Exclusive Guest Post by Gwenda Young,
Author of Clarence Brown: Hollywood’s Forgotten Master
“Garbo’s Favorite Director” was how many journalists chose to eulogize Clarence Brown when he died in 1987. By referring to Garbo — then alive, still elusive and still the object of curiosity — they hoped to spark some interest in the passing of one of the last remaining directors of Hollywood’s Golden Age. If he was remembered at all, it was by only a small cohort of film history buffs who appreciated the contribution he made to shaping the American screen for over five decades and for enhancing the careers of some its greatest stars, such as Garbo, Gable, Crawford, and Elizabeth Taylor.
Brown’s relative obscurity, in 1987 and today, can be attributed, at least in part, to his own reluctance to trumpet his achievements. When many of the key appraisals of American directors’ careers were being written in the 1960s and 1970s — by Truffaut, Bogdanovich, and so on — and still-working directors such as Ford, Hitchcock, and Welles were on hand to give insights into their battles with the system, their triumphs and failures, Brown was long retired. Yet he remained a presence in the Hollywood community, if apparently indifferent to maintaining much of a public profile. When Kevin Brownlow attempted to contact him for The Parade’s Gone By…, his seminal book on the American screen, he found him to be elusive quarry; so, too, did Scott Eyman and Patrick McGilligan. Brown’s years in the studio system had accustomed him to the demands of publicists and to the constant interest of the press but playing the publicity game had always been a necessary evil for him: he preferred to stay behind the camera and behind the scenes.
When Brown finally relented and granted those precious interviews to Brownlow, Eyman, and McGilligan, it became clear that a forbidding exterior masked a sensitive and perceptive nature. Brownlow was astonished by Brown’s lucidity and his precise recollection of the details of productions in which he had been involved fifty years before, and he soon became convinced that Brown was an important, if overlooked, figure in American film history.
This was a man who, after all, was present at the birth of American narrative cinema, working out an apprenticeship with the great Frenchman Maurice Tourneur (Poor Little Rich Girl; The Blue Bird). As he developed his own directorial career from 1920, Brown quickly realized the potential of film, both as art and technology: perhaps not that surprising, given his college degree was in engineering. He went on to create some of the most innovative and technically-accomplished films of the silent era — his dynamic montage-style editing in The Signal Tower (1924) recalls the work of his contemporary Abel Gance, while the stark expressionism of Flesh and the Devil (1926) aligns him with other masters such as Fritz Lang and F.W Murnau (the latter one of his great influences). In the sound era, Brown would become known as a successful director of some of MGM’s most luminous stars, but he had already built up a formidable reputation as such a decade before: witness the never-bettered performances by Louise Dresser (whom he directed in The Goose Woman and The Eagle), Pauline Frederick (Smouldering Fires) and Rudolph Valentino (The Eagle). It was Brown who truly realized just what an extraordinary talent MGM had in Greta Garbo, and it was he who guided her in the best of her silent films: the risqué Flesh and the Devil and the poignant A Woman of Affairs (1928). And when, in Anna Christie (1930), Garbo uttered her first lines of dialogue (“gimme a vhiskey, ginger ale on the side, and don’t be stingy, baby!), Brown was the director who captured the moment.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s Brown carved a path that sought to balance the demands of the studio system with his own personal interests. For every lavish star production such as Anna Karenina (1935, again with Garbo), there was a more intimate and arguably more affecting offering (for instance, his lovely adaptation of O’Neill’s Ah Wilderness!, which drew from his own memories of growing up in small town America; or his moving paean to rural America, Of Human Hearts).
There can be little doubt that Brown’s critical reputation was negatively impacted by his long association with that most conservative and “safe” of studios, MGM. It cannot be disputed, either, that Brown delivered some less-than-compelling work, sometimes giving the impression of a director operating on auto-pilot. His work at MGM in the 1940s, in particular, has been criticized for its excessive sentimentality (The Human Comedy springs to mind), but in the best of the ‘family’ films he made there he displayed a delicate touch in his direction of novice or relatively inexperienced child actors (Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet, but more strikingly, Claude Jarman in The Yearling and the extraordinary Butch Jenkins in The Human Comedy and National Velvet). MGM family films and dark themes aren’t natural bedfellows, but a closer look at the details and the results of his adaptation of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling (1946) reveals, not only his sheer determination to finally get the film made (where Victor Fleming and King Vidor had failed), but the firm stance he took to ensure that the painfully dark emotions of the novel would be faithfully translated to the screen.
Brown’s last great film, Intruder in the Dust (1949), may not have been the final film of his career, but it can be regarded as the summation of a career. It returned him to his Southern roots — though born in Massachusetts, he was raised in Knoxville, Tennessee—and allowed him to shoot on location in William Faulkner’s home town of Oxford, Mississippi. Brown was always happiest shooting away from the studio, and for Intruder he used the dusty streets of the town and the dense foliage of its rural hinterland to build up the tense, brooding atmosphere. Brown fought to get the film made, arguing with Louis B. Mayer that it was the one film that he simply had to make. He had read Faulkner’s novel before it was even published and had snapped up the rights. Although he would later pitch in with MGM’s promotion of it as a ‘cracking whodunnit,’ in reality Brown viewed the film more as a means to offer a complex — even conflicted — consideration of America’s attitude toward race relations. As a teenager, Brown witnessed the Atlanta race riots (1906) and was forever haunted by what he had seen. Intruder in the Dust, then, was an act of apology, an exorcism of the guilt he felt when he had been powerless to intervene to stop the carnage against the African American citizens who were being lynched on the streets of the city.
As it turned out, Intruder in the Dust was a box-office flop, but it became the critical triumph of his career, garnering raves from white and, more unusually, black reviewers (novelist Ralph Ellison observed that it was the only [white] Hollywood film about race relations that wouldn’t be ‘laughed off the screen’ in a Harlem theater).
Clarence Brown directs Edward Arnold in Sadie McKee as Joan Crawford looks on. The cameraman is Oliver T. Marsh*
Brown quit Hollywood in 1953, disgusted by MGM’s treatment of his close friend, Mayer, and weary of the climate of paranoia and cynicism that had sprung up as the community battled competition from television and negotiated the tensions and fallout of the HUAC investigations. His filmmaking career and his considerable business acumen had made him a wealthy man, and he simply didn’t need to continue in a business that had become, since the failure of Intruder, something of a daily grind. And yet, despite the brusque exterior and his initial rebuffing of would-be interviewers and biographers, there was something in him that relished the attention and, most importantly, the renewed appreciation of his work. When Kevin Brownlow organized a screening of The Goose Woman (1925) at the Cinémathèque in Paris, Brown watched with a smile as scenes he shot forty years before unfolded on the screen. When the lights went up, he turned to Brownlow and with “a satisfied grin,” admitted “I didn’t know I was that good.”
*all photos courtesy of Gwenda Young
–Gwenda Young for Classic Movie Hub
Gwenda Young is a professor of film history and lecturer in film studies at University College, Cork, Ireland. She is the author of numerous articles about film history, including three articles about Clarence Brown, and co-editor of two books of critical essays. In 2003, along with Kevin Brownlow, she curated a retrospective of Brown’s films at the National Film Theatre, London. Her latest book, Clarence Brown: Hollywood’s Forgotten Master is the first full-length account of the life and career of the pioneering filmmaker.