Spring 2019

BOOKS

Hollywood's Forgotten Master Gets His Due

Author Gwenda Young makes the case that from the silent ear to the Golden Age, director Clarence Brown deserves a place among the giants.

By Harry Haun


Greta Garbo and Clarence Brown cast a wary eye at the microphone on Garbo's first talkie, Anna Christie (1930)..(Photo: Everett)

Clarence Brown is one of the lost lions of MGM—like Jack Conway (1935's A Tale of Two Cities) or Sidney Franklin (1937's The Good Earth) or Sam Wood (1939's Goodbye, Mr. Chips)—a director whose superb work eclipses his own name and fame.

Six misses make him Oscar's all-time also-ran for best director. Intruder in the Dust (1949), informed by a ghastly Atlanta race riot he'd witnessed at 16, is arguably his masterpiece, but it nabbed nary a nomination.

Nevertheless, Brown discovered the charisma of Clark Gable and Greta Garbo and unleashed it more times than anyone. Garbo he directed gently—never in anything louder than a whisper. "There was something behind her eyes that could reach out and tell audiences what she was thinking," he once said about his Anna Christie (1931) and Anna Karenina (1935) star.

In 40 years and 52 films, he steered a dozen performances to Academy Award contention and three more to wins, including the one-take histrionics Lionel Barrymore displayed in his climactic courtroom scene in A Free Soul (1931), for which Brown took the then-unprecedented precaution of covering the scene with several cameras.

Only now is Brown, who became an original member of the DGA's first national board in 1936, getting his proper due, thanks to Gwenda Young's sprawling, massively detailed Clarence Brown: Hollywood's Forgotten Master (University Press of Kentucky). She spent a whole decade revisiting his backlot battlefields.

Yes, Brown was MGM's card-carrying "company man." But, as Young points out, by no means a compliant one. He struggled to stay true to his own vision, even while shooting a script he'd been assigned to, or taking over the reins of a picture he didn't begin.

Such a roller-coaster ride added up to an uneven career: For every Of Human Hearts or The Human Comedy, there was a Wife vs. Secretary or a They Met in Bombay. But you can still spot films he really cared about—Ah, Wilderness! and National Velvet—because they affectionately reflect his rustic roots in Americana.

Nothing in Brown's early years prepared him for Hollywood's Dream Factory. He was a flight instructor and fighter pilot for the U.S. Army Air Force in World War I, leaving the University of Tennessee with a double degree in mechanical and electrical engineering—hardly the stuff that movies are made of. While running an auto dealership in Birmingham, he accidentally strolled into a nearby penny-arcade and became enamored of the films of an elaborate visual stylist, Maurice Tourneur. Inspired, he sprinted to Fort Lee, NJ, to meet Tourneur, who, in turn, took Brown on as an assistant, trained him in camera composition and lighting and eventually turned him loose on editing films and shooting exteriors.

Author Young calls pragmatism Brown's greatest asset. "When confronted with a poor script or an uncooperative star," she writes, "Brown would often divert his energies into thinking up innovative ways to film otherwise mundane action."

Brown always contended his happiest filmmaking experience occurred off the MGM lot. That was during his solitary loan-out to 20th Century-Fox for The Rains Came (1939). Unlike Louis B. Mayer, Darryl F. Zanuck permitted no costly, aggravating departmental tangles, and the Oscar-winning special effects of the Ranchipur dam collapse were so impressive that Fox just threw some blue-green DeLuxe Color over the footage and used it again in the CinemaScope remake 16 years later.

A battle-tested vet, Brown knew "when to concede defeat and when to go to war," Young asserts. "He recognized that directors were obliged to fulfill the assignments handed to them, not only to establish their worth, but also to earn the brownie points he then leveraged for more personal projects." Despite the continual gave-and-take, this lost lion had plenty of roar.


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