Clarence Brown became a Hollywood director in the days when being a Hollywood director had nothing to do with film school. An extraordinary industry in its early days; if a man purchased a camera he could be a director.
Born in 1890, with the turn of the Twentieth Century fast approaching, he came along in a period when a menagerie of new innovations in science and art burst forth in such a stream of applied imagination that many inventions, and many qualities of life in the next century would find their prelude in this decade. Both autos and motion pictures had their impetus in this frenetic period. Both would change the country and the world, and both were very important to Clarence Brown.
Brown grew up in Massachusetts and Tennessee, and his first profession was automobile manufacturing. He studied engineering at the University of Tennessee while only 15 years old. He graduated in 1910 with two degrees, and headed for western Massachusetts where the Stevens-Duryea company was building its own line of cars. After a couple of years with them, he left for Birmingham, Alabama to establish his own car plant, called the Brown Motor Company.
Only a few years later, he saw a movie being filmed in New Jersey, where a new interest, and a new career was born. He wrote, produced, acted in minor roles in a few early films, edited, and by the 1920s, began a long career as a film director.
Brown directed Greta Garbo in “Anna Christie,” “Anna Karenina” and other films. She reportedly called him her favorite director. His film “A Free Soul” made a star of Clark Gable, and his “National Velvet” introduced Elizabeth Taylor.
Brown gave us “The Yearling,” “The White Cliffs of Dover,” and “Plymouth Adventure” before retiring in 1953. He had been nominated for the Best Director Academy Award five times. The film industry seemed to be an arena of self-made men, and women, who remade themselves in one way or another, from their appearances, their names, their goals, and their destinies. Clarence Brown, whose intelligence and ambition could have marked him for success in manufacturing or any field, chose film. It’s quite a leap from manufacturing to the artistry of film, but perhaps there was something more than fascination with a new toy that drew Brown. Certainly the early days of film were equally entrepreneurial as artistic, and more than one businessman was lured by the prospect of getting in on something completely new. In his case, it was life changing.