When you’re re-creating a period in history for a film, in a sense, you’re playing God,” says filmmaker and historian Kevin Brownlow. “So you’d best get the details right. In the pictures we made together, Andrew Mollo and I tried to follow in the same path as Erich von Stroheim, with his fanatical devotion to authentic detail. I’ve always had a tremendous admiration for Stroheim— his passion for getting feeling over, but my greatest fascination has been for directors who used the medium to the fullest, like Eisenstein, like Abel Gance.”
As a boy film collector, showing movies on the wall, Brownlow’s favorite was a two-reel clip of Gance’s masterpiece, Napoleon. “It was the first piece of pure cinema I’d ever seen.” Brownlow would spend many of his adult years on the Herculean task of restoring the mutilated film to its original glory. His magnificent full-triptych reconstruction received its American premiere at the 1979 Telluride Festival— with Gance present, in honor of his 90th birthday.
Brownlow’s entertaining and doggedly researched docs on film history have included profiles of D.W. Griffith, Buster Keaton, Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd— the most recent, Universal Horrors, was aired on TCM last month. His exploration of silent American cinema has yielded a hefty and handsomely illustrated trilogy of books: The Parade’s Gone By (1968), The War, The West, and The Wilderness (1979), and Behind the Mask of Innocence (1991), the last an absorbing chronicle of social-problem films.
“The Parade’s Gone By just snowballed,” Brownlow notes. “I was interested in the period and since lots of its survivors were dying, I decided to interview everyone I could who had worked in American silent cinema. I went to Hollywood in 1964, and one evening, in a restaurant which had celebrity photos on the wall, I was inspecting a picture of Fred Niblo when an elderly lady at the next table asked what I was looking at so intently. I said, Fred Niblo. She said, you’re too young to know anything about someone like him. I replied that, on the contrary, silent film directors were a major interest of mine. She said, well I’m married to one. It was Mrs. Joseph Henabery. That’s how I came to do a four-hour interview with Henabery. And when I saw what I had, I realized I had to do a book.” (A Griffith protégé, Henabery appears in the role of Lincoln in The Birth of a Nation, was an assistant director on Intolerance, and went on to a distinguished directorial career. The section devoted to him is one of the highlights of this indispensable book.)
Brownlow has quite a full plate at the moment, completing a study of Mary Pickford while supervising the restoration of von Stroheim’s last great film, The Wedding March (1928). “The Technicolor has been revised— the picture now looks good for the first time in many years.” And he’s actually still working on Napoleon. “A print has been found, appropriately enough, in Corsica, which contained some shots that had always been missing and that helped resolve questions of tinting and toning. With recent technical developments, it’s possible for the first time to duplicate the beauty of the original titles. The tinting on the version of Napoleon shown in America was sheer guesswork— now we can do it right. You know, you just need a few lifetimes.”