It’s impossible to think of Pandora’s Box (1929), the cool Weimar sex tragedy directed by G.W. Pabst, without conjuring up an image of its iconic star, the dazzling Louise Brooks. And with Brooksie’s sharp features and elegant profile in mind, it may not be long before you get to musing on one of the most famous haircuts in film history. That sleek, close-sheared bob, glossily reflective, black as tar and hugging Brooks’ impish features indecently close, caused a sensation in the 1920s and still inspires tributes both off and on screen. There’s more to this cut than first meets the eye.
Brooks wore a bob for years before she wore the bob. As a small child growing up in Kansas, she had a cute pageboy cut that suited her, but as a schoolgirl she followed tradition and grew her hair into 2 long plaits. Brooks was a keen dancer even then, though, performing in local shows. When she was all of 10, her mother Myra decided that she needed a “fresh new look” for the stage and asked the barber to give her daughter a “Buster Brown” cut: a chin-length bob with a fringe skimming her eyebrows. The roaring 20s and the flapper look were still several years away, and for her friends and family little Louise’s cheeky, childlike bob seemed the perfect fit for a naughty, wilful girl who didn’t want to grow up and be a lady.
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Brooks kept this cut through her teens, while she got more serious about dancing, and by 1924, aged 17, she joined the Denishawn troupe and moved to New York. In the big city, she was keen to leave Kansas far behind, so she worked hard on losing her accent and acquiring a flashy wardrobe. She formed a close friendship with Barbara Bennett, sister of Constance and Joan, who introduced her to plenty of Manhattan big-shots, and had plans to make over her gorgeous, if unfashionable friend, whom she nicknamed “Pie Face”. One morning in 1924, after Louise had finally been fired from Denishawn for her rule-breaking ways, Barbara took her out for chocolate milkshakes and then to “the smart hairdressing shop of Saveli”. Brooks remembered:
“Saveli himself attended to my hair. He shortened my bangs to a line above my eyebrows, shaped the sides in points at my cheekbones, and shingled the back of my head. Barbara was pleased. ‘As a mattra-fact Pie Face,’ she said, ‘you are beginning to look almost human.’”
Saveli, at least according to his own publicity, was the only hairdresser in New York bobbing hair with a razor. That shingle meant cutting the hair so close that it lay flat – Brooks’ bob was shorter than the hairline on her neck. Saveli also boasted that he was an apprentice of Antoine de Paris, AKA Polish-born hairdresser Antoni Cierplikowski – the man credited with cutting the first ladies’ bob in 1909, inspired by Joan of Arc, and with later introducing the shingle in the 1920s. This shingle bob, which Brooks kept for years, transformed her do from girlish to chic, almost intimidatingly androgynous: the “girl in the black helmet”. When she later moved to Hollywood, another of Antoine’s apprentices, Sydney Guilaroff, the first hairstylist to get a screen credit in a movie, kept her do razor-sharp for the cameras.
Although the bob was all the rage in the Jazz Age, Brooks’ do was a cut above, channelling the Egyptomania craze with its stark lines and jet-black gloss. When Antoine himself moved to New York, he surveyed other crop-headed Hollywood stars with a sneer, but gave his full approval to Brooks’ Cleopatra style. While magazines debated short vs long and newspapers anguished over “bobbed-hair bandits”, and distressed husbands suing for divorce or even killing themselves at the sight of a wife’s bare neck, Brooks maintained a do that was unapologetically severe.
The androgynous quality suited the good-time girls and two-timers she played in movies, but was especially suited to her first romantic lead: as a lass who goes on the run in drag in Beggars of Life (1928). It was to take her even further. In 1928, when Pabst was putting together his adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s Lulu plays, Pandora’s Box, he saw Brooks in A Girl in Every Port and knew he had found his star – but he wanted to cast off the fringe. Asta Nielsen had starred in a previous Lulu adaptation, Erdgeist (1923), wearing a bob, albeit one that was longer and blunter. Pabst wanted to avoid the comparison, so tested Brooks without the bangs. You can see her like this in her first publicity shots with Pabst. Sadly, all agreed Brooksie just wasn’t Brooksie with her fringe curled back. She wears her hair that way once in the film though, in the casino scene, when Lulu is at her most vulnerable, and in the second film she made with Pabst, Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), during a painful stint in a reform school.
As Lulu in Pandora’s Box, Brooks dresses as she did on Broadway – a confounding combination of that girlish shingle with low-cut, high-slit, diaphanous showgirl glamour. With Günther Krampf’s immaculate lighting design lending Brooks’ hair a mirror sheen, her Lulu isn’t just gorgeous, she’s pure photogénie. And what she stands for is just as important: rebellion, youth, freedom, transgression, sex…
Small wonder that when filmmakers and film stars want to channel the spirit of Lulu, their first step is to borrow the ink-black crop: from Cyd Charisse in Singin’ in the Rain (1952) to Anna Karina in Vivre sa vie (1962) and Liza Minnelli in Cabaret (1972), to Melanie Griffith in Something Wild (1986), Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction (1994) and, yes, even Amélie (2001).
Most of the imitators play it safe, though. They go as far as a bob, but stop short of the shingle. To play a true Lulu on screen, you have to brave the razor and put your neck on the line.
Originally published: 29 May 2018