Karl Brown was only twenty-nine when he wrote and directed Stark Love, but by then he was thoroughly grounded in the motion picture business, having started with Kinemacolor’s American operation in 1912 at the age of fifteen. Developing camera negative for the company he learned the basics of film production. When Kinemacolor failed in 1913, Brown convinced D.W. Griffith’s cameraman Billy Bitzer to hire him as an assistant. Proving himself capable, he was soon charged with shooting the titles for The Birth of a Nation (1915), then with creating special effects for Intolerance (1916). He moved up to second camera on Griffith productions and first camera for director Elmer Clifton. After moving to Famous Players-Lasky, he began working on Wallace Reid and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle features directed by James Cruze, who continued his climb to the top with the landmark film The Covered Wagon (1923), which Brown photographed. In all, Brown worked with Cruze on twenty-five features, before getting the chance to step into directing himself. That first film was Stark Love.
While making The Covered Wagon, Brown became impressed with pioneer settlers, some of whom participated as extras on location in Utah and Nevada, and he began to wonder if a story focused more intimately on their day-to-day lives would be worth filming. He’d read Lucy Furman’s 1923 book, The Quare Women: A Story of the Kentucky Mountains, about the Appalachian people who lived simply, just as they’d done for two hundred years with minimal influence from the outside world, and began to plan a film.
Paramount executive Walter Wanger agreed to provide $10,000 for an exploratory trip, so Brown and his camera assistant Jim Murray took an eastbound train in December 1925 to search out these mountain people and their way of life. They eventually came to Bryson City, North Carolina, where they met Horace Kephart, who knew the people well. Author of the 1913 book Our Southern Highlanders, Kephart recounted his experiences living in the Great Smoky Mountains among the very folk Brown was interested in. Kephart pointed Brown and Murray in the direction of Robbinsville, N.C., and from there they camped out in the Santeetlah area, hoping to gain the trust of the surrounding inhabitants.
It wasn’t easy. One false step and the locals would shun him. Kephart had advised, “Do whatever you do honestly and openly, without the slightest trace of pretense. You never know what eyes are watching you from the nearest thicket.” They encountered a local man, nicknamed Shotgun John, who negotiated a wage of $25 a week to do the odd jobs during production. When Brown asked him to recommend a local woman for the lead in the film, he brought over a man and his daughter who appeared ideal to Brown. Once the father understood what was going on however, he refused to let her participate, snarling, according to Brown: “You leave my women-folks be. They ain’t none of ’em agoen to be movie Jezebels for you or nobody else.” The father stormed away, but Shotgun John shrugged it off, saying the father was just in a bad mood because his son had run off with the woman who had been pledged to him after his wife died. Brown suddenly had his story. He also realized through this encounter he was going to have to recruit his leads from outside the mountain community.
To keep executives back in Hollywood interested, Brown and Murray filmed the local scenery. But the powers-that-be were underwhelmed when they saw the footage, and it appeared the project was dead. Brown wouldn’t call it quits, however. He sent a night wire to studio chief Adolph Zukor in New York, extolling the film’s virtues, comparing its potential to that of other recent films about real-life struggles, like Nanook of the North (1922) and Grass (1925). He also played up that Zukor’s financial risk would be minimal, with only a small crew needed, no expensive sets, and a breathtakingly beautiful location. Zukor went for it and Brown was back in business. He kept Jim Murray as cameraman and added Robert Pittack as his camera assistant. For assistant director he chose Paul Wing, who stayed at Paramount as a line producer for many years afterward.
The team left in late April 1926 for Bryson City to search for their lead actors in the surrounding cities. All four were found in neighboring Tennessee: Helen Mundy and Forrest James as the young lovers, James Silas as his jealous father, and Reb Grogan as her father. Mundy proved to be the most difficult to recruit. When Paul Wing first approached her in a Knoxville soda fountain, she laughed it off, thinking he was a con man but was eventually convinced. College athlete Forrest James was also skeptical, but eventually signed on as leading man.
The film company lived in tents at Santeetlah. A couple of cabins were brought in for sets, with part of the roof and two walls torn out to get the camera angles and light in. As there was no electricity available, they brought in banks of carbide lamps, an elaboration of the kind used by miners working underground. The actors wore no makeup, although Mundy required a wig as her fashionably bobbed hair wouldn’t do. The company spent five months in production, filming out of sequence to keep the nature of the story and its violent climax a mystery to the locals, who might object. The footage was shipped to Paramount’s New York studio for developing and editing by Ralph Block. In February 1927, it opened at a small theater on 42nd Street in New York and ran for three weeks and went into wider release later that year.
Film critic and future Pulitzer-winning playwright Robert E. Sherwood, writing for Life, said it was “just about the greatest moving picture that an American has produced. Stark Love is an extraordinary achievement in the movies, and it serves to elevate Karl Brown to the Film Hall of Fame.” Film Daily confirmed that high praise but zeroed in on the film’s ultimate problem, “It is an artistic achievement in every sense, not a commercial proposition.” Indeed, the film didn’t do well at the box office.
Brown found only intermittent work as a director after that, finishing his directing career in 1938 with Under the Big Top for Monogram Pictures. From Stark Love on, his main income came from writing screenplays and later televisions scripts, most notably for Death Valley Days, until his retirement in 1960. He remained in comfortable obscurity until 1968 when Kevin Brownlow saw the last known surviving print of Stark Love at the Czech Film Archive. All elements held by Paramount Pictures had been melted down for their silver content years before. Appreciating the value of the film, Brownlow tracked down Karl Brown in the Los Angeles area, living in a small house in Laurel Canyon with his ex-wife Edna Mae Cooper, actress and aviatrix. Brownlow recalled about knocking on his door: “… it was as though he’d been waiting. There was no surprise, no need even for explanation. He began to tell us of his days with Griffith. It was a profoundly moving experience, for Brown proved to be the most eloquent and articulate man I had ever interviewed.” Brownlow encouraged Brown to write about his career in Hollywood and the result was Adventures with D.W. Griffith. Published in 1973, it is a remarkable first-person account of a critical period in American filmmaking and stands out for its intelligence, wit, and detail. Brown wrote a follow-up, The Paramount Adventure, that has only been partially published but is no less fascinating. Karl Brown died in 1990 at ninety-three before he could see it in print.