Film still for Starmaker

An MGM mainstay in Hollywood's golden era and Garbo's favourite director, Clarence Brown deserves to be better known. Sensitivity with actresses is what sets him apart, argues Gwenda Young

In The American Cinema Andrew Sarris classified Clarence Brown, along with Victor Sjöström, Rex Ingram, Tod Browning and Maurice Tourneur, as a "subject for further research". In the 35 years since, Sjöström, Browning, Tourneur and Ingram have all been given books and retrospectives, but Brown, a director regarded by many of his peers as an important and influential force in American cinema from 1920 to 1953, is conspicuous only by his absence. Although Kevin Brownlow has done much valuable research on Brown's silent films, to date there has been little critical assessment of his whole career. This lack of interest is all the more surprising when one considers he was regarded as Greta Garbo's favourite director, a film stylist who rivalled Ingram and Josef von Sternberg and a sensitive director of 'women's films'.

The National Film Theatre's first European retrospective of Brown's work, with screenings of such popular classics as Anna Karénina (1935), National Velvet (1945) and The Yearling (1946) as well as the lesser-known Butterfly (1924), Ah, Wilderness! (1935) and Intruder in the Dust (1949), should put to rest the notion that Brown was a studio hack who simply directed the scripts he was assigned in a workmanlike manner. The 17 films included not only represent the best of Brown's output; they are among the finest of Hollywood's golden age. They are the work of a director who took a subtle, sophisticated approach to mise en scène and coaxed deeply felt performances from his actors.

Born in Massachusetts in 1890, Brown grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee. After stints as a boy orator, a college student (he graduated from the University of Tennessee at the age of 19 with a double degree in engineering) and a mechanic, he joined the film industry in 1915 as assistant to Maurice Tourneur. Working alongside the great French director and his cameraman John van der Broek, Brown proved a valuable addition to the New Jersey-based company: within a few months he was editing Tourneur's films and by 1917 was shooting parts of films (uncredited) himself. In later years he would refer to Tourneur as "my god", and he learned from his mentor the power of lighting and composition as well as developing a more sympathetic approach to directing actors than that of his teacher.

In 1920 Brown embarked on his four-decade career as a director of both glossy star vehicles and intimate, personal films. After working for a number of smaller companies, he joined Universal in 1924 and went on to make four films for Carl Laemmle's studio. His second, The Signal Tower (1924), showcased his editing skills and talent for pictorial composition. The Signal Tower was also notable for the strong performances the director coaxed from his actors, particularly Virginia Valli, and his aptitude for directing actresses is evident in his other films for the studio: Butterfly, Smouldering Fires (1924) and The Goose Woman (1925).

Butterfly, based on a novel by Kathleen Norris, examines the complex relationship between two sisters (played by Ruth Clifford and Laura La Plante) as well as exploring the place of women in 1920s America. The hedonism of the jazz age is captured in scenes showing the younger sister Butterfly "runnin' wild", while the film's underlying conservatism is reaffirmed by an ending that sets her firmly in her 'natural' role as wife and mother. Butterfly engages in many of the issues raised by the 'women's film'; its examination of the conflict between individual desire and the societal pressure to conform anticipated many of the films Brown was to direct with Garbo.

Similar themes are explored in The Goose Woman and Smouldering Fires. In the former Louise Dresser delivers an amazing performance as Marie de Nordi, an alcoholic recluse who was once a great opera singer but whose career was cut short by the birth of her illegitimate son. Although the film was promoted as a murder mystery, it's of more interest as a maternal melodrama. But unlike in more famous examples of the genre (Stella Dallas, 1937; Imitation of Life, 1959), motherhood here has been bitterly rejected, and the narrative strives to rectify this 'unnatural' situation by bringing Marie back into society. Yet in privileging the point of view of the marginalised woman, The Goose Woman challenges the social conventions that led her to be expelled. Interestingly, Marie's rehabilitation involves a long sequence in which she's subjected to a variety of beauty regimes and dressed up in clothes more "fitting" for a woman of her years. This allows Dresser to reclaim her movie-star persona, but may also suggest that Marie's assimilation into society and its constructed roles depends on the restoration of the narcissism assumed to be natural to women.

Image, beauty and ageing are also themes in Smouldering Fires, which is again concerned with the relationship between two sisters. Pauline Frederick plays Jane Vale, a tough businesswoman who falls in love with and marries younger man Bobby, only to lose him to her teenage sister (La Plante). Depicted in the early scenes as 'mannish' and interested only in work, Jane finds her outlook changes when she meets Bobby: although she has challenged society's taboos throughout her career for instance, by becoming the boss of a large corporation by falling in love she proves herself to be a 'real' woman. But that her love object is a younger man in fact transforms her from a figure of authority into an object of ridicule and pity.

As Jane struggles to retain her husband, Brown shows the desperate methods she employs to recapture her youth. In depicting her submission to costly (and ineffective) beauty treatments, he encourages us to empathise with her and question the validity of the image she's striving to attain. These scenes were cut from American release prints, suggesting their oblique criticism of Hollywood's obsession with youth and beauty was too close to the bone. And the film's ending implies that in order to exist in this image-driven society, Jane must abandon her love for Bobby and return to the workplace; she cannot exert both economic power and female sexual desire. Although some contemporary reviewers read Smouldering Fires as a satire on the independent older woman, the film is sensitive in its representation of desire and femininity and anticipates the later 'women's films' of such directors as George Cukor, Douglas Sirk and King Vidor. As Allen Estrin has noted: "For Brown it is truly a grim world for an intellectual and free-spirited woman who seeks to live her own life."

The Eagle (1925), a stylish adventure film set in pre-revolutionary Russia which helped to revive Rudolph Valentino's acting career, elevated Brown to A-list status. The amusing, ironic tone is no doubt thanks to the input of Ernst Lubitsch's writer Hans Kräly, and the elaborate camerawork, evocative lighting and exotic sets (by William Cameron Menzies) show a director fully exploring the potential of his medium. Brown often used his training as an engineer to achieve complicated camera set-ups, as in the virtuoso travelling shot down a food-laden table here, which he reproduced later in Anna Karénina.

In 1926 Brown signed a contract with producer Joseph M. Schenck. At the request of Schenck's wife Norma Talmadge (who had been impressed by his work with Dresser and Frederick), he was assigned to direct her in a rare comic role in Kiki (1926), an adaptation of a Belasco stage production. Following this success, Brown signed a lucrative contract with MGM, where he was to remain for the rest of his career, directing 39 films for the studio. In contrast with the temperamental Tourneur, he accommodated himself to the demands of the system, accepting most scripts assigned him and bringing in his films on budget and on schedule. His willingness to comply yielded mixed results: the worst of his films (Navy Blues, 1929; Inspiration, 1931; The Son-Daughter, 1932) demonstrate his technical expertise but show little imagination or flair.

Brown's contract with MGM signalled the start of a professional partnership with the studio's newest star Greta Garbo, whom he directed in seven of her 25 American films from Flesh and the Devil in 1926 to Conquest in 1937. Brown gained a reputation as Garbo's favourite director; in interviews he attributed the strength of their relationship to his understated, sensitive directing approach, adding that he never gave her directions in front of anyone else. The fact that he was the first US film-maker to treat the young actress with respect and sympathy led her to form a close bond with him (they stayed in touch even after she retired). But though this bond would yield some excellent results Flesh and the Devil, A Woman of Affairs (1928), Anna Christie (1930) and Anna Karénina it may also have contributed to the lacklustre quality of her performances in Romance (1930), Inspiration and Conquest, where one senses she wasn't challenged by her director.

The lush melodrama Flesh and the Devil was the first US film to realise Garbo's potential as an actress and remains one of the most sensual films of her career. Using rich symbolism, stylised editing and atmospheric, expressionistic lighting (by William Daniels), Brown suggests illicit sexual desire and intrigue in scenes that had the censors up in arms. The risqué A Woman of Affairs gave the actress the opportunity to broaden her range in the modern role of a woman with a 'reputation'; Brown's sympathetic foregrounding of an unconventional woman whose free spirit is crushed by the narrow-mindedness of society fed into Garbo's emerging star image. Brown's success with Garbo, and the fact that she trusted him, led him to be assigned her first sound film, Anna Christie. Like many early sound films it remains stagy, but it comes alive in exterior scenes like the atmospheric opening sequence and the Coney Island sequence where Garbo laughs (well before her more publicised laugh in 1939's Ninotchka).

Brown directed an equal number of films with Joan Crawford (two uncredited), a star far more popular with American audiences. Though he would always rate Garbo higher as an actress, he respected Crawford's ability and commitment. In an interview with Scott Eyman he remembered her as "extremely vulnerable... she needed the security of knowing somebody was in sympathy with what she was trying to do." In turn Crawford would refer to Brown as a "genius", citing him, along with Cukor, as her most important director.

Perhaps one of the reasons Brown was able to elicit excellent performances from his actresses was his acknowledgement of their ability and sensitivity. He favoured a hands-off approach, believing his stars should be given time (and multiple takes) to find their own interpretations of their roles. In an interview with Kevin Brownlow he explained: "I want everything an actor knows. If it's a woman, she'll know more about playing a woman than I know... I get their interpretation first... if their interpretation doesn't agree with the one I have in mind, then we begin to talk."

Brown's films with Crawford helped her to develop as an actress as well as establishing a persona the working girl fighting her way to material success that tapped into the ambitions and frustrations of audiences of the early 1930s. Possessed (1931) and Sadie McKee (1934) both depict a Depression-era America where women resort to prostitution in order to survive, but the two films treat this subject in very different ways. Possessed is gritty and frank in its depiction of Crawford's class ambition. In a famous scene, factory girl Marian looks in wonder at the representations of wealth and leisure in the luxurious compartments of a passing train and seizes the chance to escape her dreary surroundings by keeping the business card a wealthy passenger gives her. The film wryly comments on the conventions of its genre as Marian eagerly pursues her would-be seducer, resolving to be "done wrong by" as soon as possible. In portraying Marian as a hard-bitten, cynical woman who attains material success, Possessed offered a way out for Depression-era audiences, yet that wish-fulfilment comes at a cost: Marian's ambition results in estrangement from her working-class roots, while her status as a mistress excludes her from 'respectable' society.

Possessed was one of the many films cited by groups calling for more stringent censorship, and the stricter enforcement of the Code after 1934 resulted in the softening of Crawford's persona in Sadie McKee. This time her working-class protagonist is seduced then abandoned by her boyfriend and left to fend for herself in the big city. Alas, Sadie never becomes cynical or mercenary, though she does manage to snare a wealthy husband. The negative representation of the upper classes her new man is a pathetic alcoholic can be read as part of the film's essentially conservative tone (in simplest terms, money doesn't buy happiness). This conservatism is also implied in the ending, which puts Sadie firmly back in her place.

Most of the films Brown produced in the 1930s were routine star vehicles typical of the MGM house style, but he broke the mould with two personal films he fought to get produced: Ah, Wilderness!, a gentle comedy-drama based on a play by Eugene O'Neill, and Of Human Hearts (1938), set in 19th-century rural America. Both are evocative portraits of small-town life without the cloying schmaltz of such MGM family fare as the Andy Hardy series, and the director drew on memories of his own childhood for several scenes in each.

Brown returned to the theme of family and rural life in National Velvet and The Yearling, featuring outstanding performances from child actors Elizabeth Taylor and Claude Jarman Jr respectively. The Yearling had gone into production on at least two previous occasions under the direction first of Victor Fleming then of King Vidor; Brown and producer Sidney Franklin finally got it made in 1946, shooting on location in Florida. A memorable if overly sentimental piece about childhood and the death of innocence, it secures its place in cinema history thanks to its visual beauty and superb performances, in particular from Jane Wyman and Jarman. Wyman has spoken of the film as a turning point in her career, and her subtle, realistic interpretation of a woman who has reined in her emotions all her life proved she was an actress of depth and versatility. (Brown fought with Franklin to retain the dourness of her character as a woman who has lived a life full of disappointment.) The director's effectiveness with children was evident in the performance he elicited from Jarman, a non-professional he 'discovered' in Nashville, Tennessee.

Brown's last great film perhaps the greatest film of his career was an adaptation of William Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust based on a script by grey-listed writer Ben Maddow. The film has less of the pictorialism and polish that characterised Brown's work for MGM in the 1930s and 1940s and the liberalism of its tone seems to go against his social and political conservatism. Certainly Faulkner's story had personal resonance for him: when he was 16 he witnessed the Atlanta riots of 1906, one of the bloodiest race riots before the 1960s, and more than half a century on, in an interview with Brownlow, he was still visibly affected by his memories and feelings of horror and guilt at the white-on-black violence. Making Intruder in the Dust was a return to his Southern roots the film was shot on location in Mississippi with a cast of Southerners but it was also an exorcism of sorts.

Using an intricate narrative structure, expressive lighting and a soundtrack dominated by natural sounds, the film tells the story of Lucas Beauchamp (played by Juano Hernandez), a black man accused of shooting a white man in the back. In contrast with many of the 'race-issue' films produced in the same year, it avoids overt moralising (with the exception of some dialogue at the end, apparently added by the producer), instead refusing neat resolutions. While it exposes racism and bigotry, there's an ambivalence in its attitude to its black characters; interestingly, it was the only race-issue film released by the majors in 1949 to receive positive notices in the black press.

Intruder in the Dust was a commercial failure and Brown finished his career making formulaic films that failed to revive the fortunes of the crumbling MGM empire. His own modesty and reluctance to give interviews in later life played a part in the critical neglect that followed, while the subtlety of his visual style and his unobtrusive approach to directing mean his contribution to his films isn't always overt or obvious. Yet in the best of them there's a supreme visual mastery and a real excitement about the possibilities of the medium that make the claims of those who dismiss his entire career as 'workmanlike' difficult to sustain.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012