In which we file away The Blue Bird (1918), The Last of the Mohicans (1920), "The Light of Faith" (1922), The Signal Tower (1924), Smouldering Fires (1925), The Goose Woman (1925), The Eagle (1925), and Kiki (1926), plus—talkie bonus!—Navy Blues (1929)
One should not have to "discover" Clarence Brown, but that's the way it is in the year 2022, and the way it has been since, probably, the mid-1950s, when he retired on his own terms to go live on a ranch for the next three decades. Maybe the word "discover" does too much: he's only as obscure as any Old Hollywood studio man, but such a person can get pretty obscure, after all, because it sometimes feels like so much of the fullness and flavor of Old Hollywood's legacy was lost to the grimly-streamlined Boomer cinematic canon, which became the dull, conformist framework for communicating and teaching film history for the next sixty years. In any case, discovery is what it felt like to me, when I noticed over the course of about a year that the guy who did The Rains Came was the guy who did The Yearling was the guy who did Flesh and the Devil and I said, "okay, show me" when National Velvet made its rounds on HBOMax and I saw that this, too, was Brown, leading to the statistically-startling and hugely-tantalizing realization that I had seen four Brown movies at more-or-less random but had also seen four masterpieces.
And then, as I do, I got really enthusiastic and burned through Brown's 1941-1947 stretch for no reason but I felt like it, since "what I feel like" is the long and short of my critical ethos here, and as I've gotten a better grasp of the director, it turns out that for whatever reason that stretch in the third decade of his career saw Brown hit not only his stride (just great movie after great movie in the middle of that decade) but also many of his highest peaks, which means that were I to, say, decide upon a more systematic overview of his career, it would be almost guaranteed to be a bit of a let-down. After all, nobody, not nobody—at leastnot nobody who had to do what Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer told him to once or twice or three times a year, whether he wanted to do it or not—was likely to have managed to keep that level of superlative quality up. That's something that his tossed-off second film of 1941, They Met In Bombay, indicates powerfully, despite coming in between Come Live With Me and The Human Comedy. That's just the business—even beyond the studio system, you should expect even the greatest filmmakers to have fallow periods and the occasional dud—but you know, Brown's late 1920s and 1930s aren't wastelands either. They absolutely have some peaks of their own, and not just a few, either.