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Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Lasting Legacy of a Silent Film Icon

A new documentary that sheds light on a comic strip character that has become legendary is about to premiere at the 75th Venice Film Festival. Giancarlo Soldi's Cercando Valentina is the story of artist Guido Crepax's sensual, iconic character "Valentina". Here is a look at the actress who inspired her.

Louise Brooks

Black and white photographs of the silent film era preserve mystery and nostalgia from days gone by. Silent film star, Louise Brooks is often at the center of those fascinating portraits. Famous for her bob hairstyle and iconic flapper costumes, her influence and legacy reaches far beyond American shores.

“Louise Brooks is my favorite actress,” revealed Italian director Marco Tullio Giordana when we spoke with him at the 2018 edition of Lincoln Center’s Open Roads: New Italian Cinema. “When I saw G. W. Pabst’s Lulù and then Augusto Genina’s Prix de Beauté (Miss Europe) with this extraordinary American actress, I fell madly in love with her because she was so representative of the actresses of her time and interpreted very strong and volatile female characters.”

Austrian filmmaker Georg Wilhelm Pabst first introduced Europeans to Brooks with his infamous 1929 film, Pandora’s Box. Brooks portrayed the character "Lulu", a name that would forever stay with her. Based on Frank Wedekind's plays Erdgeist (1895) and Die Büchse der Pandora (1904), the film follows Lulu, a seductive young woman whose sexuality and care-free nature break the hearts of those who love her and eventually cause her to self-destruct. Although the film was not a hit at first, audiences did catch on and Brooks went on to make two more films with Pabst and become a huge international star. 

“Like many other American artists, Louise Brooks is differently and perhaps better appreciated in Europe. It was also in Europe, after decades in obscurity, that she was rediscovered,” explained Thomas Gladysz, author, founder and president of the Louise Brooks Society. “She made three films on the continent: Pandora’s Box and “Diary of a Lost Girl” for the Austrian-born German director G.W. Pabst, and Prix de Beaute, a French film directed by the Italian Augusto Genina. It is because of these three films that Brooks is remembered.”

Watch Brooks in a clip from Augusto Genina's Prix de Beaute..

“Her haircut was so unique, it inspired a famous Italian Comics designer, Guido Crepax, to use Brooks as model for his most famous creation, a character called ‘Valentina,’” said Tullio Giordana. It was “Valentina” that immortalized Brooks in Italy.

Crepax created “Valentina” in 1965 in an effort to reflect the psychedelic spirit of the 1960s. The “Valentina” series of books and comic strips had a sophistication and erotism to them, even inspiring a 1973 horror film called Baba Yaga. Between 1968 and 2003, 27 books were created in the “Valentina” series.

“Guido Crepax started drawing Louise Brooks into his comics and graphic novel-type work in the mid-1960's. These were longer form, not just throw-away comic strips or comic books. They were published in the United States in a magazine called Heavy Metal, which was sort of an alternative culture magazine. They're a really big deal in Italy,” explained Gladysz. 

He went on to say that although Crepax was the main person responsible for developing Brooks’s image, there have been other artists smitten with her and have drawn her in to all types of comic books and graphic novels. So, she is still very much in vogue in Europe. 

“I would say that she is the actress who struck me most in the history of cinema,” proclaimed Tullio Giordana. “Certainly, I am one who loves Katherine Hepburn, loves Marilyn, loves all the great actress. But for me, she is something special.” He went on to talk about one of the rare interviews she did for Italian television in which she was “very radical and very clever with strict judgments on the industry but also very human and very understanding.” 

Brooks spent the last few decades of her life in Rochester, New York. She moved there at the invitation of James Card, a film curator of the George Eastman House. She lived a quiet life and even watched some of her own films for the first time. She also reinvented herself as a writer. She wrote essays and articles for publications. Many of her essays were collected in “Lulu in Hollywood.”

Much of Louise Brooks’s work is available on Amazon, including Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl. Her collection of essays, Lulu in Hollywood, Thomas Gladysz’s books and Guido Crepax’s Valentina and the Magic Lantern are also available on Amazon. Visit the Louise Brooks Society at

Cercando Valentina will be shown on August 30 in the  Click here to read my full interview with Thomas Gladysz. Click here to read my full interview with Marco Tullio Giordana. 

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