Who is Kevin Brownlow?
In 2011, the British filmmaker Kevin Brownlow won an Honorary Oscar and it barely made the news. Additionally, most folks watching the ceremony had no idea who he was and why the Academy was honoring him. Well, I think I was one of only a small number of people who knew who he was and was thrilled to see him get the award.
Aside from making a few odd super-low budget films that few saw in the 1960s and 70s such as It All Happened Here and Winstanley (neither of which you should rush to see), Brownlow has spent most of his film career making documentaries about heroes of the early days of films (and in some cases it was with the help of David Gill). While this might not seem like that big a deal, these films are simply perfect—with more details, more behind the scenes information and more depth than you’ll find anywhere else. There are the best documentaries on the subjects that you can find. But that brings up a BIG problem—finding them. While one is on Netflix and a few others are available from Amazon, many of his best documentaries are either not available at all or have been posted on YouTube in less than stellar condition because they come from degraded videotape when they were first shown in the 1980s.
As a fan of silent films, I adore Brownlow’s films about Harold Lloyd (Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius), Buster Keaton (Buster Keaton: a Hard Act to Follow) and Chaplin (Unknown Chaplin). I’ve recently written several articles for Influx about these men—and IF you can find them, they are a wonderful introduction to these comics. Unfortunately, the Chaplin film is the only one on American format DVD, the Buster Keaton one is only available on a Region 2 DVD (for Europe only) and laserdisc and the Lloyd film is only available on videotape! What I love about these three films is the background material on how these men crafted their films. Unknown Chaplin features LOTS of outtakes and film that was never seen before it went onto the disc. Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius exposes, for the first time, HOW Lloyd did films like Safety Last where he climbed a building yet minimized his risk to his life AND made it look a heck of a lot more dangerous than it was. And, in Buster Keaton: a Hard Act to Follow, you learn that earlier in his very acrobatic career, Keaton broke his neck and actually continued doing some of the most incredibly physical stunts and pratfalls of anyone before or since! Plus you also are treated to tons and tons of film clips and interviews which bring these old movies to life.
You might get the impression that Brownlow only did documentaries on comedians. While these are, in my opinion, his best, he also made some wonderful films about Cecil B. DeMille, D.W. Griffith as well as Lon Chaney. But, for a really, really amazing documentary, I’d strongly recommend his Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood. This film is all about the forgotten and wonderful movie industries in pre-WWII Europe and really makes the viewer appreciate films that rivaled Hollywood’s in quality and style. At nearly six hours, it is exhaustive and exhausting—and once again, the best of its kind. Unfortunately, it’s out of print and expensive, though fortunately my local library inexplicably had a copy!
So you’ll probably notice that seeing Brownlow’s great documentaries will not be easy! Well, at least you can see the one on Netflix—D.W. Griffith: The Father of Film. And, if you love silent and early films, you owe it to yourself to find them. Happy hunting.
Article by Lead Entertainment Writer and Film Critic, Martin Hafer
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