Oscar Directors: Brown, Clarence: Background, Career, Awards, Garbo’s Favorite Director

Career Summary

Though nominated for five Best Director Awards, Clarence Brown, best known as an MGM contract filmmaker, had never won a competitive Oscar.

He was a skillful, reliable but not distinguished director, who never developed much, which may explain why he is rather obscure today.

In a career spanning three decades, he directed about 50 films (one third of which silent), in just about every genre.

 

Born May 10, 1890 in Clinton, Massachusetts, to a cotton manufacturer, Clarence Brown moved to the South when he was 11.

He attended the University of Tennessee, graduating at the age of 19 with degree in engineering. A fascination in automobiles led Brown to a job with the Stevens-Duryea Company, then to his own Brown Motor Car Company in Alabama. He later abandoned the car dealership after developing an interest in movies around 1913.

He was hired by the Peerless Studio at Fort Lee, New Jersey, and became an assistant to the great French-born director Maurice Tourneur.

After serving in World War I, Brown was given his first co-directing credit (with Tourneur) for 1920s: The Great Redeemer. Later that year, he directed a major portion of The Last of the Mohicans after Tourneur was injured in a fall.

MGM Contract Director

Brown moved to Universal in 1924, and then to MGM, where he stayed until the mid-1950s. At MGM he was one of the main directors of their female stars–he directed both Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo five times.

He collaborated with Garbo on: Flesh and the Devil, A Woman of Affairs, Anna Christie, Anna Karenina, Conquest.

Nonetheless, wit the possible exception of Anna Karenina, none of these films rank as her best work.  Garbo’s finest dramatic performance is in Cukor’s Camille, and she showed her comedic skills to an advantage in Lubitsch’s Ninotchka.

Garbo referred to Brown as her favorite director. But unlike his competitor, the more gifted George Cukor, Brown was never labeled (or typecast) as a woman’s director.

Brown not only made the transition from silent to sound cinema, but thrived there, proving himself to be an “actor’s director,” respecting their instincts, and often incorporating their suggestions into scenes. In doing so, Brown created underplayed, naturalistic dialogue scenes stripped of melodrama, grounded in the rhythms of real-life conversation.

He was nominated five times (see below) for the Academy Award as Best Director, and once as a producer, but never received an Oscar.

However, he did win Best Foreign Film for Anna Karenina at the 1935 Venice Film Festival.

He made his last film, Plymouth Adventure, starring Spencer Tracy, in 1952, at the age of 62.

In the 1970s, Brown became a guest lecturer on the film-festival circuit, thanks in part to his connection with Garbo.

He died on August 17, 1987, at the age of 97.

 

Filmography

Silent movies (17 films)

The Great Redeemer (1920)

The Last of the Mohicans (1920)

The Foolish Matrons (1921)

The Light in the Dark (1922)

Don’t Marry for Money (1923)

The Acquittal (1923)

The Signal Tower (1924)

Butterfly (1924)

The Eagle (1925)

The Goose Woman (1925)

Smouldering Fires (1925)

Flesh and the Devil (1926), Garbo

Kiki (1926)

A Woman of Affairs (1928), Garbo

The Trail of ’98 (1929)

Navy Blues (1929)

Wonder of Women (1929)

 

Sound Era (33 Talkies)

Anna Christie (1930)—Garbo, Oscar nomination for Best Director

Romance (1930)–Garbo, Oscar nomination for Best Director

Inspiration (1931)

Possessed (1931), Crawford

A Free Soul (1931)–Shearer, Oscar nomination for Best Director

Emma (1932), Marie Dressler

Letty Lynton (1932), Crawford

The Son-Daughter (1932)

Looking Forward (1933)

Night Flight (1933)

Sadie McKee (1934), Crawford

Chained (1934), Crawford

Ah, Wilderness! (1935)

Anna Karenina (1935), Garbo

Wife vs. Secretary (1935)

The Gorgeous Hussy (1936)

Conquest (1937), Garbo

Of Human Hearts (1938)

Idiot’s Delight (1939)

The Rains Came (1939), Crawford

Edison, the Man (1940)

Come Live with Me (1941)

They Met in Bombay (1941)

The Human Comedy (1943)–Mickey Rooney, Oscar nominations for Best Director and for Best Picture

The White Cliffs of Dover (1944)

National Velvet (1944)–Oscar nomination for Best Director

The Yearling (1946)—Oscar nomination for Best Director and Best Picture

Song of Love (1947)

Intruder in the Dust (1949)

To Please a Lady (1950)

Angels in the Outfield (1951)

When in Rome (1952)

Plymouth Adventure (1952)