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Archive for Sunday, September 19, 1999

FILM HISTORIAN-AUTHOR BEADS IN ON THE DAYS BEFORE TALKIES

September 19, 1999

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Kevin Brownlow has loved movies since his childhood, and now he's an expert in the field.

Kevin Brownlow's name may not mean much to the average person on the street, but in the motion picture and film education worlds it's well established.

Brownlow is the author of "The Parade's Gone By," an unmatched volume of silen- film history, and "Mary Pickford Rediscovered," recently released to bookstores.

His movies -- "It Happened Here" and "Winstanley" -- are landmarks in British independent cinema. His television documentaries -- "Hollywood: The Pioneers," "The Unknown Chaplin," "Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow" and "Universal Horror" -- have been shown on British television and by PBS and the Turner Network in the United States.

This week, the Emmy and Peabody award winner is coming to Lawrence to participate in lectures, a book signing and the screening of "It Happened Here," which speculates on how life would be in England if Hitler's plan to occupy the country had not failed.

"He's never been to the Midwest," John Tibbetts, assistant professor of theater and film at Kansas University, said of his longtime friend, who lives in London.

Tibbetts said he became aware of Brownlow in the 1960s, when there was an explosion in film education and film societies and he was a member of the KU Film Society. "The Parade's Gone By" became the group's bible in choosing silent films to be shown on the KU campus. He eventually met Brownlow in 1979 at a National Film Society gathering.

"We've stayed in contact all of these years," he said.

Tibbetts said Brownlow is a "foremost historian of movies," particularly of silent films.

"He brings silent film to life. Without him our knowledge of silent film would be far less extensive," he said. " " He's a man obsessed, but he's a thoroughly gentle man."

According to Tibbetts' research, Brownlow first discovered motion pictures while attending a boarding school in Crowborough, Sussex. He was hooked on movies after seeing an American version of "Oliver Twist" that starred Dickie Moore and had a character named Mr. Brownlow. When the projector jammed and ripped the film, the schoolboy picked up a few pieces of the film and took them back to his dormitory, where he tried to use a light to project them on the wall.

In 1956, at the age of 18, he began working as a trainee in the cutting rooms of World Wide pictures, a documentary film company in Soho. After a few years, he began making his first film and writing about films for magazines.

Among Brownlow's other books are "The War, the West and the Wilderness," about the expeditionary photographers who made documentaries about animals, people and lifestyles, and "Behind the Mask of Innocence," about how American silent films explored social issues such as race relations, labor laws and prostitution.

Brownlow also is known for his film restoration projects, including his 13-year effort to restore Abel Gance's "Napolean," which was projected while a live orchestra played a score written by Carmine Coppola, brother of Francis Ford Coppola.

Tibbetts hopes Brownlow's determination and dedication to his art will have an impact on film students.

"I hope he'll be an inspiration to students," he said, "and show that with little you can still make a movie."

-- Jan Biles' phone message number is 832-7146. Her e-mail address is jbiles@ljworld.com.

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