That's Louise Brooks up there, flanked by John Wayne and Ray "Crash" Corrigan, with goofball Max Terhune in front of her, in a publicity still for Overland Stage Raiders, her last film, made in 1938. What a way to go. Overland Stage Raiders was an entry in the "Three Mesquiteers" short features made by the not-quite-Poverty Row studio Republic Pictures (you want to see REAL Poverty Row Westerns, go PRC) between 1936 and 1943. You think today's movie franchises overdo it, chew on this: there were fifty-one of them. The Mesquiteers were a trio of amiable cowboys whose adventures were kind of unstuck in time (in 1938's The Night Riders the boys appeal to President Garfield to help them out in a land-grabbing case, and he is assassinated before he can set things straight; by 1942's The Phantom Plainsmen they're fighting Nazis). The pictures were one of the many places where Duke Wayne found a cinematic home whilst kicking around Hollywood between 1931's The Big Trail and 1939's Stagecoach.
Overland Stage Raiders is one of the more close-to-contemporary Mesquiteers tales, in which the boys discover that the mining business they have some kind of interest in (the fellas are really quite the entrepreneurs, with specialties in pretty much every kind of business venture that turns up in a Western) can somehow be improved via airplane travel, and determine to go into business with a young pilot, Ned Hoyt (Anthony Marsh) has a purty sister that Mesquiteer Stony Brooke is kinda sweet on. Yes, Beth Hoyt is none other than Brooks, her iconic pageboy hairdo replaced by a less-severe tonsorial non-style, long, loose and straight with ladylike pin-curls. The dresses she wears are kind of plain too.
It's important to remember that the aforementioned iconic pageboy is only iconic today. Brooks' work with G.W. Pabst was/is sensational, but it didn't make her a star the way Dietrich's work with Sternberg on The Blue Angel did. This was the fault of the times, and, as Brooks recalls in her own indespensible book Lulu In Hollywood, her own fault as well. "[It] was during the making of Diary of a Lost Girl—on the last day of shooting, to be exact—that Pabst moved into my future. We were sitting gloomily at a table in the garden of a little café, watching the workmen while they dug the grave for a burial scene, when he decide to let me have it. Several weeks before, in Paris, he had met some friends of mine—rich Americans with whom I spent every hour away from work. And he was angry: first, because he thought they prevented me from staying in Germany, learning the language, and becoming a serious actress, as he wanted; and second, because he looked upon them as spoiled children who would amuse themselves with me for a time and then discard me like an old tow. 'Your life is exactly like Lulu's,' he said, 'and you will end the same way.' [...] At the time, knowing so little of what he meant by 'Lulu,' I just sat sullenly glaring at him, trying not to listen. Fifteen years later, in Hollywood, with all his predictions closing in on me, I heard his words again—hissing back to me. And, listening this time, I packed my trunks and went home to Kansas."
On the very next page of my edition, the opening line of her epilogue, "Why I Will Never Write My Memoirs," reads "'The trouble with us,' Grant Clarke told me in 1930, 'is that we are too degenerate for one part of Hollywood and not degenerate enough for the other.'"
Brooks made Overland Stage Raiders about six years before she packed her bags and went back to Kansas. In the movie, she looks as if she never left there. Although she looks entirely innocuous when Stony offers to carry some packages for her, Corrigan's Tucson Smith observes, "It never fails, when Stony meets a gal we meet trouble." Her now-seemingly cornfed looks and plain bearing aside, her line readings speak of elocution lessons above all. There is some not-unintriguing subtext available for her character. Brother Ned, it happens, is an ex-con; although he was cleared of trumped-up charges, he's still got a prison rap that turns out to be excellent kind-of blackmail fodder from back-East gangsters who wanna horn in on that mining bonanza. "Can't you forget the past?" Brooks' Beth asks her brother, and those familiar with the glories of Brooks' seedy, tragic, and definitively fatale Lulu in Pabst's Pandora's Box can easily imagine a past for this now-banal presence to have escaped from, if not forgotten. The feeling gets a little stronger, and a little funnier, when she looks up at Wayne and says, "Stony, there's something I've got to tell you. Something I should have told you a long time ago."
In a blog post in The New Yorker last spring, Hilton Als praises Girls' Jemima Kirke and her performance in that show thusly: "[S]he's less interested in our approval than she is in being watched." Als continues: "In this, Kirke is the descendant of Louise Brooks in almost anything." The tenability of comparing Jemima Kirke to Louise Brooks is, happily, no concern of this department. But as to the quality to which Als alludes, the interest in being watched, what fascinates about Brooks' presence in Overland Stage Raiders is the almost total absence of the desire to be even seen, let alone watched. Five years after turning down a lead role in The Public Enemy, six years before quitting Hollywood for good, she was done.
Overland Stage Raiders, a pretty entertaining picture overall, as long as you're not too creeped out by Max Terhune's ventriloquism stuff, is available in a pretty nice-looking Blu-ray from, who else, Olive Films.