‘The Chaperone’: New PBS Show Was Inspired by the Life of Actress Louise Brooks

It’s been a good year for Downton Abbey fans. In September, the beloved TV series made the leap to the big screen in a movie that continued the story of the Crawley family and their servants. Then, on November 24, The Chaperone premiered on PBS. 

This 90-minute film is based on a book by Laura Moriarty. It stars Elizabeth McGovern (aka Cora Crawley, the Countess of Grantham) and was written by Downton screenwriter Julian Fellowes. The movie tells the fictionalized story of a young Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson), who would eventually go on to become an iconic silent movie star, and her chaperone Norma Carlisle (McGovern). 

What is ‘The Chaperone’ about?

Haley Lu Richardson in The Chaperone
Haley Lu Richardson in The Chaperone | Courtesy of Barry Wetcher/PBS Distribution

In Moriarty’s novel, a 36-year-old Kansas housewife named Cora Carlisle accompanies 15-year-old Louise Brooks to New York City, where the teenager is spending the summer studying dance. As Louise explores the city, Cora has her own plans, which include visiting the orphanage where she was raised in an attempt to discover more about her past.

While Cora, not Louise, is the novel’s protagonist, the novel and the TV adaptation borrow incidents from the future star’s life to tell Cora’s story. 

Who was Louise Brooks? 

Louise Brooks
Louise Brooks | Eugene Robert Richee/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

Louise Brooks was born in Kansas in 1906. As a teen, she became interested in modern dance, eventually moving to New York in 1922 to study at the Denishawn School. She later joined the school’s prestigious touring company, but she clashed with founder Ruth St. Denis and was eventually fired. 

A few years later, Brooks had transitioned to dancing on Broadway. It was there that she was noticed by a Hollywood producer, who signed her to a contract with Paramount. She went on to appear in movies like A Girl in Every Port and Beggars of Life. 

As a star, Brooks’s distinctive bobbed hair and bangs made her instantly recognizable, and she became an icon of the 1920s flapper style. But she didn’t like Hollywood and clashed with studio executives. She eventually moved to Berlin, where she made two of her most well-known films, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, both with director G.W. Pabst. Afterward, she returned to Hollywood, but like many stars of the silent era, her career did not survive the transition to sound. Brooks made her last movie in 1938.

Brooks struggled after giving up acting, and at one point ended up working as an escort in New York City. Later, she began writing about film and a collection of her essays was published in 1982 as Lulu in Hollywood. She died in 1985. 

Where to watch Louise Brooks’s movies  

While some of Brooks’s movies have been lost, several of her films are streaming on Amazon and other services.

Diary of a Lost Girl is available to rent on Amazon, along with God’s Gift to Women. Pandora’s Box is streaming on Kanopy, a streaming service offered through certain public and university libraries.

The Chaperone is streaming on PBS.org and PBS Passport until December 8, 2019.   

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