- Dec 23, 1915
The hauntingly beautiful devil worshiper in Val Lewton's The Seventh Victim (1943), Texas-born, Costa Rica-reared Jean Brooks began her professional career singing at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. She was discovered there, or so the story goes, by Erich Von Stroheim, who secured the former Ruby Kelly a stint as the nominal leading lady in Obeah… More Bio:
The hauntingly beautiful devil worshiper in Val Lewton's The Seventh Victim (1943), Texas-born, Costa Rica-reared Jean Brooks began her professional career singing at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. She was discovered there, or so the story goes, by Erich Von Stroheim, who secured the former Ruby Kelly a stint as the nominal leading lady in Obeah (1935), a very low-budget independent thriller dealing with voodoo curses. In order not to be confused with Ruby Keeler, the novice actress billed herself Jeanne Kelly. She was Jeanne Kelly again opposite Von Stroheim in the equally obscure The Crime of Dr. Crespi (1935) -- which, according to Von Stroheim himself, was also the "crime of the screenwriter and director" -- while under contract to Universal 1940-1941. That studio cast her, briefly, as one of Ming the Merciless' handmaidens in the second Flash Gordon chapterplay, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940), and as the leading lady in the all-star "super serial" The Riders of Death Valley (1941).
Having married tyro screenwriter Richard Brooks and changed her name to Jean Brooks, the still novice actress had much better luck at RKO, where she would appear in five of the studio's popular Falcon thrillers and as the nightclub chanteuse in the atmospheric The Leopard Man (1943). As the cynical Kiki, Brooks quite innocently causes all the ensuing mayhem when a leopard used in her act (and which she leads around on a leash) escapes. Producer Val Lewton obviously liked what he saw and cast Jean Brooks in the relatively small but pivotal and quite unforgettable role as the suicidal Jacqueline Gibson in The Seventh Victim. Caught up in a satanic cult, the morbid Jacqueline finally kills herself with the noose she had left hanging in her room for that very purpose.
RKO's resident neurotic, as film historian Doug McClelland has called her, Jean Brooks should in a perfect world have gone on to true stardom after two such eye-opening performances. A bitter and very public divorce from Brooks and rumored alcoholism prevented that, however, and her remaining films were potboilers. Leaving Hollywood after 1948's Women in the Night, the actress' subsequent life remained a mystery for years, to the point, in fact, that as late as 1990, a fan posted a "wanted" ad in a Hollywood trade paper. As more recent research has revealed, however, following her brief fling with stardom Jean Brooks married a printer for the San Francisco Examiner and worked for a while as a solicitor of classified ads for the same daily. Her death in November 1963 was given as cirrhosis of the liver.
Although she appeared only fleetingly in what at the time were dismissed as mere programmers, Jean Brooks' haunting face, her large, soulful eyes, and her Cleopatra wig (in The Seventh Victim) remain some of the more startling impressions of World War II Hollywood. In many ways, her paranoid and bewildered Jacqueline Gibson presages Mia Farrow's equally ill-fated heroine in Rosemary's Baby. That Brooks' later life was bedeviled by alcoholism and near total oblivion only adds to the poignancy of her best-remembered performance.
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