Brownlow joins Stone, Redford as Film Award recipient

by Sam Lederer | 11/5/01 6:00am

Silent film legend Kevin Brownlow was honored by the College Friday night as he became the recipient of the Dartmouth Film Award. The ceremony took place in the Loew Auditorium in front of an audience of enthusiastic and avid admirers of film.

Past Dartmouth Film Award winners include Sean Penn, Oliver Stone and Robert Redford.

The ceremony commenced with a thoughtful introduction by Bill Pence, Director of the Hopkins Film Center. Sequences from many Brownlow films were then shown, including a moving 52-minute excerpt from the film "Hollywood: Hazards of the Game," based on Brownlow's book, "The Parade's Gone By." A clip from Abel Gance's "Napoleon" followed the award presentation.

The Pence introduction offered a personal aspect to the work of Brownlow. In 1965, while stationed in Paris with the Air Force, Pence met Brownlow over a discussion of Harold Lloyd. The two became devoted friends and Pence awarded Brownlow with the first Special Medallion at the 8th Telluride Film Festival in 1981. Commenting on the importance of Brownlow's work, Pence said, "I always have a copy of his book by my bedside. It is 'the bible' of the industry."

Each of the sequences was preceded by an introduction by Brownlow in which he expressed his feelings on the segments and offered anecdotes about their history.Brownlow was very grateful to receive such a stunning tribute saying, "It was great for me to see stuff that I haven't seen in 20 years and to observe the reaction of the audience. It just shows that these pictures work after all these years."

This tribute was a special one for the College, as it was the first time all media formats such as DVD, VHS and reels were used in conjunction. The first clip shown was from 1963's "It Happened Here," which posited the German occupation of London after their victory in World War II. The realism of the film is astonishing.

It also carries a mocking tone of the Germans through their portrayal as flippant tourists. Equally interesting was Brownlow's use of depth in juxtaposing Buckingham Palace with German literature to magnify the response in the observer.

The "Hollywood" segment was the highlight of the evening, as it showcased Brownlow's skill as a documenter and historian of silent film. The sequence on stuntmen featured interviews with silent legends Harvey Parry, Byron Haskin and Dick Grace. The segment powerfully exposed the dangerous lives of early silent film stuntmen through clips from films like "Devil Horse" (1926) and "Play Safe" (1923).

This excessive supply of individuals vying for stunt jobs, coupled with the lack of modern techniques, such as back projection, created an industry in which men frequently risked their lives to make a dollar. A particularly shocking event occurred on the set of "Trail of '98" when four stuntmen died during the shooting of one scene and only two bodies were recovered.

The genius of Charlie Chaplin was showcased next in an eight-minute clip from "Unknown Chaplin." The film opened with Chaplin's taking of the simplest of objects, a wooden stick, and making it into an extremely humorous and witty sequence.

Following the award presentation, the famous final scene from Brownlow's restoration of "Napoleon" was shown in an attempt to recreate the original triptych format.

Due to the five-hour length of the film and the short fragment of the leader's history it recounted, Gance was confronted with the problem of compensating for the film's inadequacies in the final scene.

The emotional nature of the scene, with many chants of French rallying songs and speeches by Napoleon, culminates in the image of Bonaparte atop an Italian mountain. Gance, to get the desired response, ingeniously used the image of an eagle leading the Grand Army to represent the greatness and austere of Napoleon and his nation.

The concluding question and answer session with the audience demonstrated Brownlow's abilities as both a film historian and an orator.

Following the segment, Pence commented on Brownlow's unparalleled importance in the industry, "He simply has no peer in this particular field. What Walt Disney was to animation, what Robert DeNiro was to acting, Kevin Brownlow is to film preservation."