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Classic Hollywood’s Son of Appalachia

Classic Hollywood’s Son of Appalachia

Clarence Brown fell into obscurity after directing some of America’s finest movies. A film festival in Knoxville hopes to change that.

When Cormac McCarthy died last June, his obituaries reminded the world that Knoxville, TN has played a pivotal role in the life of some of the 20th century’s greatest literary minds. In addition to claiming the author of Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men as a native son, the city also boasts ties to James Agee, Nikki Giovanni, and Alex Haley—all of whom immortalized the “Scruffy City” in their work. But Knoxville is also home to Clarence Brown, director of Hollywood classics like National Velvet, The Yearling, Anna Karenina, and Angels in the Outfield. Few in Knoxville—much less Los Angeles—really remember who he is.

Helming fifty-three films before his death in 1987, Brown found himself pushed to the sidelines of Hollywood history despite the seminal role he played in the careers of screen royalty like Elizabeth Taylor, Rudolph Valentino, Gregory Peck, Joan Crawford, and Greta Garbo. In his hometown, the director, who spent his teen years in the Happy Holler neighborhood and earned an engineering degree from the University of Tennessee, is best known as the namesake of the theater his alma mater’s drama department uses as its main stage. Now, thanks to a collaboration between the Knox County Public Library and international film scholars, Knoxville hopes to reintroduce the director to contemporary audiences with the Clarence Brown Film Festival that will take place from August 16-20. All events are free and open to the public.

In curating seven Brown films that span his entire career (plus a special event this Sunday in his old neighborhood), the event’s organizers have worked tirelessly to recreate the world of classic Hollywood for the community. Brown’s most famous film, National Velvet, screens as part of an outdoor event on UT’s campus. Three of the director’s silent films feature live musical accompaniments, including a recently restored film print of The Signal Tower with Roger Miller of the Anvil Orchestra performing the score.

Programming at the Tennessee Theatre will showcase the venue’s impressive Wurlitzer organ as audiences await the feature presentations. “A lot of people are going to be seeing these films for the first time,” Eric Dawson, director of the Knox County Library’s McClung Historical Collection said. “It’s very rare to see film projected anymore.” 

As part of the screenings of Brown’s classic The Yearling and critically reappraised William Faulkner adaptation, Intruder in the Dust, the festival will host a special appearance by Claude Jarman, Jr.—the child star of both films who Brown discovered in a Nashville schoolhouse before directing him to an Oscar. “It’s such a coup for the Festival to secure him as a guest!” the event’s keynote speaker and film scholar Dr. Gwenda Young said. “ I cannot wait to hear him talk about the two films with Brown.”

In addition to the screenings, the festival has organized a series of discussions with scholars and local historians that culminates with Friday’s keynote lecture by Young, author of Clarence Brown: Hollywood’s Forgotten Master, the first full-length study of the director’s life and career. “After I finished my Ph.D., I wanted a new project and was considering focusing on Maurice Tourneur, but then I diverted into an interest in his protégé, Clarence Brown,” Young said. “ It was then I realised that two films directed by him had stood out for me as a child, had affected me deeply when I saw them on television—National Velvet and The Yearling.”

While a handful of critics before Young praised Brown’s artistic vision, the filmmaker never cemented a reputation on par with his contemporaries like John Ford, Frank Capra, or Alfred Hitchcock. In The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, the now-classic 1968 book that brought the auteur theory from France to the U.S., film critic Andrew Sarris gave Brown a cursory mention as a “subject for further research,” a curiously anemic summary of a director’s career that was so entwined with Hollywood’s greatest screen presences. “That investigation had not really happened,” Young said. 

For Young, Brown’s status as a forgotten director largely rests on his notorious reticence to give interviews and his tendency to adapt to a project’s style rather than adapt a project to his ala Hitchcock. This, coupled with Brown’s conservative politics and often erroneous association with “women’s pictures,” made him less appealing to the counterculture critics that codified film studies in the 1970s. “I do also think that Brown, in the interviews he did give, played down the idea of himself as an auteur, understanding that filmmaking was, and is, deeply collaborative in process and execution,” Young said. 

Beyond her keynote, Young will participate in panels and “lunch and learns” with other film experts interested in Brown’s legacy, including Wall Street Journal and former Village Voice contributor Farran Smith Nehme and internationally recognized film scholar and UT professor Dr. Charles Maland. Though the festival offers multiple perspectives on Brown’s life, it intends to draw an audience beyond academia and dedicated classic movie fans. “It’s about talking about the films and contextualizing them,” Dawson said. “Some of that can sound a little dry to people, but it really is meant to be a general audience event to raise awareness of who Brown was.”

Young may have devoted years of her life to Brown’s work, but the program Dawson and his staff have put together is so dynamic that she’s traveling from Cork, Ireland, just to participate. “These films were made to be seen on a huge screen—the films the Festival committee has selected are ones that have scope, grandeur, very impressive cinematography/and visual design, and sweeping scale,” Young said. “A film like The Eagle or Anna Karenina really needs the big screen for audiences to appreciate the ambition of the director’s vision and the sophistication of his execution—not only the ‘big effects’ but also the attention to subtle detail.”

As a specialist in audio-visual archives, Dawson looked forward to bringing Brown’s films back to the big screen, but didn’t realize the hurdles he would face, especially in the aftermath of the film industry’s post-pandemic realignment. “In planning these films, we had quite an education. It’s getting more and more difficult to find and license these films these days with all the mergers and what’s happening with TCM [Turner Classic Movies],” Dawson said. “It's not as easy to have access to these things as it once was.” Regardless, the Knox County Public Library is dedicated to keeping Brown’s and moviegoing’s legacies alive.


Admission is free except for the screening of “The Goose Woman.” 

Parking is free on evenings and weekends at all downtown parking garages. The University of Tennessee’s McClung Tower Garage offers free parking after 5:30 pm for Friday’s events.

Sunday, August 13

  • 3:00 pm: Special Screening of “The Goose Woman” on 16mm film @ Central Cinema.

Wednesday, August 16

Thursday, August 17

Friday, August 18

Saturday, August 19

Sunday, August 20

  • 1:30 pm: Panel Discussion: Views on Intruder in the Dust featuring actor Claude Jarman, Jr. and film scholar and historians Gwenda Young, Dr. Charles Maland, and Robert J. Booker @ Historic Tennessee Theatre.
  • 2 pm: Screening of Intruder in the Dust @ Historic Tennessee Theatre.
  • 5 pm: Screening of The Eagle with live music from Ron Carter playing the Tennessee Theatre’s Mighty Wurlitzer organ @ Historic Tennessee Theatre.