I know all the great 1930s directors pretty well, or at least I thought I did. But I drew a blank this morning when I came upon a mention of Gwenda Young‘s “Clarence Brown: Hollywood’s Forgotten Master” (University Press of Kentucky, 10.17.18).
I certainly know Brown’s landmark ’30s and ’40s films (Anna Christie, A Free Soul, Ah, Wilderness, Anna Karenina, Wife vs. Secretary, Idiot’s Delight, The Rains Came, Edison, the Man, The Human Comedy, National Velvet, The Yearling) but for some reason his name has never popped through.
Brown was one of those directors who flourished in their day but whose visual style was exceedingly average or “house”, certainly by current standards. I kind of have Brown in lumped in with Mervyn LeRoy, another director who was highly regarded and worked on prestige projects in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and early ’60s, but who gets no respect from anyone today.
One problem is that the name “Clarence Brown” doesn’t have the right sound. Victor Fleming, Michael Curtiz, Howard Hawks and even John Ford sounded like guys who played golf in the best country clubs. Clarence Brown sounds like the name of a wheat farmer or an auto mechanic or grocery store owner. In this sense Brown is a kindred spirit of Chad Stahelski, director of the three John Wick movies. Stahelski is the last name of an electrician, a surfer, a pool-maintenance guy, a hot-dog chef at Pinks, a garbage man (excuse me, a sanitation engineer) or a guy whose grandfather worked in the same New Orleans factory as Stanley Kowalski.