The news that The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will be honoring Kevin Brownlow with an Academy Award for lifetime achievement spread like wildfire all over the internet yesterday. The reaction from film fans, film buffs, authors, filmmakers, historians, preservationists and scholars across the globe was instant and unanimous, that of unbridled joy. I can think of no other figure with regard to silent film, the need for preservation and the recording of its history to be more influential than Kevin Brownlow. I can think of no other historian, documentarian, filmmaker or author, each of which is a hat worn by Brownlow, that is more deserving of such a lifetime achievement award.
The Academy summed up Brownlow thusly:
Brownlow is widely regarded as the preeminent historian of the silent film era as well as a preservationist. Among his many silent film restoration projects are Abel Gance’s 1927 epic “Napoleon,” Rex Ingram’s “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (1921) and “The Thief of Bagdad” (1924), starring Douglas Fairbanks. Brownlow has authored, among others, The Parade’s Gone By; The War, the West, and the Wilderness; Hollywood: The Pioneers; Behind the Mask of Innocence; David Lean; and Mary Pickford Rediscovered. His documentaries include “Hollywood,” “Unknown Chaplin,” “Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow,” “Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius” and “D.W. Griffith: Father of Film,” all with David Gill; Brownlow also directed “Cecil B. DeMille: American Epic” and “Garbo,” the latter with Christopher Bird.
The Academy is correct, but really, Brownlow's influence runs so much deeper, in ways that cannot be counted by the listing as above which feels as dry as the IMDB.
In the cinematic circles in which I travel, I'm fairly confident that if it were not for Kevin Brownlow, not one of us would be here blogging, writing, researching or preserving films. The influence and power of this humble and incredibly generous man is like a force of nature.
Brownlow beguiled us with the "book I did not want to write" The Parade's Gone By. He astonished us with the massive and landmark documentary Hollywood. He brought us The Unknown Chaplin, a key that unlocked some of the mystery of how Chaplin formed and perfected his character of the "Little Tramp" and honed his comedic genius. With D.W. Griffith The Father of Film, he paid homage to one of the earliest pioneers of cinematic language in one of the most moving documentaries I've ever seen. His documentaries on Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd are second to none (and like the landmark Hollywood not on DVD). Not content to focus only on the output of Hollywood, the facsinating Cinema Europe The Other Hollywood tells the story of what fine work was going on across the pond. The founding of Photoplay Productions with the late David Gill and Patrick Stanbury has resulted in preservation and documentary work that is the gold standard. Photoplay strives to present silent films in the way they should be seen, as "Live Cinema."
Brownlow's "trilogy" of books the previously mentioned The Parade's Gone By, as well as The War the West and the Wilderness, and Behind the Mask of Innocence are (to me) three volumes that are required reading for anyone with even the most basic interest in film history and silent film. Do not for a moment think that this "history" is dull. It most assuredly is not. Like the subjects Brownlow interviewed, the words leap off the pages and are as engaging as they are delightful. So, too, are the stories. Brownlow interviewed just about everyone who was still alive and willing to talk about silent films including the larger than life figures Allan Dwan, King Vidor, Gloria Swanson, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Mary Pickford, Clarence Brown and Louise Brooks. He did not stop with the "big names" he spoke with everyone, including family members, stuntman Harvey Parry, editors Grant Whytock and Margaret Booth and to the people who played for the films in the movie palaces like Chauncy Haines and Gaylord Carter and everyone else in between to capture what seemed to be the joy of making these films. All of these interviews have been preserved and that alone is worthy of an Oscar.
Then there is his work on Abel Gance's Napoleon. As a young film collector, a reel of film he picked up sparked a lifelong passion and a lifetime restoration project. His earlier restoration of this film brought acclaim to it's director/producer Abel Gance. His passion and continuing work has resulted in a film that is nearly complete. The latest version of Napoleon is well over 5 hours long.
Brownlow's own films, It Happened Here and Winstanley add more fuel to the fire of his achievements.
He is a man who is curious about all aspects of film from the film stock used, to the machine that makes it and the machine that screens it. He's a critic, he's a fan and he's a geek in the nicest sense of the word. He is generous to a fault with his material and is always willing to help someone else with their projects. I can attest to this generosity personally with regard to my own book. He's truly humble about his accomplishments and perhaps a little embarassed by the acclaim, veneration and respect with which he is regarded by the film geeks like me. I get tongue tied every time I talk to him and turn into a silly fangirl. He can't know all the personal stories, but he must realize that his work has changed lives. It changed mine and I am profoundly grateful.
That the Academy has chosen to recognize him for his achievements is a wonderful thing. I applaud the Academy and the Board of Governors for this decision. I applaud Kevin Brownlow for all his achievements, past, present and those in the future. Bravo!