THE BLOG
07/06/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In Praise of Clarence Brown and His American Humanism

In honor of Mr. Mickey Rooney, Hollywood legend, who has enriched us with his portrayal of Homer Macauley in The Human Comedy.

We rarely if ever see the name of MGM veteran Clarence Brown featured on lists of great Hollywood directors. His best-known movies are classic family fare like National Velvet (1944), The Yearling (1946), and Angels in the Outfield (1951). In The Yearling we see an American family in the late 19th century struggling with the everyday difficulties of getting by. The family is mired in tragedy and pain but continues to heroically persevere in order to survive in extremely trying circumstances.

In addition to these wonderful films, Brown was often assigned to direct Greta Garbo, most memorably in the silent classic Flesh and the Devil (1927) and his stunning adaptation of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (1935).

In his adult dramas, Brown's recurring theme is that of the individual protagonist struggling to maintain moral integrity in a sea of social hostility. With films like A Free Soul (1931), Looking Forward (1933), and Come Live with Me (1941), we have excellent examples of Brown's deep concern with human dignity drawn for the viewer in very moving ways.

Brown was a studio pro who was never really seen by critics as a great artist, and yet in these days of sociocultural polarization, a number of his best movies are more relevant than ever. His MGM was a studio that frequently sought to examine and extol the tradition of American humanism that affirmed the core values upon which our civilization is based. It should be remembered that MGM produced family masterpieces like Captains Courageous (1937) and The Wizard of Oz (1939) that also stand at the pinnacle of the American cultural tradition.

The classic themes of American culture are notably portrayed in Brown's iconic films: faith, hope, charity, love, family, discipline, hard work, tolerance, justice, and courage are all presented as an indispensable part of the American character.

Brown's best films have a calm gravitas and crystalline visual beauty that contrast with the manic energy of his peer Frank Capra, another director who was deeply concerned with showing us a true vision of American civilization. MGM assigned Brown to adapt Eugene O'Neill's brilliant slice of Americana Ah, Wilderness! (1935), which contained many of the basic elements for what may be considered his masterpiece The Human Comedy (1943). Both movies revolve around American family life and its many tribulations, and both star a very young Mickey Rooney, who exemplified the classic American spirit.

The Human Comedy is a grand artistic statement that speaks in the sacrosanct tones of Scripture as it tells the interwoven stories of some very ordinary people in a California town. In these stories the full flowering of the American myth is shown as a form of religious humanism that effectively marks the high point of this brilliant tradition in our civilization.

Based on a masterful story by the great author William Saroyan, the film reveals to us the true genius of American culture. In it we see the kindness, the sense of charity, the giving, and the inclusive nature of American society. The Human Comedy shows us how America once saw itself: as a nation of kind, decent, and honest people who were nurturing forces in the lives of others. The family lives a quiet grace that is inclusive of the highs and lows of our prosaic existence. In spite of the tragedies that often come into our lives, our human character emerges triumphant, and love is in the end exalted as the essence of our life journey.

In 1949, the same year that Fox Studios released their own anti-racist classic Pinky, Brown directed a landmark film called Intruder in the Dust which was an attempt to address the vexing issue of racial hatred in America.

In a Hollywood that was too often oblivious to the inequities of American society, Intruder in the Dust seeks to address the problems of African Americans in our country and affirm their humanity.

The story, written by the legendary William Faulkner, involves a black man falsely accused of murder in an unnamed Southern town and the frenzy that is whipped up to see him hanged. A young white boy who has befriended the accused man seeks to free him from the clutches of the lynch mob and engages a relative of his who is a lawyer to defend him. In the movie we see how a very small group of committed citizens fights for justice and defend the black man against the great tide of racial hatred that permeates the town.

Clarence Brown was once a well-known craftsman of Hollywood movies. In the annals of great Hollywood directors -- men like D.W. Griffith, King Vidor, William Wyler, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, George Cukor, Howard Hawks, Vincente Minnelli, Preston Sturges, George Stevens, Billy Wilder, to name but a few -- Brown's name is one that we must pull out of its current obscurity and add back to the list. He is no auteur, but his best work pulses with the values of the American religion of compassion, fair play, and love of our fellow neighbor.

In The Human Comedy and Intruder in the Dust, Brown draws for us an America of social concern and promotes the activism needed to protect our human integrity. They are brilliant movies that have stood the test of time, even as they have now been regrettably forgotten. The films have a quiet dignity and are imbued with a humble solemnity that we would do well to adopt in our contemporary culture, a culture that has been degraded by the protocols of greed, cruelty, and uncaring.

The America of Clarence Brown reflects the lofty ideals of religious humanism as the very foundation of who we are as citizens. The movies promote an idea of civic virtue that we must reclaim in order to take back our essential humanity.

As articulated in the wonderful books of Duke University law professor Jedediah Purdy, this sense of civic responsibility is critical to our American future and the requirements of a free society.

In his latest book A Tolerable Anarchy: Rebels, Reactionaries, and the Making of American Freedom, Purdy makes the American ideal clear:

This ideal begins in belief that the demand for dignity is deep and permanent. Dignity includes being recognized for who we are and being able to follow precious the demands of conscience and the purpose we sense in our lives. When we make this sensation of freedom the center of our lives, insisting on it against all denial and constraint, we may tear down parts of the social lives we share and give up parts of who we have believed ourselves to be and how other have known us. Here is the most radical element of faith in the American sensation of freedom: belief in something we cannot know - that our demands for dignity and individuality are not charters of anarchy, but the first signs of a new form of order. This is a faith that each act of rebellion and repudiation opens the way to fuller versions of ourselves and the country: that more choice and deeper individuality can be the roots of stronger bonds and a greater nation, if we have the discernment to find the way and the courage to follow it through.

Freedom should not be a means to crush our neighbor or create some exclusive club where the few are saved while the many are forever condemned to perdition. We must remember that the dictum "Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself" was once the most important value in American culture. The dignity of each and every human being is our most sacred national inheritance.

In an age when rapaciousness and incivility have become all too commonplace in our society, going back to these movies provides us with a fresh opportunity to rediscover who we are as human beings and regenerate the moral greatness that can still shine brightly in our souls.

DVR Alert: Both movies featured in the article will be shown on Turner Classic Movies in May. The Human Comedy will be screened on Thursday May 6th at 5:00 A.M., and Intruder in the Dust will be screened on Monday, May 10th at 4:15 P.M. Neither movie is currently available on DVD.