Action, Clarence Brown Film Festival

Based on the response to my story about Clarence Brown, I'm convinced the time's overripe for some sort of active homage.

He was one of the University of Tennessee's most successful graduates in any discipline. Moreover, he was astonishingly generous to UT, both during his life and via the will of his wife, Marian. As a result of their gift, the UT theater department gets about $750,000 a year. Thanks to the Browns, Knoxville has better dramatic options than we're willing to pay for.

But he was, after all, a movie director. There's probably not a motion-picture director so well regarded in Golden-Age Hollywood whose name is less recognized today.

Custodians of his legacy might list reasons why people should know who he was: plaques in the Hodges Library and at the Clarence Brown Theatre, the well-appointed performing arts center which he endowed; articles in the alumni magazines; movie posters on exhibit here or there over the years.

Maybe it's stuff that's easy to miss, if you're not looking for it. Several readers have admitted to me that they had assumed he was just a rich, old UT guy who liked live drama. It wouldn't be bad if he were. Knoxville, which has not supported live drama to the extent that many communities have, could use some more of those. But I suspect we're missing an opportunity here.

Brown credited his unusual success in motion pictures—more than 50 movies that trace the technical evolution of the motion picture from primitive silents to color epics, with six Oscar nominations and other major honors along the way—to what he'd learned on the Hill while earning degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering in the last century's first decade.

Why doesn't UT offer at least a nod of some sort to that legacy?

I heard from Jeff Bradley, who, it turns out, was frustrated about the same issue 35 years ago. The former Harvard instructor, now a travel author based in Colorado and a vigorous blogger, Bradley was then a UT junior in journalism. He and his future wife, Marta Turnbull, were undergraduate members of the Film Committee which hosted the Clarence Brown Film Festival in 1973. Brown seemed to enjoy spending time with the students, and Bradley is grateful for that experience.

The article prompted some commentary in his blog, tnguy.com.

One of the first plays performed at Clarence Brown was called Everyman, the medieval morality play about a disgruntled God. The pre-Shakespearean drama might have seemed symbolically appropriate in christening a new performing-arts center, and starred the not-yet-knighted English actor Anthony Quayle. I remember seeing it at a school-bus matinee, and finding it impressively bewildering.

Clarence Brown himself saw it, too, and the 80-something director offered his terse critique. "Everybody who wants to see that is dead," he said.

Using the rationale that cinema was the basis of Clarence Brown's wealth and reputation, Bradley says he convinced a reluctant management that film should always be a major part of a typical week at Clarence Brown Theatre, which, after all, was equipped with a movie screen and 35-mm projectors. The Committee launched a Sunday movie night, devoted to films of artistic merit. When one play threatened to temporarily pre-empt movie night, just because the elaborate set prevented lowering the screen, the theater people told the film committee to "run along."

Ralph Allen, head of the theater department at the time, was "a brilliant theater guy," Bradley says, "but he didn't give a hoot about film. His department still doesn't." Committee chair Turnbull let it be known she was going to have a word with her friend Clarence. At a meeting with several UT honchos, Bradley writes, "We made our case that Brown was a film director, not a theater man," and that the theater he endowed should show movies at least once a week. Largely through the offices of UT Vice President for Development Charlie Brakebill, whose skill at negotiation Bradley still admires, UT found a way to make the weekly screenings work without interruption.

In the '70s and '80s, it was an institution that brought alumni back to campus weekly; the CBT did feature a Sunday night movie, usually a foreign or silent film too challenging for mainstream theaters. Some of the first movies by Fellini, Truffaut, Bergman, and Wenders I ever saw were at the Clarence Brown. Several were films I've never had the opportunity to see elsewhere.

Clarence Brown no longer shows movies. To be fair, most films are much more available via the Web and videos than they were then. But speaking for myself, I don't see nearly as many new and interesting movies as I did when the CBT was showing them. And when I do, via download or DVD, they're never as impressive or as memorable as they were at the Clarence Brown, with a big screen, a 35 mm print, and an audience.

It would be great to see that return somehow. But another good way to set things aright would be to throw an annual Clarence Brown Film Festival, which would be a pretty agreeable thing, anyway. Show at least one of his major, Oscar-nominated movies, and then Intruder In the Dust, which is in a class by itself. Then at least one of his silents, maybe two. Uncompromising critic James Agee thought the silents were Brown's greatest work; British film scholar Kevin Brownlow says they're urgently in need of restoration.

And to keep it current and give it some momentum, show new films by young or unknown filmmakers who exemplify Brown's strengths, like his extraordinary care in use of light and motion.

Not necessarily to honor Brown himself. Clarence Brown was well-compensated during his own long life. But Brown's example offers a rare excuse to make something lively of his legacy and diversify the cultural offerings of our university, and community.

Just an idea.