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Clarence Brown, Director of Garbo, Gable, Dies at 97

August 19, 1987|TED THACKREY JR. | Times Staff Writer

Clarence Brown, the one-time engineer and World War I aviator who became one of the film world's most prolific directors, enhancing the careers of such diverse stars as Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Norma Shearer and Elizabeth Taylor, died late Monday night at St. John's Medical Center in Santa Monica.

Medical center spokesman Armen Markarian said Brown, a six-time Academy Award nominee, had been admitted Aug. 8 and died at 11:15 of kidney failure.

He was 97 and had been retired since the early 1950s, but had remained active in various charities and in activities of the performing arts foundation he established at his alma mater, the University of Tennessee.

Productive and energetic, Brown, whose funeral will be private, was a top director and producer for more than four decades, and the multifaceted character of his work has been the despair of critic-historians seeking to identify a single thematic thread.

He was the "woman's director" who drew fine performances from Louise Dresser and Vilma Banky, and directed more of Garbo's films than anyone else.

He was the "man's director" who was credited by Lionel Barrymore with "full responsibility" for the Academy Award that Barrymore won for "A Free Soul," and did much to establish the macho screen image of Gable.

He was the "children's director" who got star-making performances from Elizabeth Taylor in "National Velvet," Claude Jarman Jr. in "The Yearling," Butch Jenkins in "The Human Comedy" and Gene Reynolds in "Of Human Hearts."

"The truth," he said in an interview in 1977, "is that I was a company man--someone who shot the story he was assigned as well as I could and went on to the next thing and did that as well as I could, too. . . . "

"Stars," he told a Times interviewer in 1973, "were lying around the (MGM) lot drawing large salaries and we had to keep them working. Many was the time I got Gable in front of the camera just to give him something to do.

"That made points with the front office, and it paid off when you found a property you really wanted. There were no second thoughts about how it fitted with the rest of my work. . . . I was in the business of showcasing stars."

But that business wasn't the one he had intended to go into.

Born May 10, 1890, in Clinton, Mass., he received an engineering degree from the University of Tennessee and worked in the automobile industry until 1915, when a growing interest in motion pictures--a business that was still inventing itself as an art form at the time--caused him to enter the film world as an assistant to director Maurice Tourneur.

World War I Flight Instructor

The five years he spent as a disciple and sometimes film editor for Tourneur--with time out for service as a flight instructor for the fledgling Army Air Service during World War I--were reflected later in the aesthetic care, pictorial quality and romantic flavor of his own work.

His first was "The Great Redeemer," which he made under Tourneur's direct supervision in 1920, followed by co-director credits with his mentor for "The Last of the Mohicans" the same year and "The Foolish Matrons" in 1921.

And then he was on his own.

In the years that followed, he directed a number of pictures including "The Light in the Dark," "Don't Marry for Money," "The Acquittal," "The Signal Tower" and "The Butterfly," but made his reputation in 1925 with a major hit, "The Eagle," starring Rudolph Valentino and Vilma Banky.

He joined MGM, where he would spend the better part of his career, the following year.

But it almost didn't happen.

Irving Thalberg was in charge of production at the Culver City lot, and he wanted a property called "The Unholy Three" for Lon Chaney. But Brown owned it--and wouldn't sell. Presented a check by one of MGM's lawyers, he tore it up and reiterated his stand.

"The lawyer told Thalberg," Brown recalled, "and he was mad as hell. Said--among other things--that I would never work for his studio. And I said it was just fine with me. . . . "

But Hollywood is Hollywood. Less than six months later Brown was working at MGM with Thalberg's blessing, and the two men formed a kind of mutual admiration society.

"In terms of story structure," Brown said, "Thalberg was the closest thing to a genius the industry ever produced.

"He could run through a script and riddle off flaws and remedies right and left. He's the one who came up with an ending to 'Flesh and the Devil,' which had me stumped for weeks."

"Flesh and the Devil" was Brown's first picture with Garbo, the one she always credited with making her a real star, and he followed it with another silent effort, "A Woman of Affairs," and then five Garbo talkies, "Anna Christie," "Romance," Inspiration," "Anna Karenina" and "Conquest."

"Garbo's magic," he said, "couldn't be seen with the naked eye. I remember shooting a scene over and over, then moving on to the next one thinking I hadn't gotten what I wanted.

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