Feb 13, 2019

Book Review--Clarence Brown: Hollywood's Forgotten Master, MGM Director of Garbo, Crawford and Gable

Clarence Brown: Hollywood's Forgotten Master
Gwenda Young
University Press of Kentucky, 2019

Unlike his more celebrated contemporaries, such as Ford, Wyler and Cukor, the name Clarence Brown can draw a blank face from even classic film fans. It’s only until you consider the stars the MGM director worked with: Valentino, Garbo, Crawford, and Gable, or the films he made: Flesh and the Devil (1926), National Velvet (1944), The Yearling (1946), and Intruder in the Dust (1949), that you realize he was a giant in his own, less celebrated way. In a new biography by Gwenda Young, the filmmaker finally gets his due.

Brown was a complicated man, both personally and professionally. A trained engineer, he was drawn to the movies for their technical aspects, and yet he also had the ability to draw emotionally rich performances from his stars. On the set he could be subtle in his direction, pulling stars aside to whisper directions, but he had a reputation for coldness and unrelenting perfectionism. As a friend and business associate he cultivated long-term relationships and could provide much-needed support to those in need, but his multiple marriages often ended because of distance and emotional abandonment.

As a director, Brown didn’t have a distinctive style, which is probably as much the reason he hasn’t been remembered as an auteur as his reputation for being a company man at the behest of Louis B. Meyer. While it is true the director knew how to play the game, it did not prevent him from finding artistically fulfilling work and maintaining control over his career path. He cut his cinematic teeth under the silent film director Maurice Tourneur and the visual skills he acquired alongside him would inform his own work well beyond the silent era. Director Jean Renoir saw this knack for visual poetry and was among the few who found him to be an underrated filmmaker.

Young explores the often deeply intertwined personal and professional aspects of Brown’s life with a steady eye, noting the many contradictions he embodied. Especially compelling is her account of the production of Intruder in the Dust (1949), a profound rebuke against racism which the director made to address the ghosts from his own southern past. While he showed social consciousness in pursuing the project, he insisted that a young black actor play like a “coon” in a graveyard scene, rolling his eyes in fear while the white actors remained calm.

In addition to the satisfying examination of Brown as a man, the book is also full of the reflected glory of his association with the most glittering of the MGM stars. He is famous for being Garbo’s frequent collaborator, but worked just as much with Joan Crawford and Clark Gable. He nurtured the youthful talents of Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney, Butch Jenkins and Claude Jarman Jr. and adeptly managed big personalities like Norma Shearer and Spencer Tracy. As a result, there are lots of entertaining on-set stories here.

This is a solid, much-needed tribute and an enjoyable read.

Many thanks to University Press of Kentucky for providing a copy of the book for review.

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