Kevin Brownlow

Active - 1918 - 2016  |   Born - Jun 2, 1938   |   Genres - Film, TV & Radio

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In his four decade career as a film director and editor, restoration expert, and author, Kevin Brownlow has raised the public consciousness about silent movies to the highest level they've enjoyed since the advent of the talkies. Born in Crowborough, a village in Sussex, in 1938, he developed a fascination with movies very early in life, and at age 11 was given a projector as a gift by his parents. Brownlow began collecting silent films during an era in which few people in England (or anywhere else) thought of movies as anything more than entertainment. From the late '40s onward, he became something of a self-taught expert on the subject of silent movies, and he discovered a special affinity for French films, with their rapid cutting and emotional quality, so much so that from ages 16 through 19, he shot a movie in a distinctly French style, entitled The Capture based on a Guy de Maupassant story. It was during this period that he first got to see a few reels of a 1927 French film by Abel Gance entitled Napoléon. Brownlow was held spellbound by the fragmentary sections of the movie that he could find and began searching for more of the film, as well as information on Gance, who had fallen into relative obscurity by the 1950s. He gradually assembled an ever-larger portion of Napoléon's complete content, even as his own filmmaking aspirations grew. By the mid-'50s, Brownlow was employed as a trainee film cutter by a production company making documentaries. He decided to make another movie, to be called It Happened Here, a documentary-style feature built around the notion of what would have happened had the Germans successfully invaded England in 1940. Working with a cast and crew comprised entirely of volunteers, Brownlow began his ambitious shoot in 1956, even enacting a National Socialist rally in London's Hyde Park that was so realistic that the police and onlookers mistook it for the real thing. It took Brownlow eight years to complete It Happened Here, in the face of the desertion of would-be volunteers, resistance by government authorities, and ridicule in the local press. Early in that struggle, however, he also found a key ally and collaborator in Andrew Mollo, an art student and expert on World War II uniforms. Starting out as a production designer, Mollo soon became the movie's co-producer and co-director with Brownlow. Brownlow also found an ally in critic and future director Lindsay Anderson, who encouraged his efforts on the movie and also his efforts to write about films. He wrote articles for various film journals and also became an editor at his studio. Then in his twenties and possessing some professional standing, Brownlow and his film project began to be taken much more seriously by those around him, including the press, which by the early '60s, regarded his now six-year effort as worthy, if still unlikely to achieve its goal. That all changed when producer/director Tony Richardson provided the 6,000 pounds needed to complete the movie. By that time, It Happened Here was a shoestring but professional production, employing the services of professionals, including actor Sebastian Shaw. It Happened Here established Brownlow and Mollo as serious filmmakers when it was premiered in 1964, and it was subsequently picked up for distribution in America by United Artists. They only lacked credibility with the major studios, whose management were as much put off as they were fascinated by the duo's success. Brownlow and Mollo discovered what Roger Corman learned when he made his first movie for a major studio (The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, 20th Century Fox): the majors are at best amused, and at worst frightened, by people who make their movies without spending lots of money, but mostly they're annoyed by them; they prefer routine productions (especially in those days) on six- or seven-figure budgets, and even very slightly sloppy productions against which as many extraneous day-to-day studio expenses as possible can be written off; and they don't like the attributes of personal or professional tenacity, because the people displaying them are usually difficult (if not impossible) to control. Brownlow and Mollo considered pursuing various historical subjects, ranging from the Middle Ages to World War II; meanwhile, Brownlow made television commercials, directed the BBC documentary Abel Gance: The Charm of Dynamite, and edited a Lindsay Anderson movie, The White Bus, before going to work at Tony Richardson's Woodfall Productions, where he was the supervising editor on The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968). All the while, during the eight years devoted to It Happened Here and the years immediately after, he kept working at restoring Napoléon, and also wrote his first book, The Parade's Gone By, a vividly detailed volume of interviews with surviving silent screen figures. Brownlow worked on one more feature film with Mollo, Winstanley, financed by the British Film Institute, which was set in the years after the British Reformation. The movie drew rave reviews but never found a mass audience. His quest for a complete Napoléon, including a restoration of the celebrated widescreen "Polyvision" sequences, continued, and by the dawn of the 1970s he'd begun seeking a venue in which to show it to as many people as possible. Meanwhile, Brownlow became a producer at Thames Television in England and collaborated with producer/director David Gill on the series Hollywood, devoted to silent movies, and also completed two more books, The War, the West and the Wilderness (1978) and Hollywood: The Pioneers (1979). Following showings of Brownlow's restoration-in-progress of Napoléon at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and at the Telluride Film Festival during the 1970s, Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope Studios became involved in backing a full commercial reissue of the 1927 movie. They sponsored a presentation of Napoléon at Radio City Music Hall in New York -- the first time a silent movie had ever been shown at the renowned venue -- with a live orchestra and a new score prepared by Carmine Coppola, the father of the director. (In Europe, a rival score by composer Carl Davis was utilized for a presentation of the movie in London.) Alas, due to union pay scales, the Radio City showing -- which proved so popular that more dates had to be scheduled -- meant cutting Brownlow's five-hour restored version by nearly an hour. These events and their success led to the production at Thames Television, under Brownlow's and Gill's direction, of restored and re-scored versions of such silent classics as The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and The Big Parade (1925), as well as major showcases for silent film directors, including Unknown Chaplin, Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow, and Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius. Those programs and the laserdisc releases of his restored silents -- including Napoléon, which was picked up for release by Universal -- marked the high point of Brownlow's influence on British and American cinema. Many thousands of new viewers were exposed to the previously overlooked works, and even the major studios began issuing the best of their silent movies on videocassette and laserdisc in response to Brownlow's work. In more recent years, he has worked on several documentaries devoted to early European cinema and to the preservation of silent era films. Through his documentary and restoration work, Brownlow is probably more responsible than any other individual for giving the public on both sides of the Atlantic a sense of the importance of finding and preserving older classic films, many of which are long into the process of disintegrating and disappearing forever.

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