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The Canary Murder Case (1929)
Louise Brooks
The Canary Murder Case (1929) is the film that destroyed the career of Louise Brooks. Depending on which view you take, it is either a manifestation of a ruthless Hollywood money machine crushing a great talent that it was too ignorant to recognize, or the self-destruction of an actress who was too arrogant to commit herself to the necessity of hard work.

As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between.

The film itself was nothing that anyone could be proud of. It had a bad script, bad direction, an implausible plot, and a cast of second-rank actors. It started life as a silent movie but was recast as a talkie to suit the new post-silents marketplace. It could not have been pleasant for the actors involved who, just when they had thought they had got shut of the wretched thing, were recalled to dub the sound.

Yet some of these actors gritted their teeth and went on to better things. Eugene Palette had a successful career as a character actor where The Canary Murder Case was quickly forgotten. Jean Arthur became a star holding her own with Cary Grant and Ronald Coleman in The Talk of the Town. And of course William Powell became the iconic romantic-comedy lead of the thirties. Perhaps if Louise Brooks had also gritted her teeth and got on with the job, it have been Louise Brooks not Myrna Loy who would have become Nora to William Powell's Nick in The Thin Man. But gritting her teeth and suffering in silence was never a Louise thing.

Louise Brooks was in New York when the call came to return to tinsel town to dub her voice to the soundtrack. And as every Brooksie fan knows, she refused. There was a reason. The Canary Murder Case had been shot mainly in September 1928 and during October and November Louise had been in Germany shooting Pandora's Box with Pabst. When the call came in December to return to Hollywood, Louise saw little point in making the hot and uncomfortable four-day trip across America to dub her few words to that dismal film. The studio was desparate to get the film released, and even offered her $10,000 as a bonus, but still Louise refused. It is easy to see why after this fiasco Hollywood would categorize her as unreliable. Louise Brooks was never a team player.

Louise Brooks's career did not end immediately. In 1929 she made Pandora's Box and Prix de Beauté. But these were made in Europe, Pandora's Box was a silent, and in Prix de Beauté Louise's voice was dubbed in French. In the US, Pandora's Box was a flop and Prix was not even released. No studio was rushing to court Louise Brooks now. Her next film was Windy Riley goes to Hollywood for Mermaid Comedy Company, a low budget oufit specializing in B-movies. Louise's comedown was complete.

But there was more too it than that. With the advent of sound, things were changing in Hollywood. The European market had lost its dominance and films now had to turn a profit solely in the US. The 1929 stockmarket crash and the arrival of the Great Depression also had an impact. Within a few years the US audience would turn its back on anything that smacked of "European decadence". Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo were super-stars in Europe, but in the US they were soon to be castigated as "box-office poison". Even homegrown Kathleen Hepburn appeared too hoity-toighty and emancipated to escape the label.

The age of the blondes had commenced. Jean Harlow was to be the new queen. Overnight almost all lead actresses hit the peroxide bottle. Joan Blondell - a brunette despite her name - became a blonde. Ginger Rogers also converted, despite the fact that the name Ginger would lose its relevance. Even Bette Davis put in an appearance as a blonde. Suddenly everyone was vying for that place in the sun, the new American sweetheart, corn-fed, golden-haired and wholesome, and never threatening to the US male. In Louise Brooks's next film, It Pays To Advertise released in 1931, dark-haired Louise's role is miniscule and the lead is played by an up-and-coming blonde Carol Lombard.

The emancipated heroines of the Twenties were soon gone. Newspaper editorials pronounced that the unemployment problem could be solved by sending women back to the kitchen and giving their jobs to men. The knee-length skirts of the Twenties dropped to a demure ankle-length. Cloche hats and Buster Brown hairstyles were replaced by styles that males deemed more feminine. Leading ladies found they were now expected to act out male fantasies where women could never instigate action by virtue of intelligence but only by their inherent lack of common sense. The screwball comedy had been born.

There were a few survivors. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford went on to play strong women, but their audience was women, not men. The femme flic came into its own in the Thirties.

But what of Louise Brooks? What options would she have had in the coming age? Her hairstyle was not just a temporary fad. Louise Brooks without her iconic hairstyle would not have been Louise Brooks. One cannot imagine Louise becoming the blonde screwball dizzy dame that the Thirties' audience was to demand. Even without her refusal to dub The Canary Murder Case her career would have been dead in the water in a year or so.

But looking to the future was never something Louise was good at. Her reason for refusing to dub The Canary Murder Case was at least as much to do with her age as anything else. When the call came, she had just made twenty-three.

Cinema had never meant that much to her. She had been a member of the avant-garde Denishawn dance company. She had been a highly-regarded speciality dancer with the Ziegfield Follies. She had had a spectacularly unsuccessful marriage. She had travelled in Europe, been wined and dined in the best restaurants the world had to offer, cosseted with jewels and furs by a troupe of rich and famous lovers, been the target of desire for both lesbians and heterosexual males. Yet she read books and valued intelligent conversation and laughed at the antics of the self-appointed Hollywood nobility and the so-called Great and the Good attracted by the Hollywood glamour. Louise Brooks might "go to Harlem with Dukes and Earls", but she was aware of the underlying realities. She had been present at the party where Lord Beaverbrook had had his way with a teenaged actress in exchange for a contract with MGM. She had been there when Charlie Chaplin had pranced into a hotel bedroom, naked, with his penis painted bright red.

All that, and she was only twenty-three years old! Why on earth should she grit her teeth and become a drudge for an industry she didn't respect? At twenty-three the world was her oyster. There would be other careers, other opportunities, other highlights. At twenty-three it was inconceivable that there was nothing comparable to come next, that her time in the sun was over. But it was.