Jack Neely’s “The Forgotten Director: Who was Clarence Brown?” at Metro Pulse:
“Dr. Gwenda Young, a film-studies professor at University College Cork, came across [Clarence] Brown by an unlikely route. Her Ph.D. thesis was about Jacques Tourneur, the French director of cult classics like Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie. ‘My first chapter was an exploration of Jacques’ relationship with his father, Maurice Tourneur,’ one of the early masters of silent film. ‘Brown was Maurice’s editor and protege, and he always said that he viewed Tourneur as his mentor, even his “god”!’ Of Tourneur’s assistants, Clarence Brown was the only one who had a significant career on his own, so Young looked further into his oeuvre. With that came a surprise. ‘I sought out some of his films, and then realized that I had actually seen some of them, and that they’d been childhood favorites. Mainly it was National Velvet and The Yearling … I saw them when I was a horse-mad, animal-mad girl, and just loved them.’
“Those may still be the Clarence Brown films most often seen by audiences in America, big MGM classics of the sound era. But film scholars may be more likely to talk about Brown’s earlier films, especially his silents.
“’The more films I saw by Brown, the more I was impressed with him, especially by his visual style and his subtlety,’ she says. ‘I really do think Brown was one of the great silent film directors, in the sense that he really doesn’t need dialogue. It’s all there in the evocative lighting, the camera work, and the often understated performances of his actors.'”
Gwenda Young is currently (March 2008) working on a biography of Clarence Brown. According to Neely’s article, the University Press of Kentucky will publish the book.
Even though he was nominated five times for an Academy Award (in 1929-30, for two films, Romance and Anna Christie; in 1930-31 for A Free Soul; in 1943 for The Human Comedy; in 1945 for National Velvet; and in 1946 for The Yearling), Brown, who died in 1987 at the age of 97, is totally ignored by film historians today.
As is the case of most directors of the studio era (e.g., Jack Conway, Edmund Goulding, Michael Curtiz), he lacked a distinctive visual or thematic style. In other words: No auteur; no nothing. Compounding matters (as far as most film historians are concerned), Brown’s films usually focused on women – mainly Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Norma Shearer – and their issues.
That’s unfortunate, as Brown – though not one of my favorite filmmakers – did display a remarkable visual flair and technical virtuosity in most of his films that I’ve seen. (I particularly recall a striking camera slide over a banquet table in The Eagle; also, both The Human Comedy and The Yearling are visually stunning, the former shot in black and white by Harry Stradling, the latter shot in color by Charles Rosher, Leonard Smith, and Arthur E. Arling.)
My problem with Brown’s films is that many of them tend to be heavy-handed and ponderous. Part of reason for that are the stories/screenplays themselves, which are usually overloaded with a Message (e.g., Anna Christie [above], The Gorgeous Hussy, The Human Comedy); the studio for which he worked most frequently, MGM, whose motto was More Bloatedness Than There Is in Heaven; and, quite likely, Brown’s own sense of pacing.
That said, Brown could be a highly effective actors’ director. Say what?
Well, true – Greta Garbo is horrendous in Anna Christie and unintentionally funny in Romance, and both Norma Shearer and Lionel Barrymore deliver godawful performances in A Free Soul. Even the usually great Marie Dressler is embarrassingly bad in Emma.
However, Brown did elicit excellent performances in many of his lesser-known films: Laura La Plante is superb in the ultra-rare Butterfly (1924), as the flapperest of all flappers; Garbo and John Gilbert are quite good in the romantic melodrama A Woman of Affairs (1928); Harry Carey is outstanding as a nasty villain in Trail of ’98 (1928); and Norma Shearer (left, with Clark Gable) is delightful doing her Garbo impersonation in Idiot’s Delight (1939).
Now, one thing I can’t quite figure out is why Brown didn’t use his beautiful – and quite talented – wife (1933–1945), Alice Joyce, in any of his films. Joyce’s unusually long (for the time) film career came to an abrupt end in 1930.
Gwenda Young discusses Clarence Brown at Sight and Sound.