“Louise Brooks – Portrait of an Anti-Star”


This is one of those books that takes me back instantly to the early nineteen-eighties, when I was just embarking on my love affair with old movies.

I had of course never heard of her until she died in 1985, and the BBC showed an old documentary, Diary of a Lost Girl, Pandora's Box and, charmingly, Overland Stage Raiders (still one of my all-time favourite Brooks movies; still one of the very few westerns I watch for fun.)
I'd just turned twelve, and hitherto my old movie crush had been Marlene Dietrich, who had transfixed me in a BBC Saturday matinee double-bill of Destry Rides Again and Seven Sinners. But Brooks was something quite different, and my memory, rendered hyperbolic by time, insists that within a few minutes of watching her in Pandora's Box my voice had broken.

The book is a kind of scrapbook of various essays, articles and bits of ephemera. There are loads of photographs, not glossy or glamorously reproduced but, it seemed to me at the time, almost a portal into a world of slightly dark, slightly decadent allure.
I didn't know there were old movies like this, or old movie stars.


How I came upon it is a story inextricably interwoven with the geography of the city of Plymouth.
Plymouth’s city centre has been massively restructured in recent years. It was never the most charming of shopping centres: thanks to our proximity to the Royal Naval Dockyard at Devonport it had been more or less razed by the Nazis during the war, then rebuilt in the Attlee years as a series of distended grey concrete blocks which, viewed from above, had a distinct and ironic touch of the Albert Speers to their fearful symmetry, but from the ground must have seemed unbelievably austere and lifeless compared to what had been there before.
Nonetheless, it was a design that still revealed the touch of a human hand. Not the work of a creative imagination, clearly, but you could still see the brushmarks for all that. What has now replaced it, with no war as excuse for further tampering, is incomparably worse, a drunken computer's nightmare, dominated by an enormous video screen hovering like a War of the Worlds tripod where once the eye was led gracefully through a straight avenue leading to the famous Plymouth Hoe, where Drake famously played snooker while waiting for the Vikings.

And Drake, our city's most famous son (with the possible exception of Wayne Sleep) gave his name to the site of my first encounter with this book: the Drake Circus shopping complex.
This was, depending on who you asked, either an ugly concrete rabbit's warren or a fascinatingly eccentric radiating splurge of subways leading in several directions to and from a central open air tapestry of mainly small, friendly shops. But I always thought that entering it was a bit like entering a secret cave, or passing through one world into another.
As a child, my mother and I would come here every Friday on the bus, get off at the library just on the outskirts, and pass down into the first tunnel which, like them all, offered a mysterious choice of directions (mysterious in that we always took the same route, and it was some little while before I was old enough to be there on my own, and find out where the adjacent passages actually took you).
Always there was a cheery busker, and with tiled walls depicting scenes from Plymouth’s past, these longish, dark and echoing tunnels were not remotely frightening. Week in and out we passed through them, never for a second entertaining the thought that they contained even the latent potential of threat, as indeed they did not at that time.
The first tunnel took you to a kind of central courtyard, where we would stop and feed bread to the pigeons. (This was the highlight of my week, partly because a goodly percentage of the bread ended up in me rather than the pigeons.) We then took the left path, into the Drake Circus complex itself.

The first thing you saw was the back entrance of C&A. The front was right at the other end of the complex, a fact I found incredibly impressive. Sometimes we would use C&A as a kind of unofficial subway into the town proper, but they eventually caught on to this and stopped people using the back entrance, so we had to pass through Drake Circus itself.
First on the left was a cheery, dimly-lit café, where tables would be routinely shared by strangers, and we would sometimes stop for a bowl of 'soup of the day', also known as minestrone. On the right, a wool shop.
Then on the left, the first Tesco supermarket I had ever seen. The exact layout of its two floors remains so vivid in my mind that you could give me a shopping list and I would know exactly where to find each item, something I still can’t do in my local Sainsbury’s after six months of regular usage.
But we will ignore Tesco’s today and march onward still, because we have another destination in mind.We will not even turn right, where at the top of one of the only outside escalators I have ever seen stood my favourite childhood shop: an Aladdin’s cave called Arcadia: two massive open-plan floors with, on the ground, paperbacks, magazines, annuals, sweets and records, and on the top, a wonderland of toys.
No, we are heading straight ahead, to a small but enchanting bookshop called Chapter and Verse.

Here is where my earliest memories of solo book buying are located, where I turned so many vague potential interests into lifelong passions, with careful purchases of judiciously chosen stock. Here is where I bought my first book on ancient Egypt (Romer's Egypt by John Romer) and my first book on Hitchcock, and my first Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion.
It seems to me there are no such bookshops now: they either sell nothing or everything, neither option really conducive to the kind of chance discoveries from which true devotion to a subject is built. Just as multi-channel television has killed the potential for stumbling upon and sticking with a film or programme you would not have chosen to watch but might just change your life, so too has the book superstore. If you know what you’re looking for, great, but stumbled-upon epiphanies are rare.
Chapter and Verse was shaped by human imagination. Space was at a premium, so stock was carefully chosen and the books were all good. And there, staring at me one Friday, was that amazing face I had just seen on television, the provocative, shiny haired, black-red lipped, hypnotic eyed, impossibly beckoning visage of Louise. The films had impressed me, but it was this book that made me her slave. For a few weeks I would simply go into the shop and browse through it, but soon enough I succumbed, as all men did around Louise, it would seem.

Of course all the iconic glamour shots were there, but the one that held my eye the longest was this one, a candid of her on a set, surrounded by books and eating a sandwich:

In later years, there would be other, technically better books about Louise to add to my shelves, but none were ever quite as exciting as this first one: I bought her own memoirs, collected as Lulu In Hollywood soon after, then a few years later Barry Paris's biography came along; just recently Peter Cowie's coffee-table tome became the ultimate photographic record of this most photogenic of all stars. Now, comes the mouthwatering news that her private journals are being prepared for publication.
My own view of Brooks has changed over the years too: my complete initial capitulation to her erotic hypnosis was eventually tainted by cynicism when I realised how well she stage-managed her decline, and how so many of the bad breaks that killed her career were brought about by her own stubbornness and vanity. But the delight I take in flicking through this book has never weakened for a second, and thus it belongs at the very top of my list of film books I cannot imagine life without. I only have to look at the cover to be transported back to that time when the cerebral passions of cinemania were first mixed with the more instinctive fixations that mark the transition from short to long trousers.

As for Chapter and Verse: well, we had many more pleasant encounters to come, but it disappeared eventually, as all things too good for this world must sooner or later do. And eventually, the entire Drake Circus complex was demolished and rebuilt, seemingly freehand, with whatever materials happened to be lying around at the time.
The original was by no means a pretty thing: it was grey, it was shadowy, and cold even in Summer. What it has been replaced by, however, is something only a computer could love, and I'm proud to say it was the 2006 inaugural winner of the Carbuncle Cup, the prestigious award given by architectural magazine Prospect to honour the most egregious eyesores in Britain.

Devil Bats In His Belfry: An interview with Peter H. Brothers

When you're obsessed with something to a degree that qualifies as 'medical', it's always a relief to encounter someone else who shares the same problem. Even better when they've got it even worse than you have.

I thought I had plumbed the outer limits when it came to obsessively pondering The Devil Bat, Lugosi's PRC masterpiece.
But even after that occasion when I watched it three times in a row without a break, it never once struck me that it might be a good idea to turn it into a novel.
For that stroke of genius, ladies and gentleman, the gent to whom your fedora must be tipped is Peter H. Brothers.
Peter's name may well be familiar to you already, author as he is of Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda. But now he has come up with Devil Bat Diary: The Journal of Johnny Layton, which as its title suggests is a retelling of the film, from the perspective of its newspaper reporter hero.

If anyone has ever had a better idea before - and I'm including penicillin here - I've yet to hear about it.
When Peter got in touch to tell me about the project, I decided to find out more.

Carfax Abbey: This is a terrific idea for a book! How did it first come to you, how long did it take to write and how many people per day on average told you you were crazy...?Peter H. Brothers: Well I have been a Bela Lugosi fan since way back and The Devil Bat is my favourite film of his (don't tell him this!) And I thought since the story was so zany and the characters so interesting it might be fun to write, and it was. The film was ahead of its time in its tongue-in-cheek and self-parodying tone ("I tell you Layton, the idea of a bat being attracted to the scent of a lotion, is all foolishness!"); in fact its chief virtue is that it doesn't take itself too seriously.
One thing that makes the film so enjoyable to watch is seeing the idle rich getting bumped-off one by one by a guy who spends his whole life with his nose to the grindstone. The Carruthers character is one that a lot of people can relate to: a hard-working grunt who feels he doesn't get the credit or salary he deserves, so he takes revenge against those who wronged him - a premise we can all relate to! It took six months to write it and my wife, who thinks I'm crazy anyway, gave it her blessing.

Can you let us in on any of the book's major revelations? I'm assuming it doesn't go so far as Devil Bat's Daughter and whitewashes Carruthers of all responsibility?

Oh no! Carruthers did what he did all right, but we do learn why he is so resentful of the Heaths and Mortons. It turns out he has other issues as well. I have altered the ending a bit as well, to give it a more cinematic feel.

This is the diary of Johnny, the reporter in the film. Do we get to see an altogether different side to his character, or is he basically the same obtuse wiseacre we fans know and love?We learn more about his character and his relationships with the others in the film; how he feels about them and basically the kind of person he is, how his mind works, a little about his background and so on. He basically comes across in a similar fashion to how he is in the film, but we learn more about him.

Lugosi in The Ape Man: "The finest performance I have seen an actor give in a film"
What other characters come over differently? I see Mary Heath is pegged as a religious lunatic...

Yes. I thought it would be fun to give some of the characters little quirks. For example, "One Shot" McGuire is a rather vulgar fellow who can't stand the sight of Layton (and vice-versa), Martin Heath is devastated by the loss of his son, Mary is a bible-beater who gets crazier and crazier as the story goes on and Chief Wilkins is gay -- strong stuff for 1940!

This can only be the work of a truly obsessive fan of the movie. Speaking as another one, can you tell me what it is about the film that inspires this kind of devotion?

I'm not too sure when I first saw it but I just fell in love with it and realised there's much more to it than meets the eye. It's an interesting film in many ways. For one thing, Bela was a man who was a cheap hire and who was known to take the first offer rather than hold out for things like better salary and so on; he was not choosy, he just loved to work.
The famous story is that he accepted Dracula for a mere pittance rather than get a percentage of the profits (although such deals were rather rare for the time). In a sense he had no bargaining power and he had to basically take or leave the offer. The Devil Bat follows an ironic parallel is that he plays a a man who settles for a quick cash settlement rather than become a partner of the firm. I'm sure Bela - who was an intelligent and sensitive man - was very aware of this parallel while he made the movie.

It's also an interesting part for him. As you know Bela loved to always give 110% when he performed regardless of the role or the studio or the story. In The Devil Bat he gives a very restrained and realistic performance; there is very little of the theatricality that is typically called for in a Bela role. "Sour irony" is I believe how director Joe Dante defined Bela's portrayal of Carruthers, which also comes across as very appealing; we like the guy even though he is basically a sourpuss!
Bela's greatest moment in the film is near the end, when he gets a wistful look in the eyes and tells Layton, "You wouldn't understand a scientific theory," which is delivered so sublimely I'm not sure I can ever attempt to define it. It is truly an extraordinary moment for him. He was truly a great actor.

Have you seen the sequel?

I have yet to catch-up with Devil Bat's Daughter but I understand that Carruthers is completely exonerated of his crimes and is now remembered as a bit of a local hero(!), which brings up another interesting issue: how people's reputations are enhanced after they're gone: you know, like Ronald Reagan?

What are your views on Lugosi's 'Poverty Row' films in general?

He was a professional who loved his craft, and I personally feel his performance as James Brewster in The Ape Man is the finest performance I have seen an actor give in a film; I mean we're talking Shakespearian stuff, man... just heartbreaking. I also love Scared to Death, The Raven, White Zombie, Chandu the Magician, The Corpse Vanishes, Son of Frankenstein (he should have gotten an Oscar for that one) ... I could go on and on, but yeah, I love the guy ...
In 1971, when I was 18, I saw Dracula on TV during a Saturday afternoon and that was it for me. He is my idol and in fact I visit his grave every year around his birthday and leave him a cigar which I'm sure ends up in the hands of the groundskeeper! (I live in Agoura Hills, about 40 minutes from the Holy Cross Cemetery where he is buried). I love all his films because I too am an actor and appreciate the total dedication he gave to each and every role he played.
So Devil Bat Diary is a tribute to both Bela and a wonderfully entertaining film which was very cleverly-written and has some wonderful moments in it (I can hear those Devil Bat screams to this day!) I hope you and your readers enjoy it.

Leave him a cigar from me next time.
Yes, next time I visit his grave I'll leave a cigar from you and say hello.