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Questions for Kevin Brownlow

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Questions for Kevin Brownlow

Postby SSO Admins » April 10th, 2008, 10:08 am

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Ann Harding
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Postby Ann Harding » April 13th, 2008, 8:07 am

First of all, a very warm thank you to Mr Brownlow for his fabulous documentaries and books on silent films. :D Here are my three questions:

1. Do you feel that Griffith was at the forefront of silent film making as much as Victor Sjöström?
2. What are your own feelings regarding The Birth of Nation?
3. Are you working on a new documentary at the moment?

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Status Of Photo-play Productions WINGS, Etc.

Postby Gagman 66 » April 13th, 2008, 5:00 pm

:D Mister Brownlow, Thanks you so very much for the honor of your presence here. This is such a rare and wonderful opportunity. Let me say that you are very much a personal hero of mine so I feel quite privileged indeed to be addressing you.

:? I hope that these qualify as Three questions? There is allot of sub-text, but it is all a part of the same inquiry. Hope this is alright?:

:roll: 1. What is the Status of the Photo-play restoration of WINGS, and Why can't it apparently be shown on TCM here in the States? Who owns the rights to this version is it Paramount, or is it yourself and Patrick Stansbury? There has been no American broadcast at all to the best of my knowledge? We have been told TCM is still attempting to obtain the rights to air this version?

:cry: 2. Why are the majority of the wonderful Silent films that you have restored over the past 3 decades still not on official DVD, and can we be expecting additional titles to pop up anytime soon? If No, then why is this??? Collectors like me, keep dreaming of a nice series of limmited Edition Box set's containing the full library of Thames/Channel Four, and Film 4 Silent's, several of which have not been seen in this country all fully re-mastered. The documentaries too! Though I understand the legal dilemma's that such a project does present.

3. Finally, Can you tell us more about your finding the long lost Camera Negative of THE BIG PARADE at Eastman House, and how that happened to come about? Also does any 2-Strip Technicolor footage still survive??? Few people have seen the new restoration so far I am sorry to say, but many of us are most anxious too! :wink:

Most Sincerely,

Last edited by Gagman 66 on April 13th, 2008, 7:44 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Postby Lzcutter » April 13th, 2008, 6:59 pm

Mr. Brownlow,

Thanks so much for taking the time to visit with us. We are truly honored to have you as our guest.

We met a few years back at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood where you were showing the DeMille Documentary and a few DeMille silents. Robert Birchard was there that evening and introduced us.

You have been a major influence on my life and I want to thank you for all your efforts in film preservation as well as all of the history that you have helped to preserve, the stories and memories of the silent screen stars, directors, writers and crew is an invaluable asset that will be treasured for years to come by movie-lovers everywhere.

My questions:

1) What do you have coming up? Is it true that you want to do a documentary on Doug Fairbanks, Sr but funding is a bit of a problem?

2) What preservation project are you most proud of and why?

3) Many people don't understand the difficulties of film preservation, the treasure hunts through international archives and the problems involved. Could you talk a bit about that.

Thank you again for joining us here at the SSO!
Lynn in Lake Balboa

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Postby KevinBrownlow » April 14th, 2008, 2:56 am

Thank you for your kind comments. I'm delighted to be making a virtual appearance on this website, but i am very uncertain of the technology.

1) Photoplay Productions has been in existence for eighteen years, but the last few months have been very arid. We have been trying to get a documentary on Douglas Fairbanks off the ground, but no commissioning editor has expressed interest. Fairbanks died nearly seventy years ago, so it is understandable, television being a young man's business, that he is little known - but a documentary could put that right. It was a Douglas Fairbanks film that first got me hooked on silent films. As I came in with Fairbanks, so it would be good to go out on Fairbanks.

2) Abel Gance's NAPOLEON (1927)

3) i think you mean restoration rather than preservation. The first film we chose to follow NAPOLEON in the Thames Silents series, back in the 1980s, was King Vidor's THE CROWD (1928). People pointed out that while we had had a big success with NAPOLEON in London, we would never be able to repeat it, because there was no other silent like NAPOLEON. THE CROWD is just about my favourite American silent (along with SUNRISE). It is an intimate epic, the very opposite of NAPOLEON. So my partner David Gill persuaded Thames to do a deal with MGM. When MGM sent the print, we discovered it was missing that marvellous sequence showing New York, with the track up the skyscraper. Luckily, King Vidor was still alive, and he said he had last seen the sequence in a print at George Eastman House. James Card, the curator, generously sent it over. Alas, it turned out to be on l6mm, so we had to blow it up to 35mm, but this tiny act of restoration made a lot of difference to the film. We discovered that it had been a common habit for editors to lop out sequences from the camera negative at MGM. We eventually found bits of the skyscraper sequence turning up in subsequent productions, such as SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK with Buster Keaton. THE CROWD was eventually prepared for television with a stunning score by Carl Davis, but we were new to the game, and did not correct the timing as much as we should have done. I live in hope that a superior quality print of this masterpiece will turn up.

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Postby KevinBrownlow » April 14th, 2008, 3:28 am

gagman 66

Delighted to read your message.

1) TCM did broadcast a version of WINGS- and this year, too - the one with a Gaylord Carter organ score. They apparently asked Paramount for our version but were told there was 'a rights issue'.

2) I also wish all our silents were on DVD. You can find FLESH AND THE DEVIL in the Garbo boxed set, and BEN-HUR is an extra with the l959 version. (although missing one or two shots!) IRON MASK and CAT AND CANARY are out through KINO and Milestone have put out PHANTOM, CHESS PLAYER, IT, LA TERRE and THE BLOT. (There are one or two more on VHS in the UK)

Apparently silents do not sell very well and unlike the book market, where classics are regarded as so important they are subsidised, the big companies regard them with a harsh, commercial eye. But you can expect the odd title to pop up - eventually. The documentaries - oh,dear. We are still hoping that one day the rights issues on HOLLYWOOD will be cleared. But as John Wayne would say,'That'll be the day.'

3) I was giving a talk at the Archive School at Eastman House in l997 when I asked how many students had seen THE BIG PARADE. To my surprise, none. So we arranged to screen it that same day. And although it was the sound reissue of 1931,I realised from the superb quality that it had been made from the camera negative. Eastman House preserve many MGM films, soI was conducted into the vault where we examined cans marked 'silent neg' The quality was only so-so. What about looking in the cans marked 'sound neg'? There was the original camera negative, with splices at each cut, and titles cut in which had been adjusted for sound academy ratio. But....archive practice means that you don't print direct from an original camera neg so when it was eventually 'restored', a fine grain was made. Tne new version is superior to the one previously available, but it would be wonderful to see the gorgeous quality of that print I saw in l997. No Technicolor was used on the film. There is one shot of an ambulance stuck in the mud for which a red cross was created using (I suspect) the Handschiegl process. I believe this was printed by Technicolor, originally.

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Postby KevinBrownlow » April 14th, 2008, 4:40 am

ann harding

Thank you!

1) the trouble with Griffith is that he had very creative PR men who claimed everything cinematic had been invented by him. Much of this was ridiculous - how could anyone in the film industry 'invent' the closeup when painters and photographers had been producing closeups for centuries? And one of the first moving images - FRED OTT'S SNEEZE (1894) - was shot in closeup a full fourteen years before DWG entered the business. If you examine DWG's Biographs, they were conservatively made. But in the best of those films - UNSEEN ENEMY, BATTLE AT ELDERBUSH GULCH, MUSKETEERS OF PIG ALLEY, GIRL AND HER TRUST, KNIGHT OF THE ROAD to pluck titles at random - DWG used those techniques better than most others. He had a tremendous influence. Victor Sjostrom was also a master of his craft and oddly enough his first film THE GARDENER appears to have had an influence on DWG, who repeats the attack on the flowers in THE MOTHERING HEART.
Griffith made some bad films - ONE EXCITING NIGHT, DREAM STREET, SCARLET DAYS - but his best work had more of an influence than Sjostrom's. I can't remember meeting a silent film maker who wasn't in thrall to Griffith. I was going to adjust that to 'American', but i remember Abel Gance (who was an admirer of Sjostrom) was passionate about DWG's work, even such disappointing films as AMERICA! And Raymond Bernard, who made THE CHESS PLAYER, practically reshot the battle from INTOLERANCE in his MIRACLE OF THE WOLVES. It is hard for us to appreciate the impact of DWG - especially in the miserable prints one so often sees these days. His work has been copied so often that it has lost much of its freshness. Sjostrom (Seastrom) made THE WIND and it was a flop at the time, being 'rediscovered' in recent years to tremendous acclaim. Had it been a success, it too might have been copied to death.

2) THE BIRTH OF A NATION? What are you trying to do - get me thrown off this website?! What a tragedy DWG's most famous film was made from such a vicious play. Griffith's name was removed by the Directors' Guild from their annual award, as though he was personally responsible for the racism. The strange thing is that in my youth, no one commented on the racism. , which i find odd when you consider the outcry that greeted the original release. Indeed, Carl th. Dreyer selected it as his number one film in a Sight and Sound survey in the 50s. People who saw it when it came out told me they saw nothing political in the Ride of the Klan- it was no different to cowboys and Indians. But that was before the Civil Rights movement made us realise how appallingly the blacks had been treated, Whatever one thinks of Griffith - and he was proud of his Southern ancestry - he was only replicating what America had done fifty years earlier. Among the people who decry the man, no one tells you about the Fox film THE n***** (this computer won't let me type the title!) that came out the same year and also upset the NAACP. They don't tell you that Griffith made a film (ROSE OF KENTUCKY) in which the KKK were the villains and a black boy was the hero. How few American directors have made films against racial prejudice - but Griffith did (with BROKEN BLOSSOMS).

The first half of THE BIRTH is a magnificent pacifist film. It is only in the second half you get the hair-raising racism. And terrifying though it is, ihe Ride of the Klan is breathtakingly exciting. It is said that THE BIRTH gave rise to the rebirth of the KKK. Yet paradoxically, Griffith was opposed to the new Klan. He defended the old one, and I'm sure he would have defended other aspects of the period which we find indefensible. But he was adapting one of the most popular plays of the age - THE CLANSMAN by Th Dixon - and was thus reflecting the attitude of millions of Americans. If only he had made the big draw before THE CLANSMAN, UNCLE TOM'S CABIN! And DWG was a humanitarian, despite those Southern sympathies; here is what he said in 1919; 'There will never be a League of Nations until we cease regarding ourselves as the greatest people on earth. Until we stop speaking of foreigners, Wops, Chinks etc. Then and only then will there be a true brotherhood.'
THE BIRTH is virtually banned today --in a country that rejects censorship in its Constitution. There are passages unacceptable to many in the Bible, but we don't ban the entire book.
Nevertheless, THE BIRTH had an unprecedented effect. It was by far the greatest financial success of the silent era. many historians consider it the single most important film in the development of the cinema. It certainly marked the beginning of modern film production. And when you think it was only ten years or so since the cinema began to tell a story, this massive three-hour epic was an astonishing achievement.

3) I am not working on a new documentary, more's the pity. No one seems to want to finance the sort of film-history work we do any more. Still, we've had a splendid run.

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Postby silentscreen » April 14th, 2008, 5:49 am

Mr. Brownlow,

I just want to extend a very warm welcome to you and thank you for visiting with us! I have spent many a wonderful hour viewing your documentaries and reading your books! They have greatly increased my knowledge and appreciation of silent film.

One question that I have is how did you come up with the idea for the Hollywood documentary and get such wonderful but forgotten stars as Viola Dana and Lois Wilson to contribute?


Last edited by silentscreen on April 14th, 2008, 8:29 am, edited 3 times in total.
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Postby Ann Harding » April 14th, 2008, 6:36 am

Thanks a lot Mr Brownlow!
I know I asked some difficult questions :oops: but, I really wanted to hear your own views on Griffith's work. I saw The Birth of a Nation recently and was pretty appalled by it. I also watched your documentary on Griffith which gave some very balanced views on this difficult subject. You reply is extremely satisfying as you replace the film in its original context. :)
It's a terrible shame that you cannot find any support for a new documentary. Have you asked the Arte channel? This Franco-German channel supports silent films; they might be willing to finance in part such a project. :wink:
I have seen your wonderful Hollywood series and the Cinema Europe one: I would rate them far above any other doc I have ever seen about silent cinema and certainly the best in terms of editing, commentary and choice of excerpts. 8)


Postby drednm » April 14th, 2008, 7:19 am

Mr. Brownlow..... Many of us ardent silent film fans have pondered the fate of restored films (HER WILD OAT, THE BARKER, FINE MANNERS, STAGE STRUCK, etc.) that reside in vaults and are hardly ever shown. And even when the films are shown at UCLA or Eastman House, etc., few of us can simply pack up and go to see them. I was lucky enough to be able to go to Eastman House and seen 5 rare Gloria Swanson films; most film buffs can't do this.

Question: what can we ordinary fans do to encourage the DVD release of these rare films so that the films can be seen?

Ed Lorusso

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Okay, here goes . . .

Postby CoffeeDan » April 14th, 2008, 9:16 am

Just a few more, Mr. Brownlow:

1. Since the moviegoing public initially didn't want sound pictures -- and proved very resistant even into the late 1920s -- why do you think sound took over so quickly and completely during 1929-30?

2. Silent features from the 1913-20 period seem so much faster paced and tightly edited than those from the 1920s. Why the change?

3. I've read how THE BIG PARADE was augmented by special stage lighting, music, and sound effects, especially during the battle scenes, during its original New York run, making it a real multimedia presentation. Was this a common practice in the silent era, and if so, what other films received this treatment?

Thank you for looking at these (and other) questions, and I hope you enjoy your time at Silver Screen Oasis this week.

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Postby Avalon » April 14th, 2008, 12:51 pm

Dear Mr Brownlow,

It is indeed an honor to be speaking with you. "The Parade's Gone By..." changed my life.

I am fascinated by silent films (especially of the 1920s) and enjoy learning about the actors / actresses of that era. I would love to make this my life's work: reviewing, researching, and writing about the films and the people who made them great. What advice do you have for someone who wants to break into this as a career?

Thank you for your time and for visiting the SSO.

Jennifer :)
~the grass is full of ghosts to-night~

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Postby MissGoddess » April 14th, 2008, 2:31 pm

Dear Mr B---thank so very much for taking time to be with us and share your knowledge and passion for these films. I can assure you of no lack of appreciation here for the work you do and our sincere interest in any future endeavors! I wish TCM would bring you on board as an "Essentials" Host.

My question is: Of all the people in the film industry you have interviewed and gotten to know, which one struck you as the most interesting or fascinating and why? My mind just reels to think of all the wonderful and charismatic "characters" you must have come in contact with over the years in this bewitching industry. I envy you that, sir.

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Postby Sue Sue Applegate » April 14th, 2008, 4:15 pm

Dear Mr. Brownlow: It is such an honor to have you visit us here at the Silver Screen Oasis!

I was lucky enough to attend the BFI Media Studies Conference in 2006 in London, and was concerned about the disparity in the rigorous media studies courses in the UK and the lack of depth and detail given to such studies in American secondary schools. How might we as educators encourage more stringent studies of media topics and better inform our populace about the history of film and the urgency of many classic film restoration projects?

Thank you.

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Postby Gagman 66 » April 14th, 2008, 5:49 pm

Dear Mr. Brownlow,

:) Thank you so very much for your response. It's certainly an amazing story concerning how the Camera Negative to THE BIG PARADE managed to miraculously survive. But since 2004 when the new restoration was completed, only a few live screening's have occurred, and nothing more. To me THE BIG PARADE is among the finest films ever made, and the lack of some sort of DVD by this time is nothing short of abominable!

:? When the restored print was screened at AMPAS in March of 2005, it was also announced that Warner would be releasing the film on DVD in the Fall, for the 80th Anniversary of the picture. Unfortunately, since that time the project has been repeatedly pushed back year after year, and the new version hasn't appeared on TCM yet, let alone on DVD! I harp about this most every chance that I get believe me!

:) I am still hoping to see a DVD release with both the new and your superb Thames version also re-mastered, with Carl Davis magnificent score. And I hope the 1925 Axt-Mendoza score that Robert Israel's 19 piece orchestra has performed live will be recorded for the new restoration, I would have thought this had already taken place, but according to David Shepard that is not the case? Very frustrating!

:roll: Over the years, (I am 42 by the way), I have been fortunate to collect most of your projects, and restorations in one form or another. And all are most cherished. WINGS and THE WEDDING MARCH being two glaring omissions I am sad to say. I sincerely do hope that any rights issues can be cleared so that these versions can finally be aired on American Television and TCM. I find it rather inexplicable that this hasn't been done by now?

:( A quick comment on the situation with Abel Gance NAPOLEON, Why can't there be some sort of compromise on a DVD collection containing both the older restoration with the Coppalla score, and the newer one, with the Carl Davis score? What's wrong with that idea??? Petty Anxt over who's score is the best is a silly reason for this Masterpiece to be with-held from the public!

:? I agree that Silent films don't get much respect from the Major Studios, I am sorry to say. They just view the films as old, and not a very viable commercial product. So tons of them remain un-released, even the best titles. Meantime the Major DVD companies shovel out plenty of pure garbage without batting an eye! There are so many films that are routinely released and TV shows with only a one year run or so, and no real fan base, that are obscure and few people care to see, but they still put them out without hesitation! Not so, with Silent films though? To me this makes no sense whatsoever!

:roll: Having seen as many Silent's as I have (well over 400 to 500 features), I know just how many great movies were made back than, and the numbers are staggering! Despite that fact that 75% of all Silent's are long gone! What remains are rare and precious, and we need to keep sight of that! They have to be rescued from the vaults! As long as they remain in the vaults they can't be seen, and rediscovered and inevitably more films will be lost for ever, because they will just deteriorate to dust! Many surviving films are not being properly preserved!

:x To me talkies are kind of more or less all the same in allot of ways, and mostly a dime a dozen, but Silent films are not like that. I far prefer the Silent's of the 20's to much of the light-hearted fluff of the 30's and 40's. But most people are ignorant of Silent film in general and not willing to even give it an unbiased look at all! So very sad!

:D On the plus side, I have successfully managed to hook literally hundreds of people on Silent films over the past few years, and will continue my efforts to do so. If I had the money, I would have numerous favorites of mine restored myself.

:wink: In closing, let me say as I am typically getting a bit long winded here, that I agree that Thames HOLLYWOOD documentary series was a monumental achievement, and I so hope to see an official DVD release as soon as possible. Meantime I do have the complete series on Laser-disc, so I am quite fortunate in that regard! I have likewise seen Cinema Europe and have the I believe now out of print Image DVD.

8) The very best of luck to you in all your future endeavors, and hopefully we will be seeing that fabulous Fairbanks project materialize after-all before to long! I am sure it will be truly outstanding as all of your work has been! Again I can't thank you enough for your time and your consideration! And God Bless you Sir!

Most Sincerely,


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