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Friday, 15 June 2018

Jean Brooks - Geoff Mayer recalls the career of an overlooked actress from the 40s

Jean Brooks, The Leopard Man
The release of Val Lewton’s The Leopard Man in June 1943, marked the transition of Jeanne Kelly, low budget western and serial heroine, to RKO contract player Jean Brooks. 

In Lewton’s next film, the nihilistic masterpiece The Seventh Victim (1943), Brooks was stunning as the tormented Jacqueline Gibson and in what should have been a career defining role. However, the commercial failure of the film and her own personal problems resulted in RKO gradually losing interest in the actress and her status at the studio receded until she was dropped in 1946. 

Following one more film in 1948, she left the industry and finished up working at a newspaper in San Francisco. Jean Brooks died in 1963 at the age of 47 following complications associated with malnutrition and alcoholism.

Jean Brooks, Publicity photo
Born Ruby M. Kelly in Houston in 1916, she moved to a coffee plantation in Costa Rica after her father died. Ruby became fluent in Spanish and English and began her show business career as a singer/guitarist with Enric Madriguera’s orchestra at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel. During this period she befriended Eric von Stroheim who secured a role for her, billed as Jeanne Kelly, in the independently produced horror film Obeah (1935) and a supporting role in The Crime of Dr. Crespi (1935) starring von Stroheim which was filmed in New York. After parting with von Stroheim she appeared in the 1938 Broadway production of “Name Your Poison”.

At Paramount she starred, as Robina Duarte, in two Spanish language films followed by a contract with Universal who cast her in three serials, a brief role in chapter 5 of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940), as Warren Hull’s love interest in the first two chapters of The Green Hornet Strikes Again!(1940) and the
Buck Jones, Jean Brooks, Riders of Death Valley
lead heroine in Universal’s so-called “Million Dollar Serial” Riders of Death Valley (1941) starring Dick Foran, Buck Jones, Lon Chaney Jr., and Noah Beery Jr. Kelly, as the feisty heroine fighting for the gold mine bequeathed to her by her uncle, holds her own among the plethora of male leads. However, Universal, after a few more low budget western and crime films, did not renew her option.

Jean Brooks, The 7th Victim
After her marriage to screenwriter (and later Academy Award winning writer and director) Richard Brooks in 1941, Ruby changed her name to Jean Brooks and a contract with RKO initiated a promising period for the actress with three films for Val Lewton’s unit. In The Leopard Man, as nightclub singer Kiki Walker, she unleashes the leopard that causes the initial mayhem in the film (and triggers the homicidal drives of a serial killer). However, it was her second film for Lewton, as the (spoiler) doomed heroine in The Seventh Victim, that gave Brooks her best screen role. In this morbid masterpiece, she did not disappoint the producer with her soulful eyes and intense screen presence that captured the inner despair of her suicidal heroine. In a lesson to modern filmmakers with regard to economy, and visual and aural subtlety, the film’s devastating ending consists only of the sound of a chair falling over accompanied by Brooks’ sad voice-over reprising a portion of 17th century English poet and cleric John Donne’s Holy Sonnet: “I runne to death and death meets me as fast and all my pleasures are like yesterday.”

She also co-starred in five of the studio’s popular Falcon series starring Tom Conway. The best was The Falcon and the Co-Eds (1943). 

Divorced from Richard Brooks in 1944, she left RKO after The Falcon’s Alibi (1946). A talented actress, the largely forgotten Jean Brooks deserves recognition today.

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