“Norma” And “Louise”

Well, it has happened. And that it has is, in its way, sad. The perhaps most famous novel of the 1920s, The Great Gatsby, entered the public domain in the U.S. on January 1.

[The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925). Photo by me, January 2, 2021.]

That means it is no longer in copyright; that anyone can do anything they want to it. So Fitzgerald’s estate no longer can, for example, sue to prevent anyone from publishing a copy on Amazon; anyone can publish the book now. And the next blockbuster, “Jay Gatsby, Vampire Hunter,” is probably due to hit a streaming service anytime now. LOL!

By coincidence, New Year’s night we watched another primarily 1920s story (a film from 2018) called The Chaperone on Amazon Prime.

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WARNING: This whole post is ***LOTS OF SPOILERS*** Read NO MORE if that matters to you.

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The Chaperone is based on a novel and was written for the screen by Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame.

It is a fictional flashback to the 1920s from 1942. The details of the story are actually unimportant. Indeed in some ways they are predictable.

Fictional “Norma” (Elizabeth McGovern), the 40s/50s age Kansas-resident chaperone – who had been born in New York to a single mother, handed over to the Catholic church, and the nuns saw to it that she was adopted by Kansas farmers – discovers her lawyer husband is gay. There are also the locals who want to join the KKK. There is the fear of being overrun by immigrants. Women now have the right to vote. [Shudder.] Prohibition is ruining everyone’s fun. And, uh, look, lose the corset, will you…

“Louise” (Haley Lu Richardson) is supposed to be the historical actress Louise Brooks (1906-1985). The real Kansas-born Louise Brooks was like many other young actresses in the silent and early talking film era both in the U.S. and in Europe. Unlike most, though, she had several hit movies, and was a relative star briefly (her hairstyle became the rage); but her career as a “lead” was well over by the late 1930s and she did not “age” into more “mature” roles. (Before we forget this, Brooks’s contemporary Greta Garbo, born a year earlier than Brooks, abruptly “retired” about the same time – in 1941 – partly because she felt she was “aging” out of it too.) Several of her later talkies exist in full, but many of her silent films have not survived. She had been of cult-like interest since the 1950s, and has attracted broader historical attention since the publication of her 1982 memoir.

The title “The Chaperone” is not only revealing in that the main character is not “Louise,” but also as to its perspective. The notion that a 16 year old girl required an adult to accompany her to travel from Kansas to New York City in 1922 is evidently somehow now considered “old-fashioned” and even “oppressive.” That is curious considering much the same “rules” apply now, a century later. What parents today would tell a 16 year old (boy or girl) in that same situation?: “Have fun, and Facetime us when you get there.” Indeed – the current pandemic aside – we live in an era in which it seems most 16 year olds appear to be barely allowed to do anything that has not been organized or is not otherwise overseen in some ways by adults. (Actually, given that “Louise” is played by a middle-twenties age Richardson, it is also easy to understand viewers possibly wondering WHY “Louise” needs a chaperone.)

Of most interest to me is it is another of those recent films/novels that is stuffed with dialogue that I call “arguing with dead people.” The writer(s) takes “our” current perspective(s) on whatever the issue is and puts it into the mouths of fictional historical characters. Those “historical” people on those pages then use that “presentism” to assail that history the writer (and probably we) does not especially like.

[A caricature of “presentism” dropped into a 1787 France excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. Original on Kindle for iPhone and iPad. Copyright 2017. Click to expand.]

Imagine an editor overtyping that above (much exaggerated, yes, but it is meant to be to demonstrate the point) “suggestion” for new dialogue to be included. That sort of “arguing with dead people” comes especially from “Louise.” Lots of what she says sounds much like a young adult could have said it in our present based upon knowing what we know now.

What is also incongruous in such period films is hearing “our” way of speaking – and “Louise” in particular does a lot of that too. It was not “1800,” but younger people still then tended to be respectful and deferential toward their elders (and even “betters”). I confess I kept waiting for “Louise” to stamp an indignant foot and declare something like, “Karen, there will be gay marriage in 100 years!”

To me, historical fiction is built around inventing someone(s) who did not exist and imbuing them with the characteristics and general mores of their time in order to allow that time to be made more accessible to the reader/viewer than might be possible otherwise. In comparison, this film (and many like it) is NOT fiction in that sense; it is often FANTASY. At least Outlander is honest in that fantastist sense: it puts a mid-20th century woman into the Scotland of centuries earlier. However, like Bridgerton (ugh, which I have already addressed, perhaps, I admit, taking a sledgehammer to an eggshell in doing so) and Enola Holmes, we have here (again) with The Chaperone yet more forcing of our “modern” outlook onto a time and a place in the past and calling it “historical fiction.”

[Title: Louise Brooks.
Creator(s): Bain News Service, publisher. Created/Published: between ca. 1920 and ca. 1925. Public Domain. Library of Congress.]

An important example. Despite it being more than a bit hypocritical given adult 18-20 year old Americans have since the 1980s seen their legal right to drink removed because older adults asserted “it is best for them” (mostly, it was argued initially, to reduce their drunk driving, and that was indeed achieved; but most older adults appear still to hold to that “prohibition” as appropriate even given the new troubles it has created – especially “secret” binge-drinking parties and greatly increased sexual assault numbers on university campuses compared to before the drinking age was raised to 21), the prohibiting of the sale and consumption of liquor throughout in the U.S. in the 1920s is by now a standard entertainment punching bag. A weak effort is made at one point to offer the historical context for WHY there was Prohibition. Naturally, though, “Norma” the chaperone – of course an “uptight” defender of it – trying to do so is within moments predictably ridiculed when stating what was actually historically ACCURATE: women were in many respects the driving force behind Prohibition.

Yes, how easy it is for “us” to sneer at their “unsophistication”; but we did not live THEIR lives. The roots of Prohibition came from various sources (one was clearly among some an anti-immigrant animosity toward “wine-drinking” and “beer-drinking” Roman Catholics), but a major reason many American men in the 1910s feared giving women the vote nationally was because in states where women could vote already in the late 1800s into the 1900s (mostly in the West) they were largely supporting “dry” laws due to being worn out by decades of what they saw as the scourge of alcohol wrecking their lives, and the only way to seem to be able to deal with it, they thought, was to BAN the stuff. Their grandfathers, fathers, and now their husbands, had been for generations “drinking their paychecks” (so perhaps leaving the women to struggle to feed the children or keep a roof over the family’s heads) and even physically abusing their grandmothers, mothers, and now perhaps even them. Alcohol abuse of a kind we do NOT see generally today among men especially was very common in the U.S. in “1900,” so for that perfectly reasonable reason many women favored Prohibition and their votes in states where they could vote likely helped swing the balance in favor of the 1919-ratified 18th constitutional amendment that banned alcohol consumption. (In being fixated with the rise of organized crime that Prohibition inadvertently fueled and the “glamour” and “rebelliousness” usually associated with ignoring that law, it is regularly overlooked that legally banning alcohol DID much reduce its hum-drum general consumption among much of the population. There were far fewer alcohol-related deaths, and spousal abuse – what used to be called “wife beating” – numbers fell off dramatically, during Prohibition.)

Indefensible for history the film concludes by offering what is, essentially, misinformation… or even arguably disinformation. It gives the distinct impression the real Louise Brooks lived out her post-film life relatively contentedly, much like Greta Garbo. Actually, as IMDB properly notes:

…although Louise was miserable after returning to Kansas in the 1940s and did leave for New York shortly thereafter, her subsequent life was anything but happy. She struggled financially for decades, and she eventually became an impoverished, alcoholic sex worker.

While Louise Brooks was a real person, in the film “Louise” is essentially fictional especially in her interactions with “Norma.” In her memoir (which I have not read), one reviewer at IMDB says she mentions the chaperone, but that is all. So we know nothing FACTUAL about their relationship.

It is unnerving that Julian Fellowes – who should know a lot better – was responsible for this film/TV adaptation of a novel. It might not be so bad had it NOT identified “Louise” as the historical Louise Brooks and instead purely fictionalized the character; in that case any fantasy could have been allowed to have played itself out without consequences to the HISTORICAL record. The worded summation prior to the end credits of Louise Brooks’s real life after the film concludes in “1942” is the most whitewashed and disgracefully misleading I have ever seen on any film that purports to have any basis in fact.

An “historical fantasy” trend we see in films and on television bothers me. (Don’t even get me started on teenage and slightly-built “Enola Holmes” getting into a one-on-one punch up with a much larger man and being protected by her corset from a direct knife thrust; ladies’ corsets were rigid, true, but – good grief – they were NOT armor.) We live in a world in which obvious falsehood is pushed out casually as truth on social media even by a U.S. president. Entertainment has a responsibility NOT to be similarly irresponsible, for entertainment that clearly misleads in this environment is definitely NOT helping matters.

Louise Brooks is another example of how we live a life when we are alive, and then some of us have a substantial posthumous “existence” that takes on a meaning and depth entirely its own. The Chaperone is a reasonably entertaining film and a decent way to pass 1 hour and 50 minutes in the pandemic. However, if you want to LEARN about the real Louise Brooks and of the history of that time please read a history book and/or watch some ACTUAL documentaries and do not ever cite a film like this one as FACT.