Kevin Brownlow helped spread the word on silent film era

For the first time in its history, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is presenting one of its coveted annual honorary awards to a film preservationist. Kevin Brownlow, the revered British film historian, documentarian, author and preservationist, was chosen by the academy’s Board of Governors for his “wide and devoted chronicling of the cinematic parade.”

Kevin Brownlow: A Nov. 10 Calendar article about Kevin Brownlow, who on Saturday will receive a Governors Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, said he was the first film preservationist to earn an honorary Oscar. In fact, Kemp R. Niver received a 1954 honorary award “for the development of the Renovare Process which has made possible the restoration of the Library of Congress Paper Film Collection,” and Henri Langlois was given an honorary Oscar in 1973 for “devotion to the art of film, his massive contributions in preserving its past and his unswerving faith in its future.” Additionally, the article said the academy’s Board of Governors praised Brownlow for his “wide and devoted chronicling of the cinematic parade.” The correct phrasing is “wise and devoted chronicling.” —

“He is such a global ambassador for film restoration and film history,” says Caroline Frick, curator of the George Eastman House film archive. “The award is a celebration of scholarship, understanding the value of film history and how film history changes over time.”

Visual effects supervisor Craig Barron, who nominated Brownlow, says that Brownlow “devoted his life to preserving and celebrating the silent era and the artists who made the films. He is universally recognized as the silent film historian.”

Generally the academy bestows its Governors Awards on actors, directors and producers along with the occasional composer. This year is no exception; joining Brownlow at the ceremony at the Grand Ballroom at Hollywood and Highland on Saturday evening will be veteran actor Eli Wallach and Oscar-winning writer-director-producer Francis Ford Coppola, who is receiving the Irving Thalberg Award. Controversial French auteur filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard rounds out the quartet of recipients but will not be attending the event. This is the second year that the Governors Awards have had their own evening. Previously, these honorary awards were presented during the televised Academy Awards.

On the phone from his home in London last week, Brownlow seems a bit overwhelmed with the honor and eager to know what is going to happen at the awards dinner Saturday night. “Apparently there are two producers of the event,” he says. “What is it that they are producing? Is it informal?”


Brownlow, 72, wrote the definitive book on the silent era in 1968 called, “The Parade’s Gone By…" In the 1970s, he and producer-director David Gill began restoring classic silent films, among them “Intolerance,” “The Thief of Bagdad,” “Ben-Hur,” “The Crowd” and Abel Gance’s “Napoleon.” They also made several acclaimed documentaries, including “The Unknown Chaplin” and the 13-part series “Hollywood.” After Gill’s death, he has worked with Patrick Stansbury on documentaries and restorations including “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

(Besides appearing Saturday at the Governors Awards, he’ll be attending a screening at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre on Friday of two of his well-regarded documentary-style features he made with Andrew Mollo: 1966’s “It Happened Here” and 1975’s " Winstanley.”)

Jan-Christopher Horak, head of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, says Brownlow changed the face of film preservation in the 1970s.

“What Kevin did with that first ‘Napoleon’ restoration was something no one really was doing. He said we have to start comparing surviving materials and put together the best possible complete version we can from what survives,” he says. “It became the guiding principal of preservation and restoration — it was not enough just to make a copy.”


Brownlow was just a boy when he fell in love with silent films. “I was at a very unpleasant boarding school and the headmaster used to tempt us back from visits by our parents by showing us films — he didn’t have a sound projector,” he says.

Not long after, Brownlow was living with his parents in London when they got him his own hand projector and two films. “I went out into the streets of London to look for more films and immediately found one that was missing the beginning but looked quite promising.”

After visiting the library, he discovered that it was a 1916 Douglas Fairbanks comedy called “American Aristocracy.” “I said I have got a film that’s in a book and I have got to find more of these. So the saga began.”

This little film had a huge influence on his life. “I started working in the film industry at 17 as an office boy and people started talking about an actors’ agency called the Al Parker Agency,” says Brownlow.


“Having a one-track mind, I knew he was the villain in the picture with Fairbanks so I rang him up and said, ‘Does the name Fairbanks mean anything to you?’ He said, ‘Doug, I directed him in “The Black Pirate.” ’ I took the film over to his office. He was fascinated to see himself.”

And the two became fast friends.

“He used to tell me when silent film people came to town — ' King Vidor, he’s at the Hyde Park Hotel. Tell him I sent you’ — and ‘Douglas Fairbanks Jr. wants to talk to you.’ ”