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Kevin Brownlow on his obsession of silent film

PUBLISHED: 14:45 22 August 2016

Kevin Brownlow

Kevin Brownlow

© 2016 Julie Edwards. All rights reserved.

With his seminal series Hollywood Kevin Brownlow reinvigorated interest in silent film. But it was in his hometown of Crowborough that he first developed an obsession, as Duncan Hall discovers.

When Kevin Brownlow saw his first film on the big screen at Tunbridge Wells’ Regent Cinema he was convinced the naval officers depicted were about to fall into the auditorium.

It was a big contrast to the “terrible” home movies he had seen at his Crowborough boarding school courtesy of Dr Barnardo’s up to that point.

“It struck me there was a glow, a definition and beautiful quality compared to the Dr Barnardo’s film,” says the now London-based 78-year-old ahead of a public screening of silent classic The Signal Tower at the closing weekend of Worthing’s WOW Festival in June.

At his next school film offered a respite from what he describes as an “awful” regime. Screenings by the headmaster introduced him to Charlie Chaplin, leading lady Edna Purviance (who reminded him of his mother) and comedian Harold Lloyd. Soon Kevin was desperate to get his own projector, and after a false start – when he was given a stills projector by mistake – he began collecting film in earnest.

“By the age of 11 I was answering adverts in Exchange and Mart and finding films I never knew existed,” he says. “I got the obsession which I still have.”

By necessity these films were silent, as he couldn’t afford sound equipment. And it was lucky they were, as he not only revived interest in a forgotten form with his ground-breaking television series Hollywood but with his company Photoplay has also rescued and preserved many silent classics which could have been lost forever. His work earned him an honorary Oscar in 2010.

His dream was to be a projectionist but his mother had other ideas. “My mother was determined I should become a film-maker and gave me a camera,” he says. “I did a documentary about Hampstead where we lived at the time, but she suggested I make a story film.” Following an update of a Guy de Maupassant short story which he reset from the Prussian War to World War II he created the controversial dystopian view of a Nazi-led England It Happened Here. It took the then 18-year-old and 16-year-old friend Andrew Mollo eight years to make. “Being a director taught me as a historian why people did things that were otherwise difficult to understand,” he says. “It made me a better historian, much more sympathetic to film directors.”

While working as an office boy in the film industry he finally discovered a way to unite his passion for showing films with his directing skills. “I was told if you want an actor you need to get in touch with the Al Parker Agency,” he remembers. When he heard the name he recognised it as the actor who played the villain in American Aristocracy, a 1916 Douglas Fairbanks Jr film he had become fascinated by. “I phoned him up and said: ‘Do you know Douglas Fairbanks Jr?’

Kevin screened American Aristocracy to Al who began introducing Kevin to some of the legends of silent Hollywood – many of whom had never seen their films since they were originally made.

The results of the restorations and interviews became the 1980 13-part series Hollywood which was shown on Thames Television.

Despite growing up close to the birthplace of early cinema experiments Kevin admits he was never impressed by British silent film. “I grew up on American, French and German silent films,” he says. “When I saw the British I was ashamed. It was when sound came in that British film took off – some of the greatest films ever made were The Third Man and the David Lean films. [British directors] Anthony Asquith, Alfred Hitchcock and Manning Haynes knew what they were doing and promptly went to Hollywood!”

Kevin has been responsible for rescuing many silent classics from obscurity or destruction, including FW Murnau’s Sunrise, Greta Garbo’s classic Flesh and the Devil, King Vidor’s The Crowd and The Big Parade, Abel Gance’s five-and-a-half hour biopic Napoleon, horror favourite Nosferatu and Erich von Stroheim’s epic Greed.

But he admits he was indirectly responsible for one movie being lost, possibly forever.

“I was working with the American Film Institute,” he recalls. “Their archivist had found a great many lost silent films from Paramount – and they had found a vault they didn’t know they had. I was shown a list and asked what I would like to see.”

A gangster picture called City Gone Wild starring Louise Brooks and directed by James Cruise instantly took his fancy – so they sent down for it. But disaster struck.

“When the vault keeper opened up the can there was a little bit of dust or ash on the reel,” he says.

“He put the whole film in a barrel of water and had them shipped off before our car arrived. If I hadn’t picked that film it would have survived because all of the others did – in a perfect unprojected condition.” 


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