Men Behind the Stars — Clarence Brown (1936) 🇺🇸

Clarence Brown |

January 16, 2022

Clarence Brown’s career is unique. Educated at the University of Tennessee, from which he was graduated with degrees as an electrical and a mechanical engineer, he did not immediately interest himself in motion pictures.

Director of “Anna Karenina”

by Gunnar Norberg

Becoming a traveling salesman for the Moline Auto Company, he crossed the country from one end to the other in the interests of that organization. Later, he became associated with another automobile concern: The Stevens-Duryea Co. Meanwhile, he established his own firm in Birmingham, Ala., called the Brown Motor Co., servicing and selling automobiles.

Startling was the decision which Brown made in 1915. Then earning sixty-five hundred dollars a year from his automobile activities, he determined to leave the motor car industry in which he was a ‘coming’ man. It would not be surprising that a young man of twenty-five — for that was what Brown was — should suddenly alter the course of his career. But, for Brown to do so, considering his comparatively high salary and brilliant prospects, was certainly surprising. However, Brown had made up his mind to enter the motion picture field. And, in aggressive fashion, he did.

Having seen the films which had been made by the then great French director, Maurice Tourneur, and having heard that Tourneur was looking for an assistant, Brown came to Ft. Lee, New Jersey, saw Tourneur. He asked for the vacant job. Tourneur had been astonished upon hearing Brown’s statement that he knew nothing about picture making.

“You have a lot of nerve,” he had told the aspiring Brown. But he hired him, largely because of that very nerve.

For six years, Brown was Tourneur’s assistant, learning from his superior all of the “tricks of the trade.” In 1921, he became a full-fledged director. And this was quite unusual. It was not the custom to make directors out of assistants at that time. It was not felt that assistants — concerned as they necessarily were with detail — could have the broad vision that directors had.

Before coming to M-G-M in 1926, Brown had directed for United Artists, Universal, Preferred and First National. It has been at M-G-M that he has made a name for himself as one of the greatest motion picture directors of all time. “Anna Karenina,” one of the outstanding films of 1935, starring Greta Garbo, is a recent distinguished achievement of his. Wife vs. Secretary is his first picture this year. And his current assignment is Joan Crawford’s coming picture, The Gorgeous Hussy. Because Brown has directed Greta Garbo’s films since she first came to Hollywood, it is likely that he will be in charge of Camille, the picture which the noted Swedish star is scheduled to make upon her return to Hollywood.

An interesting item of information about Brown concerns his habit of playing “bit” parts in many of pictures. In “The Acquittal,” he was a reporter; in The Goose Woman, a murderer; in “The Eagle,” a Cossack officer; in “The Signal Tower,” a switch-man; in Flesh and the Devil, a bugler; in “The Trail of ‘98,” a prospector; and in “Wonder of Women,” he played his first audible part in a “mob” scene.

Although it can not be said that all of Brown’s pictures have been big hits, it can be said truly that no film of his has been a box-office failure. This is an extraordinary record. And what makes it more so is the fact that he does practically no cutting. There have been some directors — great ones, too — who have “shot” as much as a half-million feet of film to get a completed picture, eight thousand feet in length. It is rare indeed that more than a thousand feet are cut from a Brown production. Among Brown’s memorable productions are Rudolph Valentino’s “The Eagle,” Norma Talmadge’s KikiThe Goose Woman and “Smouldering Fires,” Garbo’s Flesh and the DevilAnna Christie, “Romance,” “Inspiration,” and — recently — “Anna Karenina.”

Speaking of the qualifications which a director needs to succeed, Brown said once:

“The director has to have a sense of drama and a sense of story-telling. He has to have the ability to inspire in his actors the emotions and reactions necessary to his story; he has to have a pictorial sense that will enable him to assemble his scenes in good pictorial composition. He has to have business ability — enough of a gift of management to keep his picture within reasonable limits of cost; he has to have resource enough to adapt himself to any difficulty that may arise... He must have infinite capacity for detail.”

That’s Brown’s description of the successful director. And that’s what he, himself, is. However, these qualifications — which Brown mentioned — do not necessarily make a director great, as Brown himself has been justly called. Jim Tully once spoke of Brown in these words: —

“In spite of mathematics, and six years as an assistant director... the one-time automobile engineer rises to the realms of art, and gives, as in life, the sternest of realities with soft poetic glimpses... He is inferior to no director in a sense of dramatic values...”

To be painstaking in detail, to cut to a minimum the cost of making of a picture, to make no box-office failures, — those are all important factors in the building of a successful directorial career. But, beyond them, there is vision, depth of understanding, sympathy. Those qualities Brown has. And those qualities it is that have given Brown rank as a great director — and a great man!

Source: Motion Picture, June 1936