Clarence Brown, the one-time engineer and World War I aviator who became one of the film world’s most prolific directors, enhancing the careers of such diverse stars as Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Norma Shearer and Elizabeth Taylor, died late Monday night at St. John’s Medical Center in Santa Monica.
Medical center spokesman Armen Markarian said Brown, a six-time Academy Award nominee, had been admitted Aug. 8 and died at 11:15 of kidney failure.
He was 97 and had been retired since the early 1950s, but had remained active in various charities and in activities of the performing arts foundation he established at his alma mater, the University of Tennessee.
Productive and energetic, Brown, whose funeral will be private, was a top director and producer for more than four decades, and the multifaceted character of his work has been the despair of critic-historians seeking to identify a single thematic thread.
He was the “woman’s director” who drew fine performances from Louise Dresser and Vilma Banky, and directed more of Garbo’s films than anyone else.
He was the “man’s director” who was credited by Lionel Barrymore with “full responsibility” for the Academy Award that Barrymore won for “A Free Soul,” and did much to establish the macho screen image of Gable.
He was the “children’s director” who got star-making performances from Elizabeth Taylor in “National Velvet,” Claude Jarman Jr. in “The Yearling,” Butch Jenkins in “The Human Comedy” and Gene Reynolds in “Of Human Hearts.”
“The truth,” he said in an interview in 1977, “is that I was a company man--someone who shot the story he was assigned as well as I could and went on to the next thing and did that as well as I could, too. . . . “
“Stars,” he told a Times interviewer in 1973, “were lying around the (MGM) lot drawing large salaries and we had to keep them working. Many was the time I got Gable in front of the camera just to give him something to do.
“That made points with the front office, and it paid off when you found a property you really wanted. There were no second thoughts about how it fitted with the rest of my work. . . . I was in the business of showcasing stars.”
But that business wasn’t the one he had intended to go into.
Born May 10, 1890, in Clinton, Mass., he received an engineering degree from the University of Tennessee and worked in the automobile industry until 1915, when a growing interest in motion pictures--a business that was still inventing itself as an art form at the time--caused him to enter the film world as an assistant to director Maurice Tourneur.
World War I Flight Instructor
The five years he spent as a disciple and sometimes film editor for Tourneur--with time out for service as a flight instructor for the fledgling Army Air Service during World War I--were reflected later in the aesthetic care, pictorial quality and romantic flavor of his own work.
His first was “The Great Redeemer,” which he made under Tourneur’s direct supervision in 1920, followed by co-director credits with his mentor for “The Last of the Mohicans” the same year and “The Foolish Matrons” in 1921.
And then he was on his own.
In the years that followed, he directed a number of pictures including “The Light in the Dark,” “Don’t Marry for Money,” “The Acquittal,” “The Signal Tower” and “The Butterfly,” but made his reputation in 1925 with a major hit, “The Eagle,” starring Rudolph Valentino and Vilma Banky.
He joined MGM, where he would spend the better part of his career, the following year.
But it almost didn’t happen.
Irving Thalberg was in charge of production at the Culver City lot, and he wanted a property called “The Unholy Three” for Lon Chaney. But Brown owned it--and wouldn’t sell. Presented a check by one of MGM’s lawyers, he tore it up and reiterated his stand.
“The lawyer told Thalberg,” Brown recalled, “and he was mad as hell. Said--among other things--that I would never work for his studio. And I said it was just fine with me. . . . “
But Hollywood is Hollywood. Less than six months later Brown was working at MGM with Thalberg’s blessing, and the two men formed a kind of mutual admiration society.
“In terms of story structure,” Brown said, “Thalberg was the closest thing to a genius the industry ever produced.
“He could run through a script and riddle off flaws and remedies right and left. He’s the one who came up with an ending to ‘Flesh and the Devil,’ which had me stumped for weeks.”
“Flesh and the Devil” was Brown’s first picture with Garbo, the one she always credited with making her a real star, and he followed it with another silent effort, “A Woman of Affairs,” and then five Garbo talkies, “Anna Christie,” “Romance,” Inspiration,” “Anna Karenina” and “Conquest.”
“Garbo’s magic,” he said, “couldn’t be seen with the naked eye. I remember shooting a scene over and over, then moving on to the next one thinking I hadn’t gotten what I wanted.
“But when I saw the scene on the screen I realized it was there all along and I hadn’t noticed. It was something in her eyes, something behind them that could reach out and tell the audience what she was thinking.
“I never gave Garbo direction in anything louder than a whisper. Never had to . . . .”
He also scored critical and box-office successes with “Possessed,” “Night Flight,” “Chained,” “Ah, Wilderness!” “Wife vs. Secretary,” “The Gorgeous Hussy,” “Idiot’s Delight,” “Edison the Man,” “The White Cliffs of Dover” and “Intruder in the Dust.”
Directing Norma Shearer in “A Free Soul” was a major challenge, not only because of the difficulty of the material itself, but also because of studio politics. Shearer was Thalberg’s wife, and she got help when she needed it to keep from being upstaged by two professional scene stealers: Clark Gable and Lionel Barrymore.
To win audience sympathy for his wife, Thalberg wanted a scene in which Gable shoved her into a chair. Brown said he started to object, but then thought better of it and let the scene go in . . . solidifying Gable’s rough, manhandling kind of appeal for the next 30 years.
With Barrymore--an old friend and occasional off-the-lot business partner--the wicket was stickier.
Barrymore’s courtroom scene, in which he makes an impassioned plea to a jury and then drops dead, was a classic and the actor gave it everything he had on the first take. But he told Brown he couldn’t repeat it for close-ups or other coverage.
Thalberg demanded that Barrymore try, and that Brown print the results.
But Brown had covered the original take from every angle with eight cameras, and used that footage rather than the subsequent material to construct the final version of the scene--which helped win Barrymore an Academy Award.
Making movies with children posed special problems. “A kid’s mind is not an actor’s mind,” he said. “You get the performance by making it real for them.”
Claude Jarman Jr., who zoomed to stardom in “The Yearling,” was a fifth-grader Brown spotted in a Nashville, Tenn., schoolroom. No acting experience at all. And Butch Jenkins, whose performance in “The Human Comedy” was equally memorable, was a youngster who hung around Brown’s swimming club.
But Elizabeth Taylor was something else.
“She could act, even in ‘National Velvet,’ ” he said. “And she wanted the role. Really wanted it. Learned to ride and actually made herself grow to fit the age.”
“Took direction better than most grown actresses. A pro all the way . . . .”
Brown was also an innovator, one of the first directors to rely heavily on location shooting--he did “Intruder in the Dust” in the Oxford, Miss., milieu that William Faulkner had re-created in his book--and one of the first to “loop” or re-record all voices and sound effects afterward in the controlled environment of a Hollywood sound stage.
By the 1950s, he was rich and beginning to tire of the day-to-day routine of film direction. “Angels in the Outfield” and “Plymouth Adventure” were his last directorial efforts, though he was producer for “Never Let Me Go” in 1953 before making his retirement final after more than 50 feature films.
Brown’s first four marriages ended in divorce, but his fifth--to Marian Ruth Spies, who had been his secretary--was enduring, and the couple settled down first on the huge ranch-airfield he had built in the hills near Calabasas and later in Palm Springs. She and a daughter, Adrienne, by an earlier marriage, survive him. They ask contributions in his name to the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills.
Brown had established the Clarence Brown Theater for the Performing Arts at the Knoxville campus of the University of Tennessee and donated his entire collection of scripts, production notes, memos, papers and other memorabilia.
“Let them make what they can of it,” he said. “Maybe it means something. Maybe not. We did our best, usually. Not just me but all the others, too.
“You had to fight for everything you got onto the screen. That’s how things were set up with the old studio system, and it worked out for the best most of the time. But you did have to fight.
“Anything worth wanting is worth fighting for.
“Isn’t it . . . ?”