Before the film starts a card reads, ‘In 1922 Louise Brooks traveled from Wichita Kansas to New York City with a chaperone. Within a few years, she was to become one of the most famous film stars in the world.’ So, I had to look her up. This film is in fact inspired by a true story. Louise Brooks was a sensation up on the silver screen during the Jazz Age. Her film ‘Pandora’s Box’ was an instant classic.
In this film, Louise (Haley Lu Richardson) is headed toward New York. Her mother’s friend, Norma (McGovern) agrees to be the chaperone that accompanies her. She’s going to attend a dance class at a brilliant school. Being that she has only been in Kansas her entire life, Louise has no idea of the type of dangers that await an unsuspecting, pretty, young lady, especially the type who are spoiled and have something to prove. On the train on the first night, as Norma was sleeping, Louise slipped off and had dinner with a cute young man and his uncle in the dining car. Louise isn’t pleased with Norma and she explains to Louise that dining alone with men could get her into trouble. It’s all in appearances. She tries to get Louise to understand that word can spread and, ‘Men don’t like candy that’s been unwrapped.’ This makes Louise laugh while Norma grows frustrated, but still, she continues trying to keep the girl straight.
On their first night in NY, Louise wants to go out, but Norma doesn’t allow her to. Dance is in the morning and she refuses to help her miss it. She takes her job seriously. By now, your eyebrow is raised and you’re curious as to what might Norma have missed when she was in her youth?
While Louise is in her dance class, Norma visits the old orphanage where she was first raised. She meets with a nun and asks if she could learn who her birth parents are. The nun tells her that all files are to be kept confidential. Norma may want to know who she is by knowing her parents but knowing she’s a child of God should be adequate enough. She tries several more times, pleading, but the sister will have nothing of it and Norma eventually leaves.
Back at dance class, the lively, independent, free-wheeling, Louise, catches the eyes of the teachers. Having left early, she heads to the soda fountain for a snack. She has caught the eye of a one Floyd (Burnap) from behind the counter, too.
When the film stays on her storyline, it’s cheerful, lighthearted and playful. When we dig into Norma’s life, one we see as less and less joyous or tranquil by the moment, we feel emptiness. The two characters are so undeniably different, it feels as if you’re jumping into two entirely different films when we hop back and forth between the storylines. To be honest, maybe two films would have been good, too. But we do learn some reasons for Norma’s negative, almost jealous attitude toward Louise having so much fun. The façade begins to crumble, and cracks show themselves as she goes back to the orphanage to try once again and retrieve her records. She finds herself engaged in a conversation with someone willing to help. He’s Joseph (Géza Röhrig). Too easily, but convenient to move the story along, with his help, she gets what she needs. After, she’s lighter… her shoulders have less baggage. Being that Norma and Joseph are now smitten with one another, we flashback to what’s wrong with Norma. FINALLY! Scenes involving her husband revealed that she has every reason to be sour toward love… and everything that goes with it. I won’t tell you what those are but there’s an incredibly intense scene where Norma confronts her husband with the kind of rage, you’d never expect Elizabeth McGovern to muster. Anger rears its ugly head again when she meets someone from her past, yet she chokes it down, once again burdening her shoulders.
Soon, Louise is going off on her own, but Norma is still there encouraging her through every moment. The future star tells her chaperone something that shocks her to her core but instead of stopping her from advancing and jumping in with what the advice of what she SHOULD do, Norma praises her charge on her strength and attempts to give her more. She’s good at keeping secrets, Norma. She attempts to steer but doesn’t sit in judgment of the direction the youngster is going. It reveals a lot about Norma’s character. She’s a good woman with good intentions. Regrettably, her morals keep her from her own happiness but as the film progresses, she does learn there’s more and when the moment comes, I’m happy to inform you she does seize an opportunity to have it all. It’s an ambitious move, but no one gets in Norma’s way when she wants something.
See ‘Chapparone’ for the characters, the acting, the history and for Blythe Danner who has one small but memorable scene. In Phoenix, see this exclusively at Harkins Shea 14.