The Chaperone, a new historical drama from the creators of Downton Abbey, opens Friday in Ann Arbor. The film, the first ever theatrical release from PBS Masterpiece, marks the return to Michigan of its key character, the silent film star Louise Brooks.
The Chaperone was produced by Elizabeth McGovern, Downton Abbey’s Lady Crawley. The film was penned by Downton Abbey creator and writer Julian Fellowes, and directed by series director Michael Engler, who also directs the forthcoming Downton Abbey feature film set for release in September. McGovern also stars in the new film, playing a corseted, unhappily married woman from Kansas who accompanies the rebellious Brooks to New York City in the summer of 1922.
The Chaperone is a glossy excursion into the morals and manners of the Jazz Age. The film is based on Laura Moriarty’s 2012 novel of the same name, which in turn is based on real incidents in the life of Brooks, then a teenager and four years away from movie stardom.
Despite its intention to tell the story of its title character, the matronly chaperone, the film’s cinematic focus is drawn to Brooks, played by rising star Haley Lu Richardson. The young actress steals the show.
In real life, Brooks travelled to New York in 1922 to study at Denishawn. As the film suggests, the precocious teen was a star pupil; despite the fact she was only 15 years old, she was offered a role in Denishawn’s touring company. It is this dance troupe which first brought Brooks to Ann Arbor and other cities in Michigan.
In the 1920s, Denishawn was considered the leading dance company in America. Its widespread touring introduced modern dance to hundreds of cities and towns across America. The company also proved to be a training ground for a number of significant figures. During Brooks’ two seasons with Denishawn, its touring company included not only founders Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn (both historic figures in American dance), but also future great Martha Graham and acclaimed figures such as Charles Weidman and Doris Humphrey.
During its 1922-1923 and 1923-1924 tours, Denishawn performed at Detroit’s Orchestra Hall as well as the larger venues in Lansing, Grand Rapids, Saginaw, Kalamazoo, Adrian, Port Huron, Jackson, and Battle Creek. They performed before largely sold out crowds and received considerable press, including many glowing reviews.
The company’s two Ann Arbor stops were especially well received. With Brooks an emerging presence in the company, Denishawn performed at Hill Auditorium on October 26, 1922 and November 26, 1923. About the first performance, the Ann Arbor News wrote, “Over 3,500 in the audience and there never has been an audience so appreciative or so enthusiastic about a performance before. On all sides came exclamations of surprise, wonderment, commendation and satisfaction. Round after round of applause broke from the crowd as the dancers left the stage.”
The Michigan Daily was just as effusive in its coverage. The second stop was also well received, with the Ann Arbor Times News headlining its review “Denishawns Troupe Scores Triumph.”
The Hill Auditorium performances loom large in Denishawn history. In his autobiography, One Thousand and One Night Stands, Shawn devotes more than half a page to the time he landed on the brass handle of a trap door on the Hill Auditorium stage. That injury pained Shawn for the rest of his illustrious career, which included the founding of Jacob’s Pillow.
For reasons suggested in The Chaperone – namely her failure to live up to the moral and spiritual code of Denishawn – the 17 year old Brooks was kicked out of the company at the end of her second season. She went on the dance in two Broadway revues – the George White Scandals and Ziegfeld Follies –before landing in the movies. By 1926, her name was on theater marquees across America – including Ann Arbor’s now closed Wuerth Theater, where many of her silent films were shown in the late 1920s.
The Chaperone plays Friday, April 26, 2019, at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor.
Thomas Gladysz is the Director of the Louise Brooks Society, and the author of Louise Brooks the Persistent Star and other books.