Do you know Clarence Brown? If you said, “It’s a theatre,” you get an “I” for incomplete. The theatre was named after a person, and do you know who he was and why the theatre would be named after him? I’m guessing most of us would fail a twenty-question fill-in-the-blank test on the man. The Knox County Public Library is out to change that. Next month they will host a five day film festival, the Clarence Brown Film Festival, honoring Knoxville’s native son. The festival will last five days, utilizing a range of downtown and near downtown locations and will include “screenings, tours, and talks,” according to the press release.
So who is this guy?
Brown, born elsewhere, arrived in Knoxville at age 11, living in Old North Knoxville. He became one of ours, graduating from Knoxville High School and the University of Tennessee — at age 19, with two degrees in engineering! Soon bored with his vocations, his attentions turned to film and to directing. He would eventually earn six Academy Award nominations, while winning none, though he won a number of international awards for his work.
While at MGM, he directed Joan Crawford in six films and Greta Garbo in seven, while helping launch Elizabeth Taylor’s career. “His impact was more than in the realm of glamour, however, as his films subtly addressed social issues from women’s roles to racism.” Directing fifty-two feature-length movies, his films were nominated for thirty-eight Academy Awards, winning nine. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. With his fame at a peak and his name well known to anyone interested in film, he walked away in the 1950s and has become largely forgotten outside film circles. “In 1970, he donated the largest gift at the time to the University of Tennessee, endowing the Clarence Brown Theatre.”
A couple of standout events you will find at the festival (according to the press release:
The Festival features a rare screening of “The Signal Tower” (1924) with live musical accompaniment by Roger Miller of the Anvil Orchestra. The restored 35 mm silent film has been screened only two other times — at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The “The Signal Tower” was originally shown in Knoxville on October 2-4, 1924, at the long-gone movie house, The Strand. This will be the film’s debut in the Historic Tennessee Theatre at 7:30 on Saturday, August 19.
Claude Jarman Jr., star of “The Yearling” and “Intruder in the Dust,” will be on hand to discuss his experiences as a child actor in some of Clarence Brown’s most successful films. Gwenda Young, author of “Clarence Brown: Hollywood’s Forgotten Master,” will deliver the keynote address and introduce several films.
Lights! Camera! East Tennessee! is an exhibition at the Museum of East Tennessee History (601 S. Gay Street) developed in conjunction with the Film Festival that explores Knoxville’s participation and representation in moving images, from the early days of film to today.
Eric Dawson, McClung Historical Collection Manager, who certainly knows his way around movies and moving images, said “His movies remain sophisticated and entertaining examples of the classic Hollywood era featuring some of its most famous stars. Along with the films themselves, the talks and presentations will allow a better understanding of why Brown remains important, and how his connections to Knoxville influenced his work.”
The action gets started with a walking tour of “Brown’s childhood neighborhood,” leaving from Central Flats and Taps in Happy Holler on August 16 at 5:30 pm.
Smouldering Fires (1925) starring Pauline Frederick, Malcolm McGregor, and James Kirkwood | Central Cinema
National Velvet (1944) starring Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney | Outdoor screening at Clarence Brown Theatre Plaza
The Yearling (1946) starring Claude Jarman Jr and Gregory Peck | The Historic Tennessee Theatre
Anna Karenina (1935) starring Greta Garbo, Fredric March, and Freddie Bartholomew | The Historic Tennessee Theatre
The Signal Tower (1924) with live musical accompaniment by Roger Miller of the Anvil Orchestra | The Historic Tennessee Theatre
Intruder in the Dust (1949) starring Claude Jarman, Jr., David Brian, and Juano Hernandez | The Historic Tennessee Theatre
The Eagle (1925) starring Rudolph Valentino, Vilma Banky and Louise Dresser with live musical accompaniment by Ron Carter | The Historic Tennessee Theatre
While Brown’s undeniable legacy may go under the radar in general, his legacy on local theatre can’t be ignored. Of that impact, Tom Cervone, Managing Director of the Clarence Brown Theatre said, “Pure and simple, without Clarence and Marian Brown’s vision and munificence for the theatre program at UTK, the theatre building, the professional company, and the academic program, continually ranked as one of the premiere university programs in the country, do not exist.”
The Festival is supported by the the Jane L. Pettway Foundation, Friends of the Knox County Public Library, UT Libraries Special Collections, Clarence Brown Theatre, the Historic Tennessee Theatre, and The Mildred Haines and William Eliza Morris Lecture Endowment. For more information on the Festival, visit https://www.knoxcountylibrary.org/clarence-brown-film-festival
And finally, what could make it all the better? How about if it was free? It is. Don’t miss it.