Having been greatly impressed by Clarence Brown’s The Goose Woman, which I found in 1962 in a British film library, I searched for more silent films by this remarkable director. Thanks to the British Film Institute’s John Huntley, Smouldering Fires came from overseas (an ostrich farm outside Johannesburg, South Africa!). It was more elaborately tinted than any film I’d seen, but then Brown’s mentor, Maurice Tourneur, was a tinting fanatic.
The title suggests a lurid melodrama, but the film turned out to be, if not quite feminist, at least an intelligent, poignant, and beautifully photographed story about a forty-year-old woman in charge of a garment factory she inherited from her father. It opens with a meeting of department heads, as wittily observed as anything by Lubitsch. Jane Vale (Pauline Frederick), called “The Iron Woman” in the script (after the Margaret Deland novel on which it is loosely based), dresses in mannish clothes and behaves distantly to her employees. However, one young man, Robert Elliott (Malcolm McGregor), attracts her with his forthright views. She hires him as assistant manager and then grows attached. Factory-floor gossip about their relationship pressures Elliott into hastily proposing marriage, but when Jane’s younger sister, Dorothy (Laura La Plante), returns from college, she and Elliott fall for each other. They are ready to sacrifice their love for Jane’s sake, but Jane is already apprehensive about the age difference ….
In 1965, Clarence Brown was still alive but proved hard to locate. I sent a letter in care of the Screen Directors Guild but heard nothing. Months later, I received a phone call from Thomas Quinn Curtiss, drama critic of the Paris Herald-Tribune and a friend of Brown’s. He came straight to the point; was it true that I had found The Goose Woman? He invited me to his hotel, the Savoy—“and bring the movie!” I realized this was to be a screening process in both senses. Fortunately he was greatly impressed and revealed that Brown was in Paris, visiting the Motor Show. I raced over to another grand hotel, the Georges V. Clarence Brown was understandably suspicious of me—this was the era when reporters from Confidential magazine pulled all sorts of tricks to get scandals from celebrities and, as Garbo’s favorite director, Brown was in the firing line.
He was stocky and tough and resembled an oil tycoon, friendly enough, but it took a lot of effort to persuade him to talk. He didn’t like the tape recorder so I had to hold the microphone under the table during meals and eat with one hand. Luckily, he didn’t notice but I couldn’t miss this historic opportunity. I had lugged a projector over but discovered to my embarrassment that it wouldn’t work on French voltage. This proved a blessing in disguise because we talked and talked and TALKED. I telephoned Henri Langlois, who ran the Cinémathèque Française, and told him of my predicament. He invited us to come next morning to his cinema at Palais de Chaillot. The Goose Woman looked marvelous on the huge screen and at the end Brown looked at me in genuine surprise and said, “I didn’t know I was that good.” In a generous gesture, Langlois brought from his collection a 35mm print from the camera negative of The Last of the Mohicans (1920), most of which Brown had directed after Tourneur had injured himself. “Tourneur was my god,” he said. “I owe him everything I’ve got in the world. For me, he was the greatest man who ever lived.”
Born in Clinton, Massachusetts, in 1890, Clarence Brown was the son of a cotton manufacturer. His family moved to the South when he was eleven. He went to the University of Tennessee and graduated with two degrees in engineering. His father wanted him to enter the cotton business, but around 1914 his passion for cars caused him to leave home to work for automobile companies. He used to spend his lunch hours watching movies, the output of four directors from the Peerless Studio impressing him so much that he left his job and traveled to Fort Lee, New Jersey, to meet one of these directors—and it’s our good fortune that he met Maurice Tourneur. Tourneur had emigrated from France and had just fired his assistant. He hired Brown, who learned so rapidly that within a month he was editing Tourneur’s pictures and writing the titles. “Because Tourneur hated exteriors,” Brown told me, “I worked the rest of the time doing exteriors with my own cameraman.” Having made his first feature, The Great Redeemer in 1919, Brown left Tourneur to work with producer Jules Brulatour, directing Lon Chaney in The Light in the Dark (1922)—“It was a dog. Don’t let’s talk about it.” He signed a contract with Universal and made five hits in a row: The Acquittal, The Signal Tower, Butterfly, Smouldering Fires, and The Goose Woman.
Brown said that at the beginning of production Pauline Frederick went through the worst attack of stage fright he had ever witnessed. “She had been a great Broadway star and had made a number of pictures. Her last real success had been Madame X [Frank Lloyd, 1920]. The first two days on this one I thought she was going to give up. But she was a great artist and pulled through bravely.” To shoot the film’s mountain getaway, Brown took his company to Yosemite, a location for much of The Last of the Mohicans. When the cameraman found a tree obscuring a spectacular vista and the forest ranger wouldn’t allow it to be chopped down, Brown persuaded his now confident leading lady to romance the man until he agreed.
“It was Smouldering Fires that got me my contract with Norma Talmadge,” recalled Brown at the George V. “[Producer] John Considine was working with Joe Schenck. One night he dropped into the Forum Theatre, Los Angeles. He didn’t even know what picture was playing. He came in after the titles and thought Lubitsch had made it until he saw the credit ‘A Clarence Brown production, directed by Clarence Brown.’ He called me on the phone the next day and started talking about a contract. I think I got $12,500 for the five pictures I made at Universal. I jumped to $3,000 a week with Schenck.”
Laura La Plante, whom I met in Palm Springs, had acquired a 16mm print of Smouldering Fires while working at Warner Bros. in England in the 1930s. Had she not been excited by it? “Not particularly,” she said. I urged her to screen it. She did so right then and there. I was dismayed to find that this was the foreign version. It was the same film, and yet for some reason it was nowhere near as powerful. I have seen many European versions of American silents and seldom have they been as effective as the domestic version. This was often because of the use of second (i.e., inferior) takes for the foreign negative, but in this case Bob Gitt, who restored the film for the Packard Humanities Institute, assured me that two cameras, set up rigidly side by side, were used for practically every shot. The photography was by Jackson J. Rose, the man who wrote the renowned manual for cameramen, American Cinematographer Handbook and Reference Guide (nine editions published 1935–1960), and world-famous as “The Jackson Rose.”
Perhaps the most touching performance came from the much-loved veteran character actor Tully Marshall, who was prominent as the forgetful trapper in The Covered Wagon (1923) and the repellent husband in Stroheim’s Queen Kelly (1928). He later appeared with Garbo in Grand Hotel and Jean Harlow in Red Dust (both 1932).
The outstanding British director Anthony Asquith was a fervent admirer of Pauline Frederick and this film in particular. Smouldering Fires was also one of the first films to be reviewed by Graham Greene. (He tried to impress its moral of “marry someone your own age” on his still reluctant fiancée!) Film Daily called it “an unusually fine picture, exceptionally well handled and splendidly directed … one of the most entertaining pictures Universal ever released.” It was remade (without acknowledgment) as Female, directed for Warner Bros. by Michael Curtiz in 1933, with Ruth Chatterton and George Brent. This one ended with the Jane Vale character assuring her husband that he would run the factory (automobiles, this time) while she would stay at home to look after the children.
Presented at SFSFF 2022 with live musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne