Kevin Brownlow’s Life in Film

Kevin Brownlow; photo:
Film preservationists and restorers often labor in obscurity, and certainly rarely win awards as prominent as the Academy Awards.

And yet, at the Academy Awards ceremony late last month, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognized archivist, film historian, preservationist, and film maker Kevin Brownlow for his many years of contributions.

As prominent as any of those have been the British early-film authority’s work, beginning in the mid-1970s, of restoring some 25 silents including classics like Intolerance, The Thief of Bagdad, Ben-Hur, and The Crowd in collaboration with producer-director David Gill.

The UCLA Moving Image Archive Studies (MIAS) M.A. Program presents A Conversation with Kevin Brownlow, moderated by Jan-Christopher Horak, director, UCLA Film & Television Archive, on Friday, April 29 2011, at 3:30pm

Brownlow appeared briefly on stage with fellow recipients of the Governors Award from the Academy, actor Eli Wallach and writer, director, and producer Francis Ford Coppola, who received the Irving Thalberg Award.

A fourth Governors honoree, Jean-Luc Godard, stayed away from the event, as he had from an earlier gathering at which the Governors Awards were announced, at the Grand Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland Center on November 13, 2010.

It was the second year that the Governors Awards had their own evening. They previously were presented during the televised Academy Awards.

In its citation, the Board of Governors noted that Brownlow, who is also a noted filmmaker, had contributed “wise and devoted chronicling of the cinematic parade.”

In an Academy statement, visual effects supervisor Craig Barron, who nominated Brownlow, said that he had “devoted his life to preserving and celebrating the silent era and the artists who made the films. He is universally recognized as the silent-film historian.”

Brownlow became the third film preservationist to win a prestigious honorary award from the Academy. In 1954, Kemp R. Niver received one “for the development of the Renovare Process which has made possible the restoration of the Library of Congress Paper Film Collection,” and Henri Langlois received an honorary Oscar in 1973 for “devotion to the art of film, his massive contributions in preserving its past, and his unswerving faith in its future.”

Academy Governors who commented on Brownlow included actor James Karen. He called Brownlow’s book The Parade’s Gone By… (1968), which became a definitive source on silent film and a fixture on film scholars’ bookshelves, “as fine and comprehensive history of the silent era as you could probably find anywhere.

Brownlow’s 1980 “monumental 13-hour documentary, Hollywood: The Silent Years,” said Karen, “is thrilling in its scope, and we mustn’t overlook his important role in film preservation and restoration.

“Of course there are many more books, many more documentaries, such as the ones on Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Greta Garbo, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith…”

As filmmakers, Brownlow and Gill produced and directed a series of documentaries and television series (Kenneth Branagh has served as narrator on five of them) that presented new perspectives on such pioneers of film comedy as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd, as well as many other personalities from film history.

Brownlow’s reconstruction of Abel Gance’s five-hour silent epic Napoléon (1927) was released in U.S. theaters in 1981 to great acclaim. Brownlow had spent decades searching for parts of the film, and restoring them, after stumbling at age 15 on a 9.5mm roll of film at a Parisian market that contained two reels of the film.

Brownlow, with Gill, restored and introduced to new audiences films including F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), starring Rudolph Valentino, and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), with Lon Chaney. With restorations undertaken by Photoplay Productions, a company Brownlow founded with Gill and Patrick Stanbury, these and many other films aired on Britain’s Channel 4 Television.

Brownlow began to make films early in his life. At the Academy’s awards ceremony, Lindsay Doran, producer of such films as the Oscar-winning Sense & Sensibility and a former president of United Artists, which produced many of the stars Brownlow has studied, spoke of helping Brownlow regain rights to his extraordinary feature film, It Happened Here.

Brownlow finished making the film in 1965, eight years after he began it at the age of 18 in collaboration with an even-younger Andrew Mollo, who went on to become a military historian. (Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky would later work on The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Empire Strikes Back.)

Made on grainy black-and-white, 16mm film, with no stock footage, but a cast of hundreds of volunteers and several professionals, the film depicted a Britain occupied by British agents of the Nazis – a notion that angered many British audience members.

It became renowned as one of the finest independent films ever, despite a miniscule budget.

Brownlow spent many years trying to get back the rights for it from United Arstists, Doran told the Academy gathering. She promptly did return it, in one of her first official acts in her role. She called that “a small thank you to someone who had done so much to those four founders of United Artists and so many others of the silent era.”

In 1968 Brownlow published the story of how the film got made under the title How it Happened Here. The book, updated in 2005 and 2007, describes how two teenagers made the film, its reception, and the issues of willing and half-witting collaboration it explored.

Also speaking in salute to Brownlow at the Academy reception was actor Kevin Spacey, two-Oscar winner, who thanked Brownlow for “a lifetime of determination, unswerving perseverance, and uncomprising devotion in order to make sure that the films that we love, we can see them forever in the ways they were meant to be seen.”

Spacey thanked Brownlow for his “commitment to absolute perfection in every aspect of research, writing, restoration, production, and exhibition has changed film history, and influenced new generations of film makers. Every time one of them sets out on another flea-market run, or a dusty attic, or a garage sale in search of that elusive missing bit of footage, the fingerprints of your own pioneering work will be casting a very long shadow. You were there first, and because of that we are all very lucky indeed.

“The silent greats… thanks in large part to the brilliant and painstaking efforts of Kevin Brownlow, their immortality is assured.”

He was certain, he said, that the greats of the silent-film pantheon would be raising a toast on that evening to Brownlow, “this remarkable man and his priceless accomplishments.”

In accepting the award, Brownlow said: “My god, your predecessors did a terrible job of preserving the silent era. Historian David Pierce is about to reveal that 73 percent has been destroyed.

“It’s up to us to do our damnedest to find the films that your predecessors destroyed, and bring them back into the canon.”

He added: “An awful lot is being done…but when I think of some of the titles that are gone, it’s really heartbreaking.”

He added: “It is amazing what’s turning up. And if you would only relax your copyright laws, where silent films are concerned, you would see an awful lot more suddenly appear. That has been one of the worst chains on this whole affair of ours, to try to rescue the past of the cinema.”

Brownlow recalled that colleagues and friends had initially tried to discourage him from becoming a film restorer and historians: “I was told when I started this business that silent films are a complete waste of time – they were jerky, flickery, ludicrously badly acted, and appallingly photographed.

“And, I couldn’t understand it because I was already a film collector, and what I saw in beautiful prints, although sometimes abridged, were… I was struck by the freshness, the vitality, the innovation, and the exquisite photography. And I really do regret the loss of black and white. It was a beautiful medium. It called upon you to do some work, like silent film itself – you have to supply the voices and sound effects – and with black and white you supply everything that the film suggested, and therefore you become part of the creative process, and it means that much more.”

Selected Works of Kevin Brownlow

Feature film

It Happened Here (1966)


Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927, restored 1981)

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921, restored 1993)

Sunrise (1927, restored 1995)


I’m King Kong!: The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper (2005, director)

Cecil B. DeMille: American Epic (2004, director)

Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces (2000, director)

Universal Horror (1998, director)

Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood (1995, director)

D.W. Griffith: Father of Film (1993, director)

Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow (1987, director)

Hollywood (1980, director)

Unknown Chaplin (1986, producer)

Abel Gance: The Charm of Dynamite (1968, director)


In Search of Charlie Chaplin (2005)

Mary Pickford Rediscovered (1999)

David Lean (1996)

Behind the Mask of Innocence (1990)

Hollywood: The Pioneers (1979)

The War, the West, and the Wilderness (1978)

The Parade’s Gone By… (1968)

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