Karl Brown - Writer

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Cinematographer, Director, and Writer. Nationality: American. Born: Pennsylvania, 1897. Family: Married the actress Edna Mae Cooper, c. 1918. Career: 1912–13—laboratory assistant, then in charge of negative processing, Kinemacolor Company, New York (moved to Hollywood, 1913); 1914—first film work, as still photographer on The Spoilers ; 1914–20—assistant and special effects photographer for D. W. Griffith; served in the United States Army during World War I; 1920–26—cinematographer for Paramount; 1920s—associate editor, American Cinematographer ; 1927—directed first film, His Dog ; then director and writer. Died: Of kidney failure in California, 25 March 1990.

Films as Cinematographer:


The City of Masks (Heffron); The Fourteenth Man (Henabery); The Life of the Party (Henabery)


Brewster's Millions (Henabery); The Dollar-a-Year Man (Cruze); Gasoline Gus (Cruze); The Traveling Salesman (Henabery); Crazy to Marry (Cruze)


One Glorious Day (Cruze); Is Matrimony a Failure? (Cruze); The Dictator (Cruze); The Old Homestead (Cruze); Thirty Days (Cruze)


The Covered Wagon (Cruze); Ruggles of Red Gap (Cruze)


The Fighting Coward (Cruze); The Enemy Sex (Cruze); Merton of the Movies (Cruze); The City That Never Sleeps (Cruze); The Garden of Weeds (Cruze)


The Goose Hangs High (Cruze); Welcome Home (Cruze); Marry Me (Cruze); Beggar on Horseback (Cruze); The Pony Express (Cruze)


Mannequin (Cruze)

Films as Assistant and Special Effects Photographer:


The Spoilers (Campbell); The Avenging Conscience (Griffith); Golden Days


The Birth of a Nation (Griffith)


The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (Emerson—short); Daphne and the Pirate (Cabanne); Intolerance (Griffith); The Flying Torpedo (Emerson)


The Great Love (Griffith)


Broken Blossoms (Griffith)

Films as Director:


His Dog ; Stark Love (+ pr + co-sc)


Prince of Diamonds


Flames ( Fire Alarm )


Michael O'Halloran ( Any Man's Wife )


Barefoot Boy ; Numbered Woman ( Private Nurse ); Under the Big Top ( The Circus Comes to Town )

Films as Writer:


The Mississippi Gambler (Barker) (co)


Fast Workers (Browning)


Stolen Sweets (Thorpe); City Park (Thorpe); One in a Million (Strayer); The Curtain Falls (Lamont)


The Calling of Dan Matthews (Rosen); Tarzan Escapes (McKay)


In His Steps ( Sins of the Children ) (+ d); White Legion (+ d); Hearts in Bondage (Ayres)


Join the Marines (Staub); Girl Loves Boy (Mansfield); Federal Bullets (+ d)


Gangster's Boy (Nigh); Port of Missing Girls (+ d)


A Woman Is the Judge (Nigh); The Man They Could Not Hang (Grinde); My Son Is Guilty ( Crime's End ) (Barton)


The Man with Nine Lives ( Behind the Door ) (Grinde); Gangs of Chicago (Lubin); Military Academy (Lederman); Before I Hang (MacDonald); Girl from Havana (Landers)


Mr. District Attorney (Morgan); Prairie Pioneers (Orlebeck); Rookies on Parade (Santley); I Was a Prisoner on Devil's Island (Landers); Under Fiesta Stars (McDonald); Harvard, Here I Come ( Here I Come ) (Landers)


Phantom Killer (Beaudine); Hitler—Dead or Alive (Grinde)


The Ape Man ( Lock Your Doors ) (Beaudine)


The Chicago Kid (McDonald)


By BROWN: books—

With Leonard Fields, The Mississippi Gambler (novelization), New York, 1929.

Incorrigible (novel), New York, 1947.

The Cup of Trembling (novel), New York, 1953.

Adventures with D. W. Griffith , New York, 1973.

By BROWN: articles—

On D. W. Griffith in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1973.

"Flashback: A Director's Best Friend," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), October 1982.

"Billy Bitzer: A Reminiscence," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), November 1983.

"The Blind Leading the Blind," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), December 1984.

"Spfx 101: An Introductory Course," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), September 1985.

On BROWN: articles—

Filme Cultura (Rio de Janeiro), November-December 1969.

Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress (Washington, D.C.), Summer-Fall 1980.

Turner, George E., "A Hollywood Saga: Karl Brown," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), October 1982.

Films in Review (New York), vol. 37, no. 4, April 1986.

Obituary, in Variety (New York), 4 April 1990.

Obituary, in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), June 1990.

* * *

Karl Brown became associated with the movies in Hollywood when both were young. Brown's credits include photographing The Covered Wagon in the early 1920s and directing Stark Love (1927), a semi-documentary shot in North Carolina; and writing scripts for Columbia and Republic Studios between 1926 and 1945. Brown's career is most memorable in his association with D. W. Griffith between 1913 and 1919.

Brown's 1973 Adventures with D. W. Griffith is one of the best sources describing Griffith's working methods. Brown began as an assistant to the cameraman Billy Bitzer, and thus learned how to operate cameras, light scenes, and keep written records of various shots. His book makes clear that he was more than simply an assistant cameraman; he was a jack-of-all-trades for the Griffith organization. Brown describes in extensive detail the planning, shooting, and post-production aspects of Griffith's three masterpieces, Birth of a Nation , Intolerance , and Broken Blossoms .

For the last film Brown was in charge of the opening sequence showing ships on the Thames seen from the Limehouse district of London. He was shown a picture and then organized a series of miniature flats, groundrows, moving boats, and a trough of water. He lit the scene so that when photographed it provided a Whistler-like illusion of a London dockside. This one example is typical of the pictorial values Griffith emphasized and which he expected from his collaborators. It also shows how good a student of both Griffith and Bitzer Brown had become.

Brown's career as author and screenwriter included work for Columbia, Republic, and a few independent producers. Most of these films are gangster pictures, courtroom dramas, military situations, or horror stories. Had not Brown had good notes and recollections and been encouraged to publish them, he would probably be almost forgotten today. It is fitting, however, that a person who spent so much time on the routine tasks of filmmaking in its early Hollywood years will now be remembered because of his thoughtful book. Now, as then, moviemaking is a collaborative effort, and while a few key individuals receive major credit, no work would succeed without the many workers who, like Brown, also make fundamental contributions.

—Floyd W. Martin

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