Elizabeth McGovern stretches out of her typecasting as Cora, Countess of Grantham, and returns to somewhat more complicated roles as the central character in The Chaperone (2019). She’s a naive Kansas wife, Norma, who volunteers to accompany 16-year-old Louise Brooks to attend dance school in New York City. While Brooks is later to become a silent-film star and we know her story, Norma’s complicated past and secret-filled present drive the action here.
The Chaperone had a brief theatrical release in March 2019, then was made available on PBS Passport online, and finally aired on PBS Masterpiece in November 2019. The movie feels more like a TV movie than made for the big screen, so nothing is lost by watching it streaming. Set mostly in 1922, the period details are beautiful and fairly accurate, although some of the press indicates that the movie was made on a tight budget.
Speaking of accuracy, the story comes from a historical fiction novel by Laura Moriarty (Julian Fellowes adapted the screenplay). McGovern’s character is wholly invented. There are some elements of truth — Louise Brooks was from Kansas and was sexually molested as a girl. She was a dancer and attended the Denishawn School of Dancing modern dance company in 1922, when she was 15. However, the school was in Los Angeles, not New York City (Denishawn later opened a branch in the Bronx, NY, in 1927, not that Brooks attended), so the central premise of this movie is false. Still, the book’s story makes for an entertaining frock flick.
And goshdarnit, this is a pretty little movie! Apparently, costume designer Candice Donnelly (who has mostly worked in theater) hardly built any full costumes specifically for this production, due to time and budget limitations. In Beyond Fashion Magazine, she said:
“Usually [when shooting a film] you have months and months. We only had three weeks to shoot the movie and pre-production was three before that. The whole process was about two months.”
As a result, Donnelly “ended up buying a lot of vintage clothes on [online]. I also borrowed something from England.” This is stunning when you see how lovely the show looks and how well the clothes evoke the period. She must have some mad shopping skillz! Plus, she knew what she was looking for and what she was trying to achieve. In Times Square Chronicles, Donnelly said:
“I love doing the research. I love fabrics and trying to re-create the way they moved. I found myself digging up and looking at old photographs. What was beautiful then is different from now. How women look and their decorum was based on their clothes.”
I’m not an expert in 1920s fashion, but in my cursory perusal of catalogs and photos, oh yeah, she nailed it here. Moreover, the costumes reflect the characters and in subtle ways that don’t hit you over the head. OK, maybe with one exception, which I’ll explain. Though I’ll keep most of the plot points secret because I enjoyed how they rolled out in the movie, just watch it for yourself!
Have you seen The Chaperone? Did you read the book?
AutoCorrect has been having fun with you. Norma keeps coming up as Normal.
Hah! Thanks for the catch.
MIRANDA OTTO!!! I’ll have to watch this just for her!
I’ve always imagined how inhibiting, rather than liberating, it would have been to toss aside one’s corset and go without if one had worn one all one’s life; at least for a woman who had any bosom worth the name.
Yeah, I’d feel odd going corset-less. It’s like bra-less — sure, around the house is fine, but never in public! Especially as a middle-aged woman of some size.
I’ve read there were other kind of corsetery for women who weren’t young or slim, and had womenly features. They weren’t propper corsets, but they kept everything in place
Well, of course that was exactly when the bra was invented (or reinvented: there’s always the 15th-century Austrian bras found in Langberg Castle, or the apparently one-off two-piece boned wrap-round Napoleonic-period one in the Kyoto Institute), but even so I bet it must have felt weird and insecure wearing one at first, with the subliminal fear that something might fall out . . . ! Which is why, like Trystan, I just can’t get on board with the trope of ‘woman flings aside her corset to become a free confident spirit’ trope.
I enjoyed it and thought the costumes well thought out.
I enjoyed the book and ditto on the MIranda Otto comment. She always brings it!
The film was cute enough, and I enjoyed watching Elizabeth McGovern do something a little different. It made me long for a proper Louise Brooks biopic, though.
I recognize the ice cream shop. If it’s not my local since-the-Edwardian-era ice cream place, it looks very similar.
I loved the book and the movie seems quite faithful to it.
You know, I used to hate twenties fashions. The dropped waist silhouette is so not me! But Frock Flicks has helped me see twenties clothes can be beautiful.
I really liked the show. It addressed some pretty daring issues for the times. I have to say concerning the corset issue. My grandmother wore a corset from the time she was 13. When she couldn’t wear one anymore, she was quite shapeless, as she had no stomach muscles to speak of.
I collect and wear a lot of 20s, and this movie hit most of the notes just right. The hats were especially good.