Last month, the posh, 200-year-old castle-like estate known as Kilruddery House, near Dublin, Ireland, offered a special Valentine's Day showing of a film called The Eagle, a 1925 silent starring Rudolph Valentino as a stylishly vengeful cossack. Part swashbuckler, part romantic melodrama, part sly screwball comedy, it was one of Valentino's last films, and has a reputation among some critics as his best. The audience of about 60, mostly affluent but diverse in age, laughed at the funny parts and applauded the good guy. The same movie was honored recently in Chicago, at Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival.
The movie's director, one of the most successful of Hollywood's Golden Age, eventually made more than 50 films. He was nominated for six Academy Awards. Scholars credit him with “discovering” Greta Garbo, and he's also credited with advancing the early careers of Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Jimmy Stewart, and others whose names are better known than his.
The director was, in many ways, a paradox, this graduate of old Knoxville High and the University of Tennessee's engineering school who worked for several years as an auto mechanic and salesman before becoming, almost suddenly, a successful movie director.
A couple of hours southwest of Dublin, as it happens, a scholar is working on the first full-length biography of the director, whose name was Clarence Brown. Dr. Gwenda Young, a film-studies professor at University College Cork, came across 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.” The University of Kentucky Press will publish her book after she finishes it next year. She expects to make at least one more trip to Knoxville before she's done.
His life and career are full of surprises, and puzzles: he was a hardcore conservative who made one film, perhaps his masterpiece, which was too racially provocative for the Hollywood establishment. His most popular movies were family films, but his own family life is obscure—his child, his child's mother, their identities, and their fates are unknown, unmentioned in profiles. He's been called “warm” and “cold” in his treatment of people. After churning out an average of two movies a year for a quarter century, he quit, at the relatively young—for a director—age of 62; he turned his attention to airplanes, automobiles, and real estate, and rarely even watched a movie for the remaining 35 years of his life.
Finally, this man who spent most of his adult life between his home outside of Los Angeles and extended stays in Europe, became the single most generous alumni donor in UT's history. When Brown gave the first of a multi-million-dollar bequest, he hadn't lived anywhere near Tennessee in more than half a century.
Among Knoxvillians, the name at least rings a bell. But when you hear it, it's generally in reference to UT's Clarence Brown Theatre, the popular venue for live drama—or its resident professional troupe of the same name. In the lobby portraits, the honoree appears as a genial-looking old man, more like a comfortable retired insurance executive than any sort of artist. It's safe to say the most Knoxvillians haven't seen any of his movies recently. Lawson McGhee Library does have a good assortment of his films, including a few of his silents, on VHS and DVD. But we couldn't find anyone who remembered the last time a Clarence Brown film was shown in public here. The Tennessee Theatre showed Brown's National Velvet in 1985.
Photoplay Studios in London is an institution dedicated to research and preservation of old films. The man who may be the world's greatest living authority on silent film keeps his office there. Kevin Brownlow has been a champion of the work of Clarence Brown since his landmark book about silent film, The Parade's Gone By..., published in 1968. In it, Brownlow writes, “Clarence Brown is one of the great names of American motion pictures—one of the few whose mastery was undiminished by the arrival of sound.... His style is one of deceptive simplicity, but the apparently effortless ease is the result of tremendous care.... Brown was a brilliant technician, but he also had a warm feeling for people.”
Brownlow's 2005 documentary Garbo features archived interviews with Clarence Brown.
Contacted by e-mail, Brownlow answers, “I will just say that he made me a devotee of American silent films.” Over a period of several years in the 1960s and '70s, Brownlow spent many hours with the notoriously difficult Brown, and never quite figured the man out.
Brownlow sent us an unpublished autobiographical essay, in which he talks about his early acquaintance with the director. In 1959, Brownlow ran across a then-forgotten silent called The Goose Woman; put off by the title but intrigued by the cast, he bought an eight-reel copy. “From the moment it comes on the screen, its credit titles tinted blue, I knew this was something special,” he writes. “This was astonishingly well done from every point of view. I noted the director's name—Clarence Brown—and the date, 1925. Here was a film which you would find in no book about the history of cinema, yet one which was put together with as much love and as much artistry as any of the so-called classics.”
At length, he arranged a meeting with the 75-year-old director.
“Thickset and tough, he resembled an oil tycoon,” Brownlow writes. “He was not a warm man, and it took a lot of effort to get him to talk.” When Brown did talk, what he said was often off-putting, brusque, politically extreme with what sounds like Archie Bunker's sensitivity.
“As far as I was concerned, Brown was an enigma. A teddy bear of a man with liquid eyes, robust, stern of visage, inarticulate”—Brown notoriously had difficulty with both spelling and pronunciation—“he has nevertheless produced the most intelligent, eloquent pictures.”
Brownlow expressed his consternation about Brown to another of Brown's associates.
“The strangest thing, we agreed, was that none of the characteristic elements of Brown's pictures were evident in his personal relations.”
Who was Clarence Brown? He seems to be a puzzle to everybody, and his earliest years are the least known.
He was born in Clinton, Mass. in 1890, to Larkin Brown, an ambitious loom repairman with Georgia roots, and a weaver named Catherine Ann, originally of County Down, Ireland. They had only one child, a kid always small for his age, who seemed to make up for his lack of stature with energy and a quick mind.
Around 1900, when Larkin Brown was offered a supervisory job at one of the South's most progressive knitting mills, Brookside, he accepted. Clarence was 10 or 11 when they arrived.
Knoxville was at its industrial height, a compact city of about 35,000, six times the size it had been during the Civil War, growing perhaps a little too fast. It was a pragmatic city, a beehive of factory workers, lawyers, and salesmen, proud of its network of electric streetcars, but too busy to establish an art museum or a symphony or even an urban park.
The Browns moved around a lot during Clarence's youth, but they were always within sight of Brookside, on West Baxter, and its famous 152-foot-tall chimney. One of the few personal memories of childhood that Clarence would share in later years was the thrill of climbing up the interior of that chimney with his dad, as they were building it.
They first lived on East Anderson, then on East Baxter. Their address on East Anderson is a vacant grassy spot between two modest houses. Their block of East Baxter, near Central, is now obliterated, a parking lot for a Merita Bread warehouse.
An across-the-street neighbor, Laura Fogelsong, took an interest in the bright little kid. An insurance man's wife originally from Ohio, Fogelsong ran a school of dramatic elocution. For a time, she had a studio on Gay Street, next door to the big Woodruff's store. Little Clarence Brown became her star pupil. Clarence took lessons from Mrs. Fogelsong for seven years.
Doubtless with Mrs. Fogelsong's encouragement, he became almost famous in early 20th-century Knoxville for his recitations of poetry. A Memorial Day or Washington's Birthday musical event might include several musical selections, with a recitation from little Clarence Brown, a passage from Shakespeare or Longfellow or Poe, to liven it up a little. You get the impression that people thought he was cute, and that maybe he didn't mind that.
He attended old Knoxville High, in the last years it was located in the elaborately Victorian old Girl's High School building downtown on Union at Walnut—a tall, Disney-Castle-like building, it can surprise you in pictures of the era. It's now the site of the Daylight Building. To get there, he probably rode the streetcar.
Thirty years later, he would pay homage to KHS in several ways that only KHS alumni would recognize, in one of his best-known films, Ah, Wilderness! Though based on a Eugene O'Neill play, ostensibly set in Connecticut, and filmed near Brown's early childhood home in Massachusetts, the 1935 movie opens with a distinctive KHS banner, with Knoxville High's motto, Ascendamus ad Summa. Brown reportedly modeled classroom scenes on an old photograph of a Knoxville High classroom, and added minor characters that reminded him of old classmates, including himself.
A female classmate later told a reporter that little Clarence was the class pet. “Oh, Clarence was a regular little runt. We just babied him to death—he was just like a little mascot. He was a very likable kid, and bright, too.”
Brown loved the techno-futuristic Tom Swift books, and all machines, especially automobiles. Cars and movies arrived in the American consciousness simultaneously. Both were rarities when the Browns arrived in Knoxville, but a common sight a decade later. Movies were short, silent, and typically funny novelties, sometimes shown between vaudeville shows at Staub's Theatre, or in the skating rink across the street. By 1910, there were six movie theaters downtown.
By his own accounts, he wasn't at all interested in making movies until he was in his 20s, but he did show an early interest in the performing arts.
At Knoxville High, the precocious 15-year-old enjoyed a lively senior year, as a member of the Musical Club, the Art Club, and the Dramatic Club, in which he was part of a male minority of only six. He's at the front and center of each of the club photos. In the Musical Club photo, he's one of the few students holding an instrument; his is a triangular-bodied mandolin.
The 1905 yearbook doesn't offer many details about his dramatic activities. At commencement exercises, held at the old Staub Theatre on Gay Street, Clarence gave a recitation of “How the LaRue Stakes Were Lost,” a once-familiar story. His interpretation was so popular he gave an encore, a humor piece. City Councilmen were said to be guffawing in the balcony. Classmates would later recall that he was the only senior who graduated in short pants.
Their class chant was “Boomalaca, Boomalaca, Boomalaca, live. Chicalava, Chicalava, Chicalava, chive. High School, High School, Nineteen Five.”
Just one short block downhill from the entrance to Knoxville High School was O.C. Wiley's optical and photographic shop, which ran prominent advertisements in school publications. Among Wiley's employees was a talented young clerk, in his 20s when Brown was at Knoxville High: Jim Thompson would become 20th-century Knoxville's best-known photographer, and would make the first known motion pictures ever taken in the city—but probably not until after Clarence Brown had left town. Thompson's oldest surviving film is a short clip of a fire engine on old Commerce Street, dating from about 1915.
The Browns moved from one house to another every year or two, four houses in about seven years, each one a little bigger than the one before—but all within a stone's throw of North Central. Just a few blocks south on Central was the infamous Bowery, the district of saloons and whorehouses denounced by reformers like Carrie Nation. Saloons appear, sympathetically, in several Brown movies, and you may wonder whether he was working from memory.
Much of his early life seems charmed, that of a perhaps spoiled only child living with supportive parents, but it had some dark moments. Years later, he would remember a trip to visit his Brown grandparents in Atlanta in 1906. He happened to be there, downtown, during the worst race riot in that city's history; he recalled white men beating up black men with bats and razors, leaving several dead. Four decades later, he would claim that memory as the inspiration for his boldest film.
UT was a tiny university entirely confined to the top of the Hill; Brown enrolled as a diminutive 15-year-old—fellow students called him “Brownie,” which, given his stature, seemed to fit—and though he seems to have been among a minority who avoided social fraternities, he instantly got involved in the Philomathesian Literary Society, an intellectual group that emphasized public appearances. His freshman year at the Society, he held the title of Declaimer. He represented the club in an Intersociety Contest, and won.
The Browns later moved a couple of blocks away to West Scott. The year he won those awards, the 16-year-old Clarence rated a separate listing in the city directory, as a “student” boarding at the address of his parents.
Around 1908, they moved one block from there, across Central, to 121 East Scott, the house that's today remembered by Old North preservationists as the Clarence Brown House. Among their closest neighbors was a Swedish family named Sjoblom. It's probably too much to assume that association had anything to do with Brown's unusual rapport with a certain Swedish actress, almost 20 years later.
He came to major in engineering, but after freshman year, he seems to have kept a lower profile. The prodigy who sped through high school may have struggled a little with college.
He was a member of the Class of '09 (“Hip, Hap, Haw! Zip, Zap, Zaw! Get in line / For Nineteen Nine!”), but didn't graduate with the class. Perhaps partly because he chose to double-major in electrical and mechanical engineering, he took an extra year.
Bachelors candidates wrote theses in those days, and he didn't have to travel far to research his. His subject was the efficiency of the turbines at his dad's employer, Brookside Mills. “Economy and Power Distribution of Plant No. 2, Brookside Mills,” is the dry name of his thesis, which includes hundreds of carefully recorded data. “By artfully attending to the firing of the Hawley furnaces,” he concludes, “practically smokeless combustion can be obtained.” What his dad, the superintendent, thought of the teenager's proposed improvements isn't recorded.
The 1910 yearbook's profile of Brown suggests that those freshman triumphs with the Philomathesian Society were the high point of his five years at UT. “He's a collegier, all right, for he's got a little college cap,” goes a yearbook editor's odd summation. “Brownie early won fame as a declaimer, and carried off all the honors in his first year. After that, the society bee stung him, and since then it has been 'the ladies for mine' with him.”
Brown mentioned to UT officials in the 1960s that he dated one of UT President Brown Ayres' several daughters. Most of the graduating seniors offered brief, pithy quotations to go with their profiles. Brown cited an obscure bit of romantic verse from the Roman poet Archias: “What, fly from love? Vain hope, there's no retreat / When he has wings and I have only feet.”
He graduated with two degrees as he turned 20. He was, by then, full grown, topping out at about five feet seven. He's last listed in the Knoxville directories in 1911, still living with his parents and working as a “traveling salesman.”
After leaving town, he moved around some. As war broke out in Europe, he seemed to be settling in Birmingham, where he'd set himself up as an automobile salesman and mechanic, a sporty profession in that era. As he'd later tell it, a lunch break at a nickelodeon near his dealership convinced him he should be making movies. In 1915, he set out for Fort Lee, N.J., the pre-Hollywood movie capital and the headquarters of Peerless Studios, determined to meet a director he'd known only by name in some of the more artistic movies he'd seen, Maurice Tourneur. On his way, he stopped off in Knoxville, and talked to his old mentor, Mrs. Fogelsong. According to her son's recollection, years later, she thought it was a terrible idea. “She thought he was too fine a boy to get mixed up with the movies, and tried to persuade him not to cast his lot with that type of people.”
He went anyway, and, to understate the matter, had some astonishing good luck. On a ferry he heard that Tourneur was looking for an assistant director. Brown followed some movie people onto the location, and when the day's shoot was over, pounced on Tourneur, one of the best-known motion-picture directors in America.
As he later recalled the encounter to Brownlow for the book, The Parade's Gone By..., Brown told Tourneur he came to apply for the job. “Who have you been working for?” Tourneur asked. “Nobody,” Brown responded. “I'm in the automobile business.”
Tourneur was understandably skeptical, but Brown convinced him that his lack of experience was an asset: “Why don't you take a fresh brain that knows nothing about the business and bring him up your way?”
As Brown summed it up for Brownlow, 50 years later, “He fell for that argument.” Brown and Tourneur worked closely together, in a sort of yin-yang harmony. Tourneur was tempestuous and impractical; Brown, calm and businesslike. He learned the business better than Tourneur ever did.
Brown's head wasn't always so level. Much of his early personal life remains unknown, but in 1917, he's known to have fathered a child, who went by the name Adrienne Brown. The identity of the mother, and whether her parents were married or not, hasn't been proven. She's sometimes pictured with Brown on movie sets in the '20s, but the two apparently didn't live together long.
Brown's early marital history is obscure, to say the least. Some sources list his second wife as one Ona Brown, about whom little is known. Complicating things further is that he was known to be involved with the similarly named Mona Maris, a well-known South American actress. Some say they were married; Young believes they were only engaged.
Brown took a break of a few months to enlist in the Army Air Corps, training pilots for combat in Europe. When he enlisted, at age 27, he listed his occupation as “director.”
With Tourneur he was more an assistant, or editor, but Brown's believed to have had a strong hand in some of Tourneur's films, like the unusual special-effects fantasy, The Blue Bird. After Tourneur was injured and unable to finish it, Brown ended up directing much of the classic Last of the Mohicans. (It's also one of Boris Karloff's first movies, though, playing a marauding Indian, he's hard to pick out.) By then, they'd moved to Hollywood.
Brown split amicably with Tourneur and went to work for Universal, making several unusual and striking silent features, like The Eagle, The Signal Tower (in which Brown appeared in a cameo), The Goose Woman, and Smouldering Fires. The last of those has an unusual subject for the time, a powerful middleaged businesswoman who falls for a much-younger employee. His films of that era have a stark, vivid, artistic quality to them; some are almost like a series of carefully framed photographs at an exhibition. The lighting, many said, then and now, was perfect.
By the mid-1920s, Brown had a reputation among the studio heads as one of the best directors in Hollywood. After a flirtation with Paramount, in 1926 he joined an arrogant new company called MGM, and befriended co-founder Louis B. Mayer.
Mayer had a reputation for being selfish, tyrannical, petty, and generally unlovable, but for a quarter century, the two men would be close friends. Even as an old man, Brown wouldn't countenance any insinuation about Mayer's character. “I kept forgetting his friendship with Mayer, and made many tactless remarks about the man,” admits Brownlow; Brown always responded, “Louis B. Mayer was my closest friend in the picture business.”
One of Brown's first jobs with MGM, a proposal he concocted with Irving Thalberg, was to take a Swedish actress little known except for her reputation for impossibility, and put her in a movie with John Gilbert. Greta Garbo had never gotten along with an American director before Clarence Brown, whose patience and calm demeanor disarmed the famously temperamental actress.
Flesh and the Devil was a major hit of 1927. Brown would direct Garbo in six major movies over the next 10 years, including her first talkie, Anna Christie, in which she plays a former prostitute (“Gimme a viskey...”), as well as A Woman of Affairs, Romance, Anna Karenina, and Conquest. The two would remain close friends for 60 years.
Young is frustrated that Brown is most commonly described in film histories as “Garbo's favorite director.” While true, Young calls it “faint praise,” shorthand for a much more dynamic career. Garbo's best films are not necessarily Brown's best.
He learned to play the Hollywood game. For most of his career at MGM, he was a “company man.” UT English department head and film-studies professor Charles Maland sees him as a near-perfect symbol of an era when studios, not individual artists, were the focus of the industry, and they worked like well-oiled machines. “Clarence Brown was an important studio director who really established himself as the studio system itself was becoming dominant,” he says. He sees Brown not so much as an innovator as one who perfected the game as he found it. Most of what he did, Maland says, he learned from D.W. Griffith, who'd been there first.
Young thinks Brown doesn't get quite the credit he deserves. Brown was a known tinkerer, trying to find ways to get cameras in unlikely places, especially to show motion. In a couple of movies, he uses trains in motion to display a diversity of humanity and, as in an unusual scene in the Joan Crawford movie Possessed, life options.
Maland says Brown's engineering background is not all that surprising. Russian director Sergei Eisenstein had studied engineering, too; Frank Capra had been a chemist. “Some who study in a technical field that requires linearity and sequencing—that you have to do this, then this, then this, in contructing something—well, it's not an accident that some who studied engineering at some point become directors.
“Movies of the '30s had 600-700 shots; there has to be a smooth continuity, and a clustering of information within each one.” Any movie is a major engineering project. Brown's movies, known for their attention to light and movement, may have contained more individual engineering projects within each.
“As director, he had the best qualities of an engineer,” says Young. “He had a creative flair, which engineers seem to have, too, but it was tempered by a practical, pragmatic approach to his films. He may well have seen a lot of his films as assignments that needed to be completed as efficiently as possible. In his more personal films, he took creative chances, but there's also that pragmatic sense to them. He was also obsessed with machines, and I think that element attracted him to movies. He was interested in the technical side of filmmaking, and in his best films, he liked to be quite adventurous with the camerawork.”
The 1935 Garbo movie, Anna Karenina, features a technically difficult scene at a banquet that has a camera traveling backwards down a long table, between place settings, slowly revealing the extent of the extravagant feast. Speaking of this “truly masterful mobile camerawork,” Young says that some short-sighted screen historians have assumed that Brown purloined the technique from The Scarlet Empress, a Josef von Sternberg movie made the year before. But Brown had used an identical technique back in 1925, in The Eagle, a movie that until recently was rarely seen. “He ripped off himself!” she says.
With sound came Brown's salad days, when he made one big-budget movie after another. Many of them were successful, some forgettable. Brown got a reputation, partly deserved, for sentimentality.
Many movies of Brown's era have survived gracefully and with some elan into the 21st century, and remain popular even with young audiences: Bogart's noir mysteries, the Astaire-Rogers musicals, the Grant-Hepburn screwball comedies, everything by Hitchcock—the sort of movies that are still called “classics” and still bring in large paying crowds at the Tennessee Theatre.
Brown didn't make those sorts of movies. It's hard to connect him to any “sort,” which is one reason Maland says that despite his expertise and general success as a major director, his name is not as familiar as those of several of his contemporaries.
But he may be best known, and most easily dismissed, as a director of melodramas and gentler comedies of the 1930s and '40s, aimed at middlebrow audiences who, perhaps traumatized by Depression and war, sought warm family scenes and reassurance that in spite of everything maybe it was all worthwhile. They were, in fact, much admired and rewarded in their day.
Still, several of Brown's movies deal, perhaps more realistically than most modern movies, with human realities: family ties, aging, mortality. Even in the 21st century, we still love our mothers; we just don't pay to see movies about them.
Brown married again, to former actress Alice Joyce, but it wasn't a typical director-actress connection. Joyce, who was exactly Brown's age, had been making movies when he was still in Knoxville. Their marriage lasted for more than a decade. After their divorce, Brown married journalist Marian Spies. She would, decades later, become very important to certain administrators at the University of Tennessee.
Knoxville would slowly forget about him. The movie, Ah, Wilderness, with its obvious Knoxville homages, generated a flurry of local press in 1935, especially when Brown's old class of '05 classmates went en masse to the Tennessee Theatre to see the movie. In October, 1939, when he was at the height of his Hollywood success, he came back to town, partly to see the astonishing unbeaten and unscored-upon Tennessee Vols play Alabama. For the occasion, E.J. McMillan hosted a high-school reunion for Brown at his home. It might have been Brown's last visit for a quarter of a century.
Three months later, when the Vols played USC in the Rose Bowl, Brown invited the team and hundreds of supporters out to his ranch. In an anticlimactic end to a legendary season, the Vols finally lost 14-0. Brown repeated the favor the next time the boys came to the Rose Bowl, five years later.
But those were just a few newspaper articles. Several movie fans of the era say they grew up in Knoxville without recognizing Clarence Brown's name or knowing any big director had local connections. Other former Knoxvillians didn't give him any favors. James Agee, writing for The Nation, excoriated Brown's wartime movie, The Human Comedy. It was nominated for several Oscars, including Best Picture, but Agee thought it was plain dumb. “I have inadequate room left to regret an ill-directed nastiness,” wrote Agee in 1943, of Brown, who as a sometime parishioner at St. John's, ca. 1910, may have been present at the future critic's baptism. “I think of Clarence Brown who directed it, in the most praiseworthy and respectful terms, as the man who piloted Garbo's best films and who, before that, made the excellent and bold films Smoldering Fires and The Signal Tower. I have still to insist that he has become a dope, and to offer the negligencies of The Human Comedy as proof. But he is a sympathetic and likable casualty....”
With the 1944 success of National Velvet, starring child phenomenon Elizabeth Taylor, followed by The Yearling, famously starring a non-actor in the lead, Claude Jarman, Jr., a kid Brown had found while scouting Nashville schoolrooms, Brown developed a reputation for popular and well-made family movies about animals and children that might have seemed unlikely a decade earlier, when he was making films about adultery and prostitution. But today, for better or worse, those may be the only two Brown movies that a majority of Americans might remember having seen at one time or another.
Until, against a backdrop of national questions about racial desegregation, MGM uncharacteristically chose to interpret a Faulkner novel, Intruder In the Dust, a racially charged murder story, which in several ways was a darker, sharper version of To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel not yet written. It's an astonishing movie for 1949, or now, one that Richard Wright declared the only Hollywood movie black Americans could take seriously. Maland says it was MGM's attempt to do a movie in the style of Italian neorealism, but some of its grim absurdities seems entirely creditable to the director. Brown, who was also producer of the movie, insisted he had to talk MGM into supporting it, and was surprised when they agreed. Brown said it was his way of working out what he'd seen in Atlanta in 1906.
Some thought it deserved the Oscar, and indeed it did win the British Academy's award for best picture that year—but it was shut out of the American nominations.
As the drumbeats of the anti-Communist blacklist resounded through Hollywood, Brown tended his own business. A member of a hyper-patriotic group sometimes associated with the blacklist, he individually declined to point fingers.
Brown made a few more garden-variety MGM movies, including the original Angels in the Outfield, which General Eisenhower declared was his favorite movie. Brown's last was Plymouth Adventure, a 1952 romantic melodrama starring Spencer Tracy, Gene Tierney, and Van Johnson, and set aboard the Mayflower. It is not well remembered.
Then he quit, and quit completely, at about the same time his friend Louis B. Mayer gave it up. He was one of the very few who stayed in close touch with Greta Garbo; his wife and he sometimes vacationed with her in Europe. He played golf and flew planes and invested in real estate. He drove sports cars. Brownlow recalls riding around California with the 75-year-old Brown, gunning his white Mercedes to speeds well upwards of 100 mph.
He claimed he saw only two movies after he wrapped Plymouth Adventure: Dr. Zhivago and Born Free. He liked them well enough, he said, but didn't want to get sucked back into the business. Like a lot of old men, he did watch a lot of TV, including what must have been some of the early right-wing talk shows.
Meanwhile, back in mid-1960s Knoxville, UT's honchos were stirring up ideas for a fundraising project on the west coast. UT President Andy Holt and fellow administrators Ed Boling and Charlie Brakebill would go to Los Angeles, host a dinner, and invite everybody in show business they could think of, everybody who had any sort of a Tennessee connection: Dinah Shore, Tennessee Ernie Ford, etc. A few remembered that old Clarence Brown had been a big Vol fan, years and years before, and put him on the list. If they'd known more about Brown, and the fact that he rarely responded to invitations, rarely came out in public, they might not have bothered.
But in the end, all the familiar stars, the ones who sometimes made appearances in Neyland Stadium at halftime, were tied up, and offered their regrets. The only ones who accepted were 77-year-old Clarence Brown and his wife. The UT administrators reconsidered whether to take the trip at all. Charlie Brakebill remembers Andy Holt saying, “That's a fur piece to go for one couple.”
The hosted the Browns at Holt's suite in the Century Plaza Hotel. The hosts were not necessarily film historians. “He told us quite a few things that we didn't know,” says Boling. Like, for example, that the UT alumnus had directed several Greta Garbo movies. “I didn't know that until he told us.”
Brown was a sphinx. “He was a hard-nosed businessman,” Brakebill recalls. “He was a person that it was not easy to get to know. But he said that what he learned in the school of engineering, his experience growing up, he learned the engineering part, and how to work with people, and that made his movie career possible. That's pretty heavy.”
Afterward, Brown and Holt corresponded about a possible half-million-dollar endowment for a theater-arts center. At first it seemed clear nothing would be coming soon. “We thought, well, we tried, we went to bat,” says Brakebill. But within three months, they got word that Brown would pony up the cash. Brakebill thinks his wife's persuasion had a lot to do with it. “His wife was the greatest thing that ever happened to the University of Tennessee,” he says.
Brown visited Knoxville several times over the next six years. Brakebill and Boling remember driving him to the north side, where a couple of his houses, and the old Brookside chimney was still standing. He reminisced about greasing the trolley tracks on Cumberland Avenue, and, upon seeing how UT had expanded so far beyond the Hill, remembered old pre-UT Circle Park, where his mother had learned to drive a buggy.
UT hosted an 80th birthday party for him in May, 1970. Just after the Kent State shootings, UT's handlers grew concerned when Brown went missing. “It was right in the midst of the student unrest,” Brakebill says. UT's students were on strike, flooding the streets. He suspected if they knew UT's development council was meeting with Clarence Brown, they'd protest that, too. “They'd protest anything,” he says. Brown vanished from the Sheraton Motel. When he reappeared a few hours later, he described his adventures. “He had strolled by himself, in front of the student center, and was talking to the students who were demonstrating.”
“I thought, 'Oh, this old, conservative codger, this might be the end of everything.' But he said, 'I had a great visit. These students, their interest in protesting is not even skin deep.'”
A few months later, he returned again, in November, 1970, when he dedicated the theater that bears his name. They opened with a screening of The Yearling.
“He couldn't believe he was being honored in that way,” Boling says. “He thought everybody had forgotten about him. He thought people didn't realize who he was.”
Brakebill recalls, proudly, “Mrs. Brown said that Clarence Brown's involvement with the students, staff, and administration at UT, was like a second life for him.”
Clarence Brown died in 1987, at the age of 97. When Mrs. Brown died six years later, she left half of the childless couple's estate to a home for Hollywood actors in California, and half to endow the Clarence Brown Theatre program at UT, about $11 million in all. The Browns also left their personal papers and other artifacts, which are stored in dozens of bankers' boxes in the Hoskins Library's Special Collections. In those papers are hundreds of letters, photographs, and everything from Brown's birth certificate and army papers to some ash trays personalized from Louis B. Mayer's wife, Lorena.
Today, to judge by the way Google listings stack up, the Clarence Brown Theatre may be better known than Clarence Brown himself.
Brownlow says that while his name is remembered well at UT, some of his work is slowly being lost.
“It would be wonderful if his University would co-operate in producing a series of DVDs of his lost silents, but they have already turned me down. He was a brilliant director, and while one remembers such superb sound films as Anna Karenina and Intruder In the Dust, his silents were among the finest—yet they have been forgotten because they are unavailable. Film studies people only deal with what is available, and this would have been one way the university could make an outstanding filmmaker world famous.”
Smouldering Fires and The Signal Tower, the silents that Agee considered Brown's best films, aren't available on video in any format—nor is The Goose Woman, the film which first convinced Brownlow that Clarence Brown was a major talent.
Linda Davidson, of the UT development office, says it sounds like a worthy goal. “That's a shame, and we do need to see that those are preserved. But we wouldn't be able to use that money for it, because it's restricted to scholarships and the theater program.”
As it happens, this isn't the only Clarence Brown shrine in America. The National Park Service has bought Brown's once-famous ranch in Calabasas, where movies have been shot and Vol heroes entertained, and had been doing research via UT's Clarence Brown collection to place some interpretive signs.
Young asks, almost seriously: “Is this the beginning of a Brown craze sweeping America?”