University of Tennessee alumnus Clarence Brown has contributed significantly to the university, most notably through his role in the development of the Clarence Brown Theatre and his estate’s $12 million endowment. One of Brown’s greatest legacies is the gift of his personal papers to the Special Collections University Archives. Since the initial donation in 1973, the Clarence Brown collections have grown to nearly 150 linear feet of unique material including letters, photographs, and memorabilia. As a whole, these documents chronicle the personal life and extraordinary career of one of the University of Tennessee’s most notable alumni.
Born in Clinton, Massachusetts in 1890, Clarence Brown moved with his family in 1902 to Knoxville where his father worked as a superintendent at the Brookside Mills textile manufacturing company. Brown graduated from Knoxville High School in 1905 and earned a B.A. in mechanical and electrical engineering from the University of Tennessee in 1910. After graduating, Brown worked for automobile manufacturer Stevens-Duryea for five years before establishing his own dealership, the Brown Motor Car Company, in Alabama. He soon grew restless and, fascinated with movies, moved to New Jersey to study under French director Maurice Tourneur at Peerless Studios. Here, the pair directed such films as Deep Waters (1919) and The Last of the Mohicans (1920).
As an independent filmmaker, Brown went on to make a name for himself in the industry. Though Brown directed several pictures for Universal Studios, his longest association was with MGM beginning with Flesh and the Devil (1926). The film was his first collaboration with Greta Garbo who later named Clarence Brown as one of her favorite directors.
During the course of his career, Brown directed or produced more than fifty films and worked with many of the film industry’s most illustrious stars including Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, and Jean Harlow in Wife vs. Secretary (1936); Mickey Rooney in The Human Comedy (1940); Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet (1945); and Gregory Peck in The Yearling (1947). Brown received a total of six Academy Award nominations for Best Director and eight of his films won Oscars in other categories. After directing Spencer Tracey and Gene Tierney in Plymouth Adventure, Brown retired from filmmaking in 1952.
Clarence Brown had many other interests outside of film including cars, airplanes, travel, and theatre. He also remained actively involved with the University of Tennessee, contributing development funds towards the construction of the Clarence Brown Theatre and leaving the University an additional $12 million after his death on August 17, 1987. When combined, these sums made him the largest donor in the University’s history.
For more in-depth research into Clarence Brown, patrons should review the following collections: MS.0702, MS.1023, and MS.2010. Also available in MS.2010 are personal papers donated by Marian Ruth Spies Brown, Brown’s fourth and last wife. Marian was instrumental in Brown’s renewed financial and personal interest in his alma mater.