Sunday, January 5, 2014

Downton Abbey and Louise Brooks

With Downton Abbey about to begin its fourth season, it is worth noting some of the surprising connections between the popular PBS television show and Louise Brooks. The popular star, known for her distinctive bob hair style, was just beginning her career as a dancer and actress in the silent film era.

Fans of the period drama, which is set in the first decades of the 20th century, may have noticed a scene where one of the downstairs help can be seen reading a vintage issue of Photoplay, the leading movie magazine of the time. Mabel Normand, one of the silent era's leading female stars, is on the cover.

The show's connection with the silent film era doesn't end there. The series also has some rather interesting ties to Louise Brooks.

In 2011, a handful of English writers were asked by the Guardian newspaper which books had most impressed them during the course of the year. The answer given by actor, novelist, screenwriter, director, Oscar winner and Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes caused a bit of a stir, as the book he mentioned was first published in 1989. Fellowes' answer read:

"I suspect the book that has haunted me the most this year was the life of that queen of the silent screen, Louise Brooks: A Biography (University of Minnesota £17), by Barry Paris. I have seldom read so lyrical a tale of self-destruction. When she was a girl, my mother used to be mistaken for Louise Brooks and so I have always felt a sort of investment in her, but I was unprepared for this heartbreaking tale of what-might-have-been."

Fellowes' eloquent appreciation of Paris' acclaimed biography echoes the many superb reviews the book received when it was first published. UK novelist Angela Carter praised it, as did the Times Literary Supplement. The latter noted, "Louise Brooks seems to have had such a rare intelligence and humor that this is not a tale of tragedy but a study in fierce originality."

Might Fellowes be aware that Shirley MacLaine, one of the stars of Downton Abbey, is also a big fan of Louise Brooks? Over the years, MacLaine has said as much in interviews, all the while expressing interest in someday playing Brooks on screen.

Additionally, one of the other stars of Downton Abbey, Elizabeth McGovern, has a similar interest in the bobbed Brooks. After serving as the reader for the audio version of Laura Moriarty's 2012 novel, The Chaperone, McGovern snapped up the movie rights to the bestselling book, which tells a story centered around Brooks' time as an aspiring dancer with the Denishawn Dance company.

The Chaperone is in development with Fox Searchlight, with Fellowes set to pen the script, McGovern set to play the title character, and McGovern's husband, Simon Curtis, set to direct. Shirley MacLaine would be a great choice to play Louise Brooks' mother, a key character in the early pages of The Chaperone.

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