Louise Brooks’ History of the World Part I

Caught up with THE CHAPERONE, which glosses on the true tale of Louise Brooks’ first experiences in New York, accompanied by a Kansan hausfrau. A weirdly flat experience — sexless and lacking drama. This is weird because it has a teenage Louise Brooks in it, the narrative takes in child abuse, emotional neglect, adoption, all kinds of fraught stuff, but everybody is always making nice.

We’re dealing with Julian Fellowes, High Tory writer of GOSFORD PARK and Downton Abbey, adapting a book by Laura Moriarty, and with a director from Fellowes’ TV show. I never watched that thing. I liked GP a lot, but I think it benefitted from Altman’s wry disgust at the world being depicted, and from the actors’ improvisations. A BBC Scotland bod who had employed Fellowes on an earlier TV show remarked that they felt sure the best lines were made up on the set, but then that same person was reportedly unable to start work each morning until an assistant turned on their computer, so who knows?

What surprised me was that Fellowes would short-circuit every opportunity for drama by letting one character or another calm things down. I know we don’t want a David Mamet story populated entirely by ranting psychos, but as Alexander Mackendrick put it, “Sympathy is the enemy of drama.” The whole art seems to be to create a fictive world where sympathy can exist, but to always position it where it doesn’t defuse the excitement.

Nice to see Elizabeth McGovern in a leading role, the TV show having restored her to the limelight. Haley Lu Richardson has a near-impossible task, and the appearance of a flurry of clips of the real Brooks cruelly points up the contrast. I would settle for less physical resemblance (HLR is only passably similar in appearance) in favour of more edge — but the script is so lacking in spikiness and spiciness, the direction so anemic, the music such thin soup, ladled over everything, it’s hard to see how any real Brooksian quality could have survived. So without blaming the star we can say she was either wrongfully thrust into an unsuitable role or else undercut by everything around her.

I’m always happy to see McGovern and Campbell Scott, but again, probably not the actors who would set things on fire. Is it possible to die of niceness? At least Downton Abbey has Maggie Smith being catty.

The dialogue is poor, with “Horse feathers,” the sole bit of twenties idiom. Someone actually says, “This is 1922.” I guess the biographical distortions are a minor matter, but Brooks’ childhood sexual abuse is disgracefully softened, and her experience after the onscreen events summed up in a title card: “after some difficult times as a shopgirl in New York she reinvented herself as a writer…” Fellowes’ distaste for shopgirling is hilarious, and presumably his distaste for hooking is so great he can’t bring himself to mention it, and we’re trying to hone messy reality into a redemptive arc here…

The problem, probably, is that even if you got some energy going, this is a story mainly covering Brooks’ early studies as a dancer, and skips over everything she’s celebrated for. Plus she’s not even the main character. The solution to these problems is to not make the film.

THE CHAPERONE stars Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham; Claire Benoit; Saul Ausländer; Lady Macbeth; Robert Benchley; Martha Jefferson; Eowyn; Munkustrap; and Nervous Man.

14 Responses to “Louise Brooks’ History of the World Part I”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    When the Cinematheque Francaise ‘s museum opened a giant poster of Brooks hung over its entrance. When a clueless would-be cineaste asked Henri Langlois “Why her? What about Garbo? What about Dietrich?” to which Langlois replied “The is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! THERE IS ONLY LOUISE BROOKS !!!!”

    Doing a movie about Louise Brooks is a gigantic undetaking and there’s little surprise that this attempt has failed. I’ve always thought the “Marion Davies Niece” chapter of Brook’s “Lulu in Hollywood” would make a great film as it would encompass her lesbianism and the world she knew at that time.

    Speaking of lesbians I just got through watching Arzner’s “Christopher Strong” on TCM, which I haven’t seen for some time. It’s really one of both her and Hepburn’s best. Quite an amazing drama of feminist heroism with a daring aviatrix heroine unaccountably in love with a stiff-as-ever Colin Clive. Arzner’s direction obviously allowed Hepburn to let her Sapphic hair down a tad, though off-screen Arzner was having an affair with Billie Burke.

  2. I think the making of Pandora’s Box is a potentially good story, but you need to find lightning in a bottle for the role of Brooks.

    George Cukor, watching Brooks get rediscovered in the sixties, was baffled. “Louise Brooks was nothing!” he declared – presumably thinking of her Paramount pictures. He was right in that sense, totally wrong in the larger sense.

    I always think of Colin Clive as striving for stiffness and cracking under the strain, which is where he becomes interesting.

  3. Tony Williams Says:

    Years ago, when enrollments allowed, I ran some Hepburn films in a Star related course. Among them was THE LITTLE MINISTER which an African American student told me afterwards he really liked and CHRISTOPHER STRONG. Agree with you wholeheartedly, David E. here. It is a remarkable film but now a sad casualty of the animus against old black and white films in colleges. Fortunately, there is a world outside that appreciates them.

  4. David Ehrenstein Says:

    I suspect Mr. Cukor met Louise and was not at all impressed with her personally. She had a vicious tongue and a dismissive attitude towards those who failed to delight her (which takes in a huge amount of the general population) moreover she hated everything Hollywood stood for.

  5. That’s possible. I was assuming Cukor’s dismissal was a good-faith analysis of her star persona rather than a personal grudge. But by the time Cukor got into films, Brooks was indeed regarded as “nothing.”

    Just received the new edition of Sight & Sound which has a bunch of entries by filmmakers on the future of film. To raise awareness of the canon, Neill Blomkamp thinks everyone would have someone like his young daughter, who curates his classic film viewing. A charming if impractical suggestion.

  6. Tony Williams Says:

    A former MFA Film student who can not find employment in the field due to his creativity and integrity, let alone the vocational slant going on at present, always gets his young children together to watch classic films. By contrast, my institution has pushed “Schools” rather than the old College/Department system that has Media without any courses in Film History, Directors or styles and Genres that once used to be taught. Have to look up that S&S issue, D.C. since the trend is worrying.

  7. bensondonald Says:

    As filmed it was a story that didn’t have to include Brooks, and maybe shouldn’t have. To work, you’d first need the audience to know about Brooks, or at least fill in enough for them to have a clue. Also, you’d have to make her more of the story rather than a device to get her chaperone to New York.

    In the film, I don’t recall if Brooks knew anything of her companion being a discarded out-of-wedlock baby, now trapped in a fake marriage. In any case, it didn’t really concern her. And Louise’s offhand confession of being abused — it’s just something she says to unsettle the older woman; not a show of trust or cry for help.

    An alternate version: Begin with the elderly Brooks, barely tolerating a young interviewer. A chance to at least sketch in her history and mystique. She says she came to NY as a child, in the care of a respectable local lady. Then frame what follows as her memory of, and involvement in, the chaperone’s story.

    Two women sharing socially unacceptable tragedies, and being shaped by each other — there’s a story. Knowing her chaperone’s secrets might affect the young Louise, enhancing her resolve to avoid the same traps. At the same time, the already transgressive Louise could have been the force pushing the chaperone to seek out her past, and even have an affair. The dramatic climax would be the two women parting ways, each knowing the other has a hell of a road ahead.

    End with the elderly Brooks, who has NOT told this story to the interviewer. Instead, she casually mentions that she got along well enough with her keeper. She adds that she heard the lady got a hilariously scandalous divorce and married her lover. She smiles to herself, then returns to being annoying by the interviewer.

  8. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Louise came to live I upstate New York not because of James Card but because of William Paley, who found it a lot more copasetic to keep the mistress out of town and away from prying eyes. Card came into the picture later.

  9. David Ehrenstein Says:

  10. David Ehrenstein Says:

  11. Donald, I like your version better, though I suspect there should be an embargo on interviewers for these things, useful though they are for exposition. The press are artfully deployed in Dreamchild, and I don’t hate the interview scene in Gods and Monsters, but I can’t think of any other great examples… maybe Little Big Man.

    The idea of the teenager “corrupting” the chaperone has at least some ironic bite, is amusing. The movie skirts around it completely.

  12. There’s a very good screenplay floating around about the elderly Louise Brooks and the younger Kenneth Tynan, written by none other than Tynan’s widow Kathleen. Shirley MacLaine was attached to play Brooks for a while.

  13. David Ehrenstein Says:

    On the basis of “Bernie” alone, Shirley could be a dynamite Louise.

  14. Fiona Watson Says:

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