By Thomas Gladysz.
The Chaperone, the first theatrical release from PBS Masterpiece, is a story of beginnings as well as a kind of origin story. Its plot revolves around the summer the 16-year-old Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson) – four years before she found fame as a film star – left her Wichita, Kansas home to study dance on the East Coast. Accompanying her is a respectable, though unhappily married woman on her own quest to learn about her own beginnings. As a film, The Chaperone leans heavily on Brooks’ legend in unraveling the story of her travelling companion.
There has been talk of a Louise Brooks bio-pic for some time. In fact, interest in filming the story of the iconic silent movie star goes back as far as the 1980s. Scripts have been written, cast suggested, and directors mentioned, but no project has ever gotten off the ground. A number of actresses have expressed interest in playing the bobbed star who famously played Lulu in Pandora’s Box – among them Natalie Portman, Winona Ryder, Neve Campbell, and Dana Delaney. For a time, Julia Roberts owned the screen rights to the acclaimed 1989 biography of Brooks. She hoped to play the legendary star, who like her, hailed from Kansas. So did Shirley MacLaine, a devotee of Brooks who wished to portray the actress as an older woman.
Though The Chaperone isn’t intended as a Brooks bio-pic, it quite nearly becomes one through the stellar performance of newcomer Richardson. As was once said about Brooks, all eyes turn toward Richardson when she is on screen. This young actress plays the future silent film star, and nearly steals the show through her vivacious charm. Richardson garnered strong reviews for her role in the 2017 drama Columbus.
Based on Laura Moriarty’s 2012 novel of the same name, which in turn is based on real incidents in Brooks’ life, The Chaperone centers on its title character, dryly though deftly played by Elizabeth McGovern. The Downton Abbey star plays a corseted middle-age woman named Norma who accompanies Brooks to New York City in the summer of 1922. This artistically precocious teen is to study dance at Denishawn, then lead a modern dance troupe in America. (In real life, Brooks’ tenure with Denishawn overlapped with that of another legend-in-the-making, Martha Graham, who receives a shout-out in the film.) Besides chaperoning Brooks, McGovern’s character is in search of information about her birth mother. As a child, she wound up in Kansas after being sent out west on an orphan-train. Her search becomes a journey of discovery.
Along with starring in The Chaperone, McGovern is also one of the film’s mostly female producers. In interviews, the celebrated actress recounted how she had been hired to read the audio version of The Chaperone, and fell in love with its story. On the lookout for interesting parts for and about women of her age, McGovern snapped-up the film rights to Moriarty’s popular novel. Soon after, she sent the book to Downton Abbey creator and writer Julian Fellowes, and asked that he consider writing a screenplay. Busy with the hit television show at the time, Fellowes was resistant. However, his long simmering interest in Brooks drew him to the project. Fellowes considers the silent star an interesting personality and more than just a Hollywood cutie.
In 2012, a handful of English writers were asked by the Guardian newspaper which books had most impressed them during the course of the year. The answer given by Fellowes caused a bit of a stir, as the book he mentioned was published in 1989. “I suspect the book that has haunted me the most this year was the life of that queen of the silent screen, Louise Brooks: A Biography (University of Minnesota £17), by Barry Paris. I have seldom read so lyrical a tale of self-destruction. When she was a girl, my mother used to be mistaken for Louise Brooks and so I have always felt a sort of investment in her, but I was unprepared for this heartbreaking tale of what-might-have-been.”
As might be expected of an historical drama from PBS, this production gets a lot of the details right. The clothing looks great; there are vintage automobiles and vintage interiors filled with vintage objects; and the characters brush-up against the issues of the day, from race relations to changing sexual mores to Prohibition. In one well staged scene, some of these issues converge when Norma is taken by Louise to see Shuffle Along, an African American musical and one of the biggest off-Broadway hits in the summer of 1922. Norma is taken aback when a black couple tries to take their seats next to her, and not, as she had expected, in the theater’s balcony; concerned these black theatergoers might get into trouble, Norma needs to be told by Louise that they’re not in Kansas anymore. This mini history lesson quickly passes when the singer on stage belts out a raucous “I’m Just Wild About Harry.”
There are other little history lessons throughout The Chaperone. In the early 1920s, for example, modern dance was considered suspect, a fact alluded to in film’s opening scene. Not only wasn’t it not classical ballet, but its dancers were sometimes thought to move too freely and to wear too little and too loose fitting clothing. Later scenes inside the Denishawn studio get it right when the young dance students are shown going through their free-form lessons. The Chaperone also gets it right when it shows a sculpture of the Hindu god Shiva in the studio. Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, pioneers of American modern dance, were known for their interest in varied forms of spirituality as well as varied forms of dance; in fact, Shawn posed like that very Shiva sculpture in one of his “exotic” dances. Another scene in the studio, with Brooks’ character sitting on the floor, similarly evokes photographs from the time. Some of the credit for such finesse likely goes to dance historian Suzanne Shelton, author of the excellent Divine Dancer: A Biography of Ruth St. Denis, who is listed in the credits.
It’s too bad a cultural or film historian wasn’t consulted as well. As a cultural icon, Brooks has sometimes gotten too much credit. In The Chaperone, Norma tells Brooks “Every shop girl, every office girl copied your look, they copied your hair. Do you know why? You made them feel free – you changed things, Louise.” Truth be told, Brooks wasn’t the first nor was she the only woman to wear a severe bob in the 1920s. Brooks only helped popularize the cut, a variant of the page-boy style she had worn since she was a girl. Nor was Brooks a feminist, as we might think of one in the light of today’s #MeToo movement. Rather, she was a free spirit who reflected aspects of modern life changing around her.
McGovern has said that The Chaperone is a film about two women talking to one another. To a large degree, it is also a film about female agency. Later on in The Chaperone, after they have opened up to one another, Norma says to Louise, “You are very good, no one can take that away from you. I know you are pretty and the boys like you, but you got more than that. You got talent. Talent gives you power, people can try to stop you, but they can’t take away your talent. Nobody can do that.”
However, that didn’t stop others, including the Hollywood studios and Hollywood establishment, from trying. Long thought of as a mere footnote in film history, Brooks is now regarded as one of the significant actresses of the silent era. It wasn’t always so. Once, during an interview with film director George Cukor, the interviewer mentioned Brooks, who was then undergoing a late-in-life revival. Cukor responded, “Louise Brooks? What’s all this talk about Louise Brooks? She was nobody. She was a nothing in films. What’s all this fuss about her?”
Today, Brooks’ best known work is Pandora’s Box (1929), the G.W. Pabst-directed tragedy regularly included on the short-list of great silent films. In it, she plays the iconic Lulu, a care-free femme fatale caught in a love quadrangle who eventually suffers the same fate she herself brings to all who love her. Brooks is sensational in this German-made silent. So-much-so, she has defined its immortal character for the many movies, stage plays, operas, comic books and other adaptations which have followed. (It’s ironic that the Museum of Modern Art in New York hosted the recent premiere of The Chaperone. In 1943, Brooks and a friend approached MoMA’s film curator, Iris Barry, in the hope the institution would acquire a print of Pandora’s Box for its nascent film collection. But they were rejected, and Brooks was told the film had “no lasting value.”)
In terms of its reputation, not far beyond Pandora’s Box is Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), another Pabst-directed melodrama in which Brooks plays an abused teenager driven from her home after she is raped by her father’s shop assistant. Controversial in its day, the film was censored most everywhere it was shown. Diary of a Lost Girl didn’t debut in the United States until the late 1950s.
Among her American films, the best is certainly William Wellman’s Beggars of Life (1928). In it, Brooks plays an orphan who kills her abusive step-father and goes on the run dressed as boy. A few years ago, a restoration of Beggars of Life was released for the first time on DVD/Blu-ray, and since then the film has been screened numerous times around the United States and the world. In England, it was even shown at the massive Glastonbury music festival.
Brooks brought something extra-cinematic (vulnerability, a potent mix of beauty & brains, a mix passivity and assertiveness, a survivor’s attitude) to her best-remembered roles – in Pandora’s Box, Diary of a Lost Girl, Beggars of Life, and Prix de beauté (1930), a minor classic she made in France just as sound was coming in. That film, which similarly focuses on a lack of female agency, features one of the great finishes in film history; it would prove to be Brooks’ swan song, though not her final film. After returning to America and after her Hollywood career fizzled, Brooks slid into a decade’s long obscurity and was largely forgotten. Living a down-and-out existence as a shop girl and NYC barfly, she was rescued from oblivion by a few mostly male film historians and archivists.
As Brooks herself said, she wasn’t acting but was playing herself in many of her films. What that self was – an obviously talented but secretly wounded individual with little sense of self-worth – has a dark genesis. It is more than Brooks’ being “unwrapped candy,” as Norma euphemistically says in The Chaperone. Rather, Brooks’ real-life lack of agency stems from something referenced in the film when her character admits to sexual encounters with her Sunday school teacher back in Wichita. “Please don’t worry about me losing my virginity,” Brooks quips in the film. “I didn’t bring it to lose. It is back in Kansas somewhere.” Shocked, Norma utters the period appropriate words, “You were the victim of wicked abuse.” To which Brooks replies, “I don’t want to be a victim, not now, not ever.”
Sexual abuse, including another real life molestation at age nine, are at the heart of Brooks’ life-long penchant for self-defeating behavior. Later in life, living alone in a small apartment in Rochester, New York, she strove to understand what had happened to her – why her career had fallen apart, and why she had failed at just about everything she tried.
Barry Paris’ remarkable 1989 biography of Brooks quotes from a letter the actress wrote late in life. “I have been taking stock of my 50 years since I left Wichita in 1922 at the age of 15 to become a dancer with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. How I have existed fills me with horror. For I failed in everything — spelling, arithmetic, riding, swimming tennis, golf; dancing, singing, acting; wife, mistress, whore, friend. Even cooking. And I do not excuse myself with the usual escape of ‘not trying.’ I tried with all my heart.”
After her career collapsed, Brooks returned home to Wichita. The Chaperone begins and ends with a scene where Norma visits her old friend, who is up in her room stewing in the gin of defeat. They talk and come to a kind of understanding; Norma tells Louise not to be so hard on herself and offers encouragement as well as the money to purchase a ticket back to New York – the place where Brooks found a home twenty years earlier. It is an especially poignant scene.
Unfortunately – spoiler alert – it’s here where the film stumbles in its nod to Brooks’ place in film history. As Norma climbs the stairs to the room where the fallen star is hiding out, the camera glimpses walls covered with framed magazine covers, portraits, stills and posters highlighting Brooks’ fleeting career. For visual consistency, the filmmakers have cleverly inserted Haley Lu Richardson’s likeness in place of Brooks. But why? By this point, viewers must know the difference between the actress on the screen and the real life actress she is portraying. Additionally, two of the posters are historical anomalies. One poster for Pandora’s Box is less than ten years old. Another, for a revival of Diary of a Lost Girl, is also of recent vintage.
In that closing scene, Norma tells Louise not to make light of her accomplishments as an actress, saying “As for the German films, Pandora’s Box haunted me for weeks.” Here, no doubt as a means to advance the narrative, Norma is telling a historical little white lie; no one in Wichita or Kansas for the matter saw Pandora’s Box until decades later. In the United States, the film was so poorly received it was shown on less than ten occasions. In its 1929 review, the New York Times said Brooks couldn’t act.
But these are quibbles, important perhaps only to the Brooks’ fan or silent film historian. No doubt, the movie memorabilia on the walls is meant to introduce the actress to Downton Abbey aficionados or those who don’t know her films or her story. That’s commendable, as Brooks is too little appreciated by mainstream audiences. The same can be said for the clip of Brooks’ shown dancing a Denishawn routine in Pandora’s Box as The Chaperone credits are set to roll. It’s another appropriate touch.
There are other moments that shine, and moments when the various actresses lift the material. Norma’s meeting with her birth mother, played by Blythe Danner, is tender, true, and a bit heartbreaking. Miranda Otto is ethereal as Ruth St. Denis, and Victoria Hill is interesting as Myra Brooks, Louise’s aloof mother.
Richardson, who lights up the screen in this sometimes lukewarm production, is spot-on in her portrayal of Brooks. She can dance, looks right in her oh-so-modern bob, and plays the future actress as petulant wild-child as well as anyone might hope. After a night of drinking too much gin in a speakeasy, the teenage Brooks is seen on the floor vomiting into a toilet. Done, she blurts out, “that’s amazing I feel so much better.” Shortly after, she snaps at Norma and declares, “I must brush my teeth, and I have to tinkle – can I have some privacy please?” Few could have played this scene with as much aplomb.
Various reasons have been given to explain Brooks’ cult following. Many of her fans as well as some film historians want to rescue her, from abuse, from herself, from obscurity, from those who don’t truly appreciate her, etc. And not just because they find her to be the prettiest girl they’ve ever seen, like the soda jerk in The Chaperone. There is something compelling, something extra-cinematic about Louise Brooks and the story of her rise and fall. The Chaperone unintentionally tries to capture that.
With its PBS lineage, it’s hard not to judge The Chaperone as a period piece with Downton Abbey-like aspirations. However, its reported 21-day shooting schedule and modest budget never quite allow it to soar beyond its made-for-television feel. The Chaperone was directed by Michael Engler, who helmed episodes of the television series and also directs the forthcoming Downton Abbey movie. As a film, The Chaperone’s heart is in the right place. It is an enjoyable, glossy excursion into 1920s America which touches on the personalities and issues of the time. Yet, however good it sometimes tries to be, The Chaperone is also a frustrating film. As a small-scale work, it makes one crave a full-scale bio-pic of Brooks. As Ted Shawn says in the film, “That girl is a star.”
Thomas Gladysz is the author of four books, including last year’s Louise Brooks: the Persistent Star and has contributed the audio commentary to two KINO Lorber DVDs, Beggars of Life and The Diary of a Lost Girl. Due out later this year is the two-volume Around the World with Louise Brooks.