Clarence Brown, Tennessean gone Hollywood

Next to Quentin Tarantino, Clarence Brown is the most famous film director to have spent his childhood in Knoxville. Brown directed Greta Garbo more than any other director, and called the shots for National Velvet and The Yearling.

Metro Pulse’s Jack Neely has written the best story I’ve seen on Brown’s relationship to Knoxville, and particularly his generosity to UT, in which he funded the Clarence Brown Theatre. Tennessee Wife and I were undergrads on UT’s Film Committee in those days, and we and others were asked to help plan the Clarence Brown Film Festival–Tennessee Wife chaired it. Brown was delighted that students were so interested in his work, and UT’s fundraising officials were also very happy–he eventually gave UT $12 million. Below is a photo of me sitting beside Brown when he was holding forth during the Clarence Brown Film Festival.

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The Clarence Brown Theatre, while built and wonderfully equipped for stage productions, also came with 35mm projectors–Brown was a movie director, after all–and a screen that dropped down from above. Our committee began showing foreign films on Sunday nights, and it was there that Knoxvillians came to see creations by the likes of Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Frederico Fellini, and a beautifully restored series of Charlie Chaplin classics in all their 35 mm glory. We provided a wonderful cinematic education and a great cultural experience.

Then came the news that the Theatre Department’s set designer had designed a set that extended so far forward that the movie screen could not descend and that our Sunday night film program would be suspended during the two-month run of a play. The Film Committee students howled, but were told that the decision had been made and that was that. Run along.

That’s when we dropped the bomb. “We’ll just call Clarence Brown in California,” Tennessee Wife said, “and see what he has to say about banning movies in his theater.”

That got things rolling. She and I were whisked to a lunch at the Faculty Club with the head of the Theatre Department, a student affairs dean, and Charles Brakebill, the VP for Development who had nurtured the Clarence Brown gift. We made our case that Brown was a film director, not a theater man, and that audiences deserved to see movies at least one night a week.

Mr. Brakebill, ever the smooth guy, ended the lunch by saying he was sure things could be worked out. Sometime later, probably that afternoon, the word came down from above to the Theatre Department: modify that set and keep the films rolling on Sunday night.

This blog is part of a much larger website, also entitled Tennessee Guy, that contains travel and cultural information about Tennessee. Visit it here.

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