When you speak to Kevin Brownlow, you have a direct link to some of the greatest silent film directors who ever lived. The British film historian, now 80, interviewed and befriended many early film veterans when he was just in his twenties. He then spearheaded early efforts to preserve and restore silent films at a time when silent film was often derided. To say Brownlow has some stories about those early directors would be an understatement.
“King Vidor would say to me, ‘Every time I saw a Cecil B. DeMille picture, it made me want to quit the business,’” Brownlow said during a phone interview with IndieWire from his home in London — a sentiment about the “Ten Commandments” filmmaker Brownlow disagrees with. In the 1960s, he also encountered Josef von Sternberg (“He was very, very difficult”), Allan Dwan, and Abel Gance, whose 1927 epic “Napoleon” Brownlow spent over 12 years restoring before debuting a reconstituted print of the four-hour film at the 1979 Telluride Film Festival. Gance, then 89 years old, was in attendance. Premiering to a rhapsodic response, the restored “Napoleon” helped popularize the importance of film preservation like no other project to that point.
Now it’s Brownlow’s turn in the spotlight. He was just honored with the Robert Osborne Award at the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival in Los Angeles. (Brownlow had previously received an Academy Honorary Award for his work in film preservation in 2010.) In presenting him with the honor, AMPAS president John Bailey said, “Mr. Brownlow has inspired generations of film students and filmmakers.”
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But Brownlow isn’t content to just be honored for his own past work — he wants the work to continue, freely offering up advice about how future milestones in film preservation might be achieved. And where “lost” silent masterpieces might yet be found.
“I remember a Cuban refugee meeting me in London and saying all the films you’re looking for are in the Cuban archive,” Brownlow said, referring to Havana’s Cinemateca de Cuba, which is in possession of some 80,000 reels of historic films, including early American silent films. “So I spoke to a high ranking member [of the Cinemateca] on the telephone, and just to try and test the waters, I asked him if he had a print of the lost Erich von Stroheim film ‘The Devil’s Pass Key.’ And he simply said, ‘I’ve seen it.’”
“The Devil’s Pass Key,” a 1920 silent drama mounted by Universal Pictures under its Jewel label, is still considered lost, and its rediscovery would help illuminate more about von Stroheim’s career.
“You can see that really one’s work consists often of running around from archive to archive just checking on the things that they know they’ve got,” Brownlow said.
But some archives may not even know what they have — or had. The holy grail of silent film preservation might be a complete eight-hour print of von Stroheim’s “Greed,” which MGM slashed to a releasable 140 minutes in 1924. Brownlow said that von Stroheim’s son Josef, who died in 2002, told him that the entire eight-hour version sat as 42 film reels collecting dust for decades afterward in the MGM archive but under its original title, “McTeague,” which it shared with the Frank Norris novel that inspired it. Brownlow suspects it was simply discarded around the time MGM auctioned off much of its memorabilia in a firesale auction in 1970.
“The wartime generation really hated silent film,” Brownlow said. “I discovered the reason for this was when sound came in, in order to make sure that people didn’t want to return to silents again, film producers used to take very primitive silent pictures and put funny sound effects in, and honky tonk music, and crude, ‘hilarious’ commentary and show them as one-reel comedies. Of course, those looked ridiculous, and people must have said to themselves, ‘Was that what I fell in love with?’”
As the “Greed” situation shows, one of the biggest perils in terms of tracking down silent films is that many silents had multiple titles — including many American films released in other countries with titles thought to be more appealing to local audiences. Brownlow’s advice to the next generation of film preservationists: “Look through historic foreign fan magazines and find out what the foreign release title was of American films that are thought lost, then look for films with those titles.”
Brownlow was born in Crowborough, Sussex, in the south of England in 1938. He began to fall in love with film by the age of 11, befriended Abel Gance while in his teens, and started work on his own feature film (with Andrew Mollo) when he was just 17. “It Happened Here,” an alternate history film imagining if Britain had been invaded by the Nazis, was made on a shoestring but picked up by United Artists, which cut some controversial scenes depicting British Fascist collaborators, who were portrayed by actual Neo-Nazis. “We were so smug in Britain about how we thought we would have reacted to invasion,” Brownlow said.
As unconcerned about ruffling feathers as he was with “It Happened Here,” so he remains today. “I was so ashamed of the director’s guild for removing D.W. Griffith from the name of their honor [in 1999],” Brownlow said. “After all, they were all courtesy of D.W. Griffith. If he hadn’t made pictures like ‘The Birth of a Nation’ and ‘Intolerance,’ Wall Street wouldn’t have thought the early film industry was even worth financing at all. To judge a work of art by the way the artist lived and thought is cockeyed.”
To Brownlow, history needs to be faced head-on — not improved, just preserved — even when it’s hard to look at.