Louise Brooks and Her Chaperone to Get the "Downton Abbey" Treatment

Louise Brooks and Her Chaperone to Get the "Downton Abbey" Treatment
The silent star Louise Brooks in her glory days.
(Courtesy Library of Congress)


Louise Brooks will at last be portrayed on screen by another actress. It won’t, however, be Shirley MacLaine, who in the 1990s had hoped to play the septuagenarian Brooks in a film that Martin Scorsese was interested in directing. The performer required will need to be a teenager – Chloë Grace Moretz is the logical choice – though she won’t get top billing, nor will she necessarily need to brush up on the electrifying silent star’s abbreviated Hollywood career, or her foray to Berlin to star in G.W. Pabst’s legendary “Pandora’s Box” (1929).

The protagonist of “The Chaperone,” the upcoming movie of Laura Moriarty’s best-selling novel, is Cora Carlisle, a repressed Kansas wife and mother, who in 1922 travels with 15-year-old Louise from Wichita to New York. She will be played by Elizabeth McGovern, who has been enjoying renewed success as another Cora – the Countess of Grantham – in “Downton Abbey.”

Julian Fellowes, “Downton”’s creator, is writing “The Chaperone” screenplay, which, reports Deadline, will be directed by Simon Curtis for Fox Searchlight. Curtis’s previous film was “My Week With Marilyn.” Curtis and McGovern are producing “The Chaperone” with Eli Selden and Adam Shulman.

Sardonic, reckless where men are concerned, and already sporting her iconic black bob, Louise has been hired by the Denishawn modern dance school, and Cora has her hands full keeping her out of mischief. She has come to Jazz Age New York, though, on a private search for her own identity – and because she, too, seeks liberation from Midwestern mores, albeit unconsciously.

“While Louise pursues the relatively uninteresting goals of flirting with strangers, swilling gin (during Prohibition) and advancing her career, Cora keeps busy tugging at the reader’s heart,” Janet Maslin wrote in her review of “The Chaperone” in the New York Times. “She wants to know where she came from. She wants to know who her parents were. And although Cora does not initially know it, she wants to behave in risqué ways that will eventually make Louise seem the more staid of the pair.”

Cora was based by Moriarty on Brooks’s real chaperone, Alice Mills, who was dismissed by the star in her memoir, “Lulu in Hollywood,” as “a stocky, bespectacled housewife of 36.”

“So it was that in the summer of 1922 poor Mrs. Mills found herself next to my hot, restless body in a double bed in a rented room in a railroad flat in a building on Eighty-Sixth Street near Riverside Drive,” Brooks recalled. She tartly added, “I tolerated Mrs. Mills’s provincialism because she shared my love of the theater.”

In 1998, MacLaine narrated the documentary “Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu.” The Brooks feature that she wanted to star in was based on Kenneth Tynan’s obsessive (though platonic) relationship with Brooks, which had begun in the spring of 1978, produced his famous New Yorker profile of her, and was continued in correspondence.

The script was written by the late Kathleen Tynan, the theater critic’s widow, with MacLaine’s involvement, and titled “Lulu in Love.” With “The Chaperone” in the works, it’s a project that needs dusting off. What better way to remind audiences that Louise Brooks was as magnetically mercurial in her 70s as she was in her early 20s?

Below: Louise Brooks and Fritz Kortner in “Pandora's Box”