The Chaperone, the new historical drama from the creators of Downton Abbey, is showing locally at Landmark Theatres. The PBS film, a glossy excursion into the morals and manners of the Jazz Age, marks the return to Berkeley of its central character, the silent film star Louise Brooks.
Elizabeth McGovern, the Countess of Grantham in the popular TV series, produced and stars in The Chaperone. Here, she plays a different kind of character — a corseted, unhappily married woman from Kansas who accompanies the rebellious Brooks on a trip in the summer of 1922. The film was penned by Downton Abbey creator and writer Julian Fellowes, and directed by series director Michael Engler, who also helms the forthcoming Downton Abbey feature film.
The Chaperone is based on Laura Moriarty’s 2012 novel of the same name, which in turn was inspired by incidents in the life of Brooks, then a teenager and four years away from movie stardom. (Moriarty, author of The Chaperone, is a Kansas novelist, and not the noted Bay Area poet of the same name.)
Despite its intention to tell the story of its title character, the matronly chaperone, the film’s focus is drawn to Brooks’ character, played by rising star Haley Lu Richardson. This young actress steals the show, and turns The Chaperone into an unintended bio-pic.
In real life, Brooks travelled to New York City in 1922 to study at Denishawn, then the leading modern dance troupe in America. At the time, the company included not only founders Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn (both historic figures in American dance, and both characters in the film), but also future great Martha Graham (who receives a shout out in The Chaperone).
As the film shows, the precocious 15-year-old soon became a star pupil, and was asked to join Denishawn’s touring company. Here’s where The Chaperone ends, but not the story of Louise Brooks.
For reasons hinted at in the new film – namely her failure to live up to Denishawn’s moral code – the 17-year-old Brooks was kicked out of the company after two seasons. She went on the dance in Broadway revues – including the Ziegfeld Follies – before landing in the movies.
By 1926, Brooks’ name was on theater marquees across country – including Berkeley’s California and U.C. theaters, where all of her American silent films opened locally in the late 1920s. In fact, Brooks’ films proved popular, and returned here for second, third, and fourth runs at the Strand, Lorin, Oaks, Berkeley, and Rivoli theatres.
Brooks also made a film in Berkeley, the now lost 1927 romantic drama Rolled Stockings. Set among students at the fictional Colfax College, Rolled Stockings was largely filmed on and around the campus of the University of California. Not only did it show Berkeley neighborhoods, it also included footage of actual crew races between the University of California and the University of Washington, then a major rivalry.
Rolled Stockings was one of a number of similarly themed films aimed toward the youth market of the 1920s. Brooks, who was then only 20 years old, was the nominal star of the film, along with a handful of Paramount’s “junior stars.” Brooks plays the love interest of two brothers, one a fop, the other an athlete.
Rolled Stocking received good reviews in the Oakland and San Francisco papers. Not surprisingly, the film found a receptive audience in college towns across the country. The critic for the Ann Arbor Times News, for example, stated “The three stars, Louise Brooks, James Hall and Richard Arlen are so thoroughly likable and the story so different from the usual line of college bunk, that Rolled Stockings proves to be a delightful bit of cinema entertainment.”
The film was also praised locally. The Daily Californian gushed a bit when it described Brooks as “pert,” while the Berkeley Daily Gazette stated “Rolled Stockings is a real youth story.”
Berkeley, more than most cities, has played a notable role in Brooks’ career. While in the Bay Area, the actress made one of three known personal appearances when she appeared onstage at the American Theater in Oakland to introduce her then just released film, Evening Clothes, starring Adolphe Menjou.
Later on, local screenings of her surviving films in the 1970s and 1980s helped spur a revival of interest in the actress that continues to this day. Bay Area film buffs may recall seeing Pandora’s Box, Diary of a Lost Girl, or Prix de beauté in Wheeler Auditorium or at the Pacific Film Archive.
In fact, it was the Oct. 5, 1972 showing of Pandora’s Box at the PFA which marked only the second showing in Northern California of what is certainly Brooks’ best known film. Disregarded when first released in 1929, Pandora’s Box was not shown in the region until 1962, when it was screened at Monterey Peninsula College. In attendance at that event were a few notable locals, including film critic Pauline Kael, who became a longtime champion of the actress.
The Chaperone is currently showing at Landmark Theatres in Berkeley, as well as elsewhere around the Bay Area. The film, the first ever theatrical release from PBS Masterpiece, is expected to debut on television later this year.