CLARENCE BROWN FOR NATIONAL VELVET (1945)
The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)
Billy Wilder for The Lost Weekend
Alfred Hitchcock for Spellbound
Leo McCarey for The Bells of St. Mary’s
Jean Renoir for The Southerner
NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.
Clarence Brown is something of an overperformer in Oscar history. He ties Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Altman, and King Vidor for the most Best Director nominations (five) without a win, yet I don’t know that anyone out there is a Clarence Brown fanatic, or that any film of his has transcended his individual reputation to achieve the status of a first-rate classic. Instead, Brown perfectly fits MGM’s workmanship mentality, safely and surely managing the studio’s prestige productions. In the early days, that meant handling the studio’s biggest stars: Greta Garbo (including her pivotal talking debut), Norma Shearer, the Oscar-winning Lionel Barrymore; at the end of his Oscar run, it meant handling animals: a fawn in The Yearling, and, of course, an adolescent Elizabeth Taylor National Velvet (I jest). The latter might have been the most enduring of Brown’s films, and it perfectly encapsulates his directorial philosophy of conservative balance. The impeccably designed Technicolor photography and lively cast of characters are handled quite well, but Brown’s main achievement lies in the tonal balance he strikes between Velvet’s two worlds: the quaint domestic sphere of the (coincidentally enough) Brown family and the exuberant outdoor realm where her relationship with the horse and the stranger in town take flight. The challenge of fitting both a quaint family drama and a rousing sports drama into the same storybook world are the chief tribute to Brown’s classical sensibility. National Velvet is neither the most inspired or recognizably adept directing, but it is a well-crafted exemplar of classical Hollywood filmmaking.
As in his prior nomination for the home front melodrama The Human Comedy, Brown shows a terrific instinct for the idiosyncrasies and manifold subplots of small-town life. These many light details and tangents breathe life into this story—I have no idea which of the Brown family’s quirks are vestiges from Enid Bagnold’s novel and which are screenwriters’ inventions, but Edwina’s halting courtship and little Donald’s bizarrely insistent fibs lend a three-dimensional quality to the story world, a sense of life extending beyond the painted backdrops and narrow equestrian plot. The film rests on the main characters and their performances, which Brown handles with his reputedly skillful hand. Elizabeth Taylor plays the title character with a compelling mix of a tenacious spirit and weak flesh, and I was a particular fan of Mickey Rooney’s unusually subdued Mi Taylor (another curiously coincidental name). However, the parents steal the show: Donald Crisp’s good-natured pessimist of a father and his hopeful counterweight, the serenely reserved Anne Revere as Mrs. Brown, perhaps the only Oscar-winning parent who could go toe-to-toe with Atticus Finch for quiet nobility. These quiet scenes also showcase the immaculately picturesque set designs of Cedric Gibbons, Urie McCleary, Edwin B. Willis, and Mildred Griffiths (I’m a particular fan of the butcher shop’s subdued palette), carefully coordinating with Leonard Smith’s camerawork to concentrate or disperse the viewer’s attention.
Of course, we probably wouldn’t be discussing this film if it weren’t for the tremendous Grand National set piece, a sustained adrenaline rush that singlehandedly clinched Best Editing for Robert Kern and boosted Brown into the top five in Best Director. Like Ben-Hur’s chariot race, the scene shows of the production value only MGM could offer—there’s something immensely reassuring about picking out the distinctive main character (in this case clad in yellow & fuchsia) and knowing that this racecourse and horde of riders were staged just for this movie—complete with the diabolical subtractive logistics of the race’s progression. Even at its most frenetic, though, the jump-by-jump rhythm of the sequence (segmented through intercutting with Mi and Arthur Treacher’s amiable patrician horse owner), maintains the conservative clarity and small human stakes of Brown’s storytelling sensibility. After the thrilling finish, the story steadily de-escalates before the return to the village. There, Velvet’s brush with the brass ring will become a story she passes down to her children the way her mother passed down her own, and it’s Clarence Brown who presented the same-named family its new chapter in classical storybook fashion.
As I said in my inaugural post, despite the pedigree of all five nominees, this just isn’t a Best Director race that turns me on. On their third nominations, Alfred Hitchcock turned in one of the more visually dynamic (but narratively weak) films of his early Hollywood period with Spellbound, while Leo McCarey contributed a charming battle of the sexes in The Bells of St. Mary’s, a huge step up from the wretched Going My Way but still unable to avoid falling into schmaltz. I’m not even a particularly fan of two-time nominee Billy Wilder’s first win for The Lost Weekend, an unrelentingly bleak look at alcoholism (somewhat undermined by an overdetermined Hollywood ending). My vote still goes to the other pastoral, alongside Brown’s: Jean Renoir’s visually stunning The Southerner.