitable actress.

Brooksy shrugged and walked away. It was the last time she worked properly in Hollywood.  It wasn’t even 1930.

English: Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle

Fatty Arbuckle -- Image via Wikipedia

One of the last film appearances she ever made was in 1931.  A film called Windy Riley Goes Hollywood.  The film was directed by one William Goodrich (the new working name of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who had been ostracised by Hollywood even though he’d been cleared of any wrong doing in the death of Virginia Rappe).

A sad and final case of the damned leading the damned.

But still she didn’t give one.

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The Toronto Silent Film Festival 2012

As luck would have it, Toronto will be having its Silent Film Festival starting on March 29 and running through to April 3.