Clarence Brown

UT Knoxville, 1910

Clarence Brown seated at a camera on a production set

Armed with two degrees in engineering and with an automobile business, Clarence Brown forged a plot twist in his life by becoming an eight-time Academy Award nominee during Hollywood’s rise in the early 20th century.

The Massachusetts-born Brown’s interest in cars and engineering led him to earn degrees in electrical and mechanical engineering from UT Knoxville, where he was enrolled at age 15. After graduating in 1910, he worked for car manufacturer Stevens-Duryea for five years until he opened Brown Motor Car Company in Alabama. There his passion for film ignited.

The Peerless Company—a New Jersey-based studio—produced his favorite movies, and most were helmed by French director Maurice Tourneur. Brown asked Tourneur for a job and was hired as his assistant.

“I owe him everything I’ve got in the world,” says Brown about Tourneur on Brown’s Internet Movie Data Base profile. “For me, he was the greatest man who ever lived. If it hadn’t been for him, I’d still be selling automobiles.”

After a hiatus to serve as a U.S. fighter pilot in World War I, he co-directed his first movie, The Great Redeemer, in 1920, and later that year, he directed a major portion of The Last of
the Mohicans

Brown began working with Universal Studios in 1924 and produced films like Smouldering Fires and The Goose Woman. He joined MGM in 1926, where he stayed until the late 1950s. There he directed Joan Crawford six times and Greta Garbo seven times. Garbo described Brown as her favorite director, according to the UT Department of Theatre.

He directed 52 feature-length films, 38 of which were nominated for Academy Awards. He received the Academy Award nomination for best director for Anna Christie in 1930, Romance in 1930, A Free Soul in 1931, The Human Comedy in 1943, National Velvet in 1944 and The Yearling in 1946.

Brown died in 1987 at the age of 97. UT Knoxville’s theater has carried his name since 1970.

Part of the Tennessee Alumnus100 Distinguished Alumni feature.