As the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences welcomes Kevin Brownlow to introduce two of his classic silent movie restorations, “The Crowd” and “The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg”, here is my tribute to this maverick filmmaker and inspirational film historian. I begin with an overview of his career, followed by an interview about Brownlow with his colleague and admirer, Sir Alan Parker.
There are many who would argue that film lost a certain magic in the transition from “silents” to “talkies”. The literalness of adding speech, the specificity of anchoring images to sound, created a new filmic “reality”. In the process we lost an elusive element of poetry that suffused the combination of image and music that was the silent film. (The “silents” were never silent — there was always live music, both in the theaters, and on set when filming).
Some would say the “talkies” have never fully recaptured that original magic, that poetry.
One of the people who would be first to agree is Kevin Brownlow, the man who can rightly claim to have alerted more people to the wonders of the silent era than any other. And not just from writing about it, although he has done that better than anyone. Through restorations, theatrical presentations and documentaries, Brownlow has always used his own considerable filmmaking skills to turn faded curiosities into vibrant, vital film experiences for packed houses and millions of television viewers.
As a boy he fell in love with the forgotten silents he watched in his makeshift home cinema, the classics and rare treasures he would bring home from flea markets and buy in catalogues. He became a filmmaker himself, co-directing with his friend Andrew Mollo the startling It Happened Here (1964), a nightmarish fugue that imagined life in England if the Nazis had won the War. It was the original low-budget indie before such a thing existed. He also worked as an editor in the British film industry – on films like Tony Richardson’s iconoclastic Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) (which he described to me as “professionally the most enjoyable experience I’ve ever had.”)
But his greatest passion remained that long forgotten era in Hollywood, when the most recognizable people on the planet – Valentino and Garbo, Chaplin and Keaton, Pickford and Fairbanks – created a new art-form among the orange groves of Hollywood.
I first became aware of Brownlow’s work at school, thanks to the same enterprising schoolmaster who had introduced me to the notion that film could be more than just entertainment via movies like Stagecoach and Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game and Un Chien Andalou. He screened a documentary Kevin had made about the French director Abel Gance, and his “lost” silent epic Napoleon, that Kevin had been painstakingly reconstructing over the years. That documentary, The Charm of Dynamite, was revelatory. I had never seen film used like this. Every element of the medium was pushed to the limit to immerse the viewer as deeply as possible into the drama, the emotion, the poetry of what was unfolding on the screen.
I immediately read Kevin’s seminal history of the silent era, The Parade’s Gone By, and was transported into another world. Through the detailed reminiscences of everyone from stars to cameramen to stunt-men and directors, the silent era was transformed into a kind of cinematic Camelot. It was a gilded age of kings and queens, princes and princesses; with court intrigues and pretenders to the throne; errant knights, court jesters and the occasional damsel in distress — all working to create a new art-form and entertainment industry first in New York, then in the wild, wild west of California. The Parade’s Gone By was to form the basis for the subsequent groundbreaking, 13-hour television series, Hollywood.
In an irony not lost on its creators, Hollywood was funded and produced by a television company, Thames, part of Britain’s commercial network. The dreaded box in the living-room, which had brought the film industry to its knees in the 50s and 60s, turned out to be the vehicle that preserved and celebrated Hollywood’s neglected history at a time when the studios were still mindlessly chucking out their archives, to end up as landfill for freeway construction. And it was a British television company to boot.
The success of Hollywood brought unforeseen gifts. One Saturday morning I found myself with my best friend riding a train from Oxford to London to attend an occasion neither I, nor, I suspect Kevin, ever imagined would take place. It was a full theatrical screening of the now completed Napoleon, accompanied by a symphony orchestra performing a specially composed score, in one of London’s grand movie palaces, the Empire Theatre, Leicester Square.
It all started in the morning. No film started in the morning! Well this one did, because it lasted all day! Up to the podium strode composer/conductor Carl Davis, a striking figure with a flowing mane of curly hair, Liszt-like, every inch the showman and maestro.
He had to be. He was going to be spending the next five-and-a-half hours leading his musicians without anything to keep him in sync with the film beyond his own instincts and sheer nerve. In musical terms, it was a high wire act, without a safety rope, over the Grand Canyon. With forecasts of windy gusts and rain.
The theatre was full of London’s cultural elite and movie buffs, with assorted movers, shakers and politicos thrown in for good measure. What were we expecting? Something great, something special, but absolutely not the utterly overwhelming experience that was actually delivered. As the drama reached its climax with Napoleon’s invasion of Italy, the film exploded the bounds of the frame by expanding onto three screens in the final triptych sequence. With Beethoven’s Eroica theme and Carl’s own transcendent “Destiny” theme thundering (with added organ now) from the orchestra, the theatre trembled, whole rows of grown men and women shaking with emotion.
The triumph of Napoleon ushered in a golden age for Kevin, his producing partner David Gill (at right), and composer Carl Davis (center).
They embarked on a series of documentaries and theatrical rebirths of silent classics, all presented in exquisitely restored prints with brand new orchestral scores.
Ben-Hur, The Big Parade, Thief of Baghdad, Flesh and the Devil, The Wind — I saw them all and more, and began writing articles about what was fast becoming an exciting phenomenon in festivals and movie houses across the world: “live” cinema.
I got to know the team, and during the season at Radio City Music Hall, found myself chatting with Lillian Gish, Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, Lauren Bacall, John Gilbert’s daughter, and other luminaries of old Hollywood. When I moved to Los Angeles, Kevin delighted in telling me that one of the greatest of all Hollywood directors, Josef von Sternberg (The Blue Angel, Morocco), had lived a couple of blocks away from my apartment; his son still resided in the same house.
During one of my visits to Kevin and David’s offices, I noticed their walls were decorated with a series of acerbic, and very funny, cartoons about the biz by the British director Alan Parker (Midnight Express, Mississippi Burning, The Commitments).
It turned out that Kevin, like every film maker struggling to make a career within the insular, perennially on-the-edge-of-the-abyss British Film Industry, recognized a fellow rebel when he saw one. He mentioned something about Alan being a regular at their screenings, and having “borrowed” Abel Gance’s idea of using a camera suspended from a pendulum for his film of Pink Floyd The Wall. I was always a fan of Alan Parker, especially of The Wall and Shoot the Moon, the latter a searingly honest examination of a disintegrating marriage that contains career-topping performances by Diane Keaton and Albert Finney. Parker was an unabashedly commercial director who brought real fire and passion to his work, and wasn’t afraid to cock a snook at the doggedly inward-looking (some would say constipated) ethic of mainstream British film. For me, his act of hommage to Abel Gance confirmed his class: he stole only from the best.
So when, last year, I was writing a piece about the triumphant screenings of Napoleon at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, I thought it would be interesting to contact now Sir Alan Parker for his thoughts on another maverick, now Oscar-winner Kevin Brownlow.
This is what he had to say….
When and how did you first meet Kevin Brownlow? What were your impressions of him?
I first met him in David Puttnam’s office in the early seventies but didn’t really get to know him until about 1982/3 when he and David Gill asked me to do one of the segments for their Thames series “British Cinema: A personal view.” I wrote and directed one of these films: it was called “A Turnip Head’s Guide to British Cinema.” Kevin was a fan of my rather irreverent and subversive cartoons commenting on the film industry, which we developed into the film.
Lindsay Anderson and Richard Attenborough also did segments of their own. David Lean was also meant to do one, but pulled out.
My first impressions of Kevin were of a shy, owlish, bookish individual: he looked like a history teacher from Tom Brown’s Schooldays or a bureaucrat from MI-6 .
I was fascinated by the miniature notebooks he carried; the pages of which he covered with the tiniest handwriting. It could be a quote, an obscure film fact, or a rude put-down – into the book it all went.
Did you read his book “The Parade’s Gone By”, and if so what kind of impact did it have on you?
I loved The Parade’s Gone By. It’s one of the best books on the history of film and probably the best on the silent movie era. Although scholarly and erudite it was totally engaging, put together by someone who not only knew his stuff but also loved every person and every frame in it. He was the first to realize that an entire generation responsible for early cinema might not be around much longer, and his interviews with the significant, surviving players became an evocative and definitive history of the period.
Can you talk about your experience of seeing “Napoleon” for the first time: your impressions of the film, the effect of the music, and any influence the experience had on your own work?
I was certainly influenced by it. After seeing the film I built a giant pendulum rig over a swimming pool at Pinewood Studios for a scene in Pink Floyd The Wall where Bob Geldof, with flailing arms, seems to be drowning in his own blood.
We also threw the camera around at any opportunity, influenced by Gance. A lot of the film was hand-held cameras. Gance taught us that all the usual rules could be broken to create cinematic energy, and a surreal, anarchic, in-your-face film like The Wall was a perfect vehicle.
Earlier, before the film, Pink Floyd and Gerald Scarfe in the mammoth stage version of The Wall (early 1980) had used three projectors in sync, creating a triptych image on the giant ‘wall’ screen.
Scarfe’s animation looked extraordinarily powerful in this form. Whether they borrowed this from Gance I don’t know, as it was before my time.
For anyone who has never seen “Napoleon”, what would you tell them to prepare themselves for?
Everything that was ever invented in cinema is here. It’s a masterpiece of course and overwhelming. A lot of people find the acting rather over-the-top and earnest but the film is so big, seemingly no screen is big enough to contain it. And how can you resist the smouldering, sharp nosed features of the actor who plays Napoleon with the dramatic god-given name of Albert Dieudonné!
How did Kevin’s and David Gill’s series of live presentations of silent movies with live orchestra, and their various documentary series, change your perception and opinion of the silent film era in movies?
I think, as a young filmmaker, it was impossible not to be affected by the invention and sheer craft of the work. And unlike us lot, following in their large footsteps, they were the first to do it. They were making up the rules, the grammar as they went along. The power, simplicity and beauty of images and music together is an extraordinary way to communicate to an audience.
I had been captivated by the original Unknown Chaplin series in particular – being a Chaplin nut – and so the Chaplin films would have been particularly important to me.
You have always used music very creatively in your own films — why do you think Carl Davis’s scores for these silent films are so effective?
First and foremost they are an adjunct to the storytelling and not too self important or distracting. They meld with the pictures, creeping up on you rather than set you humming. They are not flashy, but serve the images.
Why do you think Kevin has been such an effective force in the promotion of the silent era in film-making?
His endless fascination with the minutiae of film is extraordinary. It seems he lives and breathes and loves it.
What were the most striking qualities of Kevin Brownlow’s own films “It Happened Here” and “Winstanley”? Why you think it was so challenging for Kevin to make these kinds of films at that time in Britain?
Both It happened Here and Winstanley were films that just wouldn’t have been made in the run of normal British film fodder.
There was no such thing as “Indie film” at the time and It Happened Here took so long to make the trials and tribulations of making it were like Werner Herzog films: probably more interesting than the films themselves. I have the powerful image in my head – that has stayed since seeing the original film – of a platoon of German soldiers, in immaculate Andrew Mollo [brother of Star Wars costume designer John Mollo] uniforms, marching past Big Ben.
British film at the time was a curious sixties potpourri from brilliant to dire – and all financed by the mainstream film companies. It was a mixed bag from dopey Carry on… films, to the brilliance of Kubrick and Lean, to the sixties visions of Dick Lester and the Beatles. Brownlow must have appeared as a maverick loony.
Do you have any particularly good stories about Kevin?
I remember a dry sense of humour. I was bemoaning the unpleasantness of the film critic, Alexander Walker, and Kevin said: “The problem with Alex is that his ad libs sound like they’re on their eighth draft.”