Kevin Brownlow: a life in the movies

A couple of weeks ago (july 22) the British newspaper Guardian published an interesting article by Philip Horne on Kevin Brownlow and his work on preserving silent movies. Kevin Brownlow has won a lifetime-achievement Oscar and made superb films. So why isn’t he better known?

On 13 November last year Kevin Brownlow received an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement, alongside Francis Ford Coppola (Jean-Luc Godard didn’t turn up). In his letter of nomination, Martin Scorsese declared that “Mr Brownlow is a giant among film historians and preservationists, known and justifiably respected throughout the world for his multiple achievements: as the author of The Parade’s Gone By, a definitive history of the silent era, and . . . a biography of David Lean . . . and as the director with Andrew Mollo of two absolutely unique fiction films, Winstanley (1975) and It Happened Here (1964) . . . On a broader level, you might say that Mr. Brownlow is film history.” This sums up pretty well the extraordinary record of a remarkable Englishman.

But while Brownlow’s achievements – as a historian of film, in preserving and restoring silent-era classics, and as a director in his own right – have commanded respect, he has never played the career-building game. His Oscar acceptance speech began: “If you ever wondered what reflected glory looks like, this is it!” And it went on to remind the Academy of Hollywood’s wretched record, destroying 73% of pre-sound films: “By God, your predecessors did a terrible job of preserving the silent era!” Silent films have always been a cause that needed defending, he told me: “The reason I was doing it was because nobody else was.”

So far Brownlow has not been conspicuously honored in Britain; but then, he has always been rousingly undiplomatic about the shortcomings of the British film industry. This wonderfully English figure – a passionate amateur in the best sense, immensely knowledgeable and wry and idealistic – has often been at loggerheads with this country’s movie establishment.

Starting as a teenage silent-cinema enthusiast in the 1950s, Brownlow interviewed a dazzling array of film pioneers. He met and became friends with Abel Gance, director of Napoléon (1927); and also (despite his liberal views) with Leni Riefenstahl. Among the royalty of old Hollywood he met (and in many cases became friendly with) Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, Fay Wray, John Ford, King Vidor, Howard Hawks, Frank Capra, David O Selznick and Fritz Lang. He got to watch Charlie Chaplin directing, despite the strict closed set at Pinewood for The Countess from Hong Kong (1967), because he turned up with Gloria Swanson.

From right to left, Kevin Brownlow, Francis Ford Coppola and Eli Wallach posing after the Governors Awards held by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, 13 November 2010. Photo by The Bioscope

At his school in Crowborough, East Sussex, the headmaster showed silent films on a 9.5mm projector. That inspired him to ask his parents for a 9.5mm projector of his own, and he became a passionate collector. He encountered Gance’s Napoléon, which was to change his life, in 1954. “It was to me the first glimpse of what I thought the cinema should be, in which everything looked incredibly real, and yet the camera was doing astonishing things that I’d never seen before, or since.”

The excitement of this fragmented two-reel version of Gance’s five-hour-plus epic led him, while still at school, to seek out other 9.5mm prints of the film. He found one on a stall in Paris. “My first restoration was on Napoléon, trying to put the French version in with the English version, and it was most unsatisfactory.” He has been reconstructing the film ever since, as further footage is unearthed in archives. In 2000 his third major restoration premiered at the Royal Festival Hall to 2,200 people – with a full orchestra and Gance’s original triple-screen spectacle. Alas, this sublime five-and-a-half-hour version hasn’t been shown since 2004.

When he left school he became a trainee in the Soho cutting rooms of World Wide Pictures. In the business, he heard much talk of the Al Parker actors’ agency, and connected it with the actor Albert Parker, villain of Douglas Fairbanks’s American Aristocracy (1916). “I rang him up, and said: ‘Does the name Fairbanks mean anything to you?’ He said: ‘Jesus Christ! Doug? I directed him!’ And I said: ‘What in?’ And he said: ‘The Black Pirate!’ I said: ‘I think I’ve got one of your very early films.’ He says: ‘Bring it over.’ So I took my little hand-cranked projector and I showed it to him on the wall – and he got absolutely fascinated.”

While working as an editor he doggedly pursued the surviving silent movie pioneers for interviews, which eventually became the substance of The Parade’s gone by (1968). Two more major studies of silent film followed: The War, the West and the Wilderness (1979) and Behind the Mask of Innocence (1990). He went to the US for the first time in 1964: “To be honest with you, I was chasing a girl. She was an actress who had gone back to New York. So I needed an excuse.” While she rehearsed he tracked down silent-film veterans. He flew on to Hollywood and managed to pack in multiple interviews. Josef von Sternberg, he says, was “very, very difficult”, even though “I was mad about his silents”. Later he met Sternberg’s great star, Marlene Dietrich – a contrast to her mentor. “What really amazed me was how warm she was. She pretended she wasn’t in silent pictures because it dated her.”

Brownlow had made an early start in journalism too, and, even more precociously, by 17 he’d made a first film, The Capture (which doesn’t survive), based on Maupassant. In 1956, inspired by hearing a German shout in the streets of Soho, he began making the extraordinary It Happened Here, about a putative German occupation of England in 1940 – starting, cheekily, with a Nazi rally in Trafalgar Square. As it developed, with the help of Mollo as co-director, the film became a corrective to the myths of English wartime exceptionalism: “If the Nazis had come over it would have been just like France and the Netherlands and everywhere else.” The finished film, with its painfully believable dark vision, was a succès d’estime and surprisingly popular when it came out. But after United Artists finessed the figures its makers netted “not one penny”. Fortunately, as Brownlow says: “To me film is a religion. I don’t expect to get paid to make it, but I do expect total dedication.”

In 1968 Brownlow edited Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade – “the most enjoyable thing I ever worked on” – but wanted to direct again. After several further commercial projects fell through, the Brownlow-Mollo team started another ambitious shoestring epic, Winstanley. It is “a really English film,” Brownlow has said, about the Diggers’ valiant, doomed radical Christian commune at St George’s Hill, Weybridge, after the civil war. Brownlow’s delightful book about the production, Winstanley Warts and All, was published in 2009.

He has worked for television: the Bafta-winning Hollywood (1979) is a definitive survey of the American silent film industry. Numerous other documentaries have followed, including Cinema Europe (1996). The British episode of that series is entitled “Opportunity Lost”. “There was a great snobbery about the cinema in this country, which didn’t exist in America,” he says. “What I found there was tremendous enthusiasm.” His experiences of filmmaking in Britain have been too often dismal – with glorious exceptions. But then, he notes, “Somebody said that part of my reaction to British cinema is actually, paradoxically, a patriotic one. I’m so disappointed that we’re not better. There’s an element of truth in that.”


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