Saturday, 18 March 2017

From Birth of a Nation to Buddy

Here’s a re-post of a Toronto Globe and Mail story that was put up on the Golden Age Cartoons forum a number of years ago. At the time, there wasn’t too much about Bernie Brown on the internet. He won a couple of Oscars from 11 nominations as well as three technical achievement awards from the Motion Picture Academy for his sound work. He was employed on at least two bonafide history-making films. But cartoon fans know him as one of two people who got credit for musical scores on Leon Schlesinger’s cartoons during those barren years of the mid-1930s when the studio’s star was Buddy the Bland. He even received supervisory credit on two shorts—“Pettin’ in the Park” and “Those Were Wonderful Days” (both 1934)—though I can’t see him doing the work of a cartoon director as he doesn’t seem to have had any art experience. Brown recollected in a 1973 interview with historian Mike Barrier that story conferences with eventually-fired director Tom Palmer were woefully indecisive and it’s tempting to speculate that Brown mother-henned shorts that Palmer put into production in 1933. (Variety of April 9, 1934 also lists him as co-director of “Buddy of the Apes” with Ben Hardaway).

The Globe and Mail article blows off his cartoon work in one line. It doesn’t reveal Brown and cohort Norman Spencer connected with Schlesinger around the start of 1932 in a venture called Pacific Sound Track Service. When Schlesinger decided the following year to stop using the Harman-Ising staff and set up his own cartoon studio, Brown and Spencer moved over to handle the music (with Spencer’s son arranging the scores). Footnotes in Barrier’s Hollywood Cartoons quote animator Jim Pabian as saying Brown was “a very genial person,” though he got divorced during his time at Schlesinger, reportedly telling his wife of 12 years: “I’m tired of this married life—I want romance” (he remarried soon after). Brown left Schlesinger in 1936 to take over the sound department at Universal where his screen billing changed to “Bernard B. Brown” and he went on to a fine career. Hedda Hopper called him “that wizard of sound.”

This story ran in the edition of May 24, 1980. Bernard Bohn Brown was born in Lafarge, Wisconsin to Charles S. and Ida M. (Millison) Brown on July 24, 1898; his father was a photographer. The family was in Los Angeles by 1910. The 1920 Census lists Brown as being a musician in motion pictures (yes, silent pictures) and by 1930, he was the head of a special effects department, presumably at Warners. Before making music and sound his career, he had a job as a bill clerk for a wholesale drug company. He died in Laguna Hills, California on February 20, 1981.

Bernard Brown gave you talking pictures and crushed peanut shells
He broke sound barrier in film

BERNARD B. BROWN thinks he might have been able to save silent screen star John Gilbert. “He committed suicide because his career was over when the talkies came. He really had a high, squeaky voice,” says the first pioneer of film sound. “At Warner Brothers, we knew how to add low frequencies, so a tenor could sound like a high baritone. We could have applied it to Gilbert, but,” he shakes his head sadly, “he was at a different studio.” Probably no one has had more experience in making the high sound low, the loud sound louder, and everyone sound better than they really do than Bernard B. Brown, a bubbling, enthusiastic man known as Brownie to his colleagues. Beside him in the room where we sit is a rocking chair. It is easily the most comfortable chair around, but Brown is eyeing it with suspicion. “I'm staying out of that thing,” says a living historical document whose diverse activities since retiring from film include inventing a hair tonic and facial peel. “I don't believe in feeling old.”

He is in town this weekend to talk about his work in film scoring and sound engineering at Cineforum on Mercer Street, which will be showing three of his films. Highlights of his career include the orchestration of director D. W. Griffith's epic Birth of a Nation (1916); conducting and arranging in the first “talkie”, The Jazz Singer (1928); two Academy Awards, (out of nine nominations), one for developing the 10-track mixing system used in the Deanna Durbin film, One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937). Singers such as Miss Durbin, Bing Crosby and Nelson Eddy have had their singing voices transformed and their careers stregthened - sometimes despite their protests.

Brown's career began with a sensation. At the age of 16, just graduated from Hollywood High School and already an accomplished violinist, he applied to the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In the first hour of his audition, he was moved from sixth to first violinist. But more importantly, he was chosen to assist conductor Carli Elinor, who had been asked to select music for a new film by Griffith, Birth of a Nation.

To get California audiences in the mood to see a three-hour epic — an unheard of length — of the deep South, pine oil was blown into the auditorium by a wind machine through real pine trees placed in front of a set depicting a Southern plantation, while the orchestra played Swanee River. That's not all they played, but unfortunately that's one of the few tunes Brown can recall. The original score has been lost.

“We didn't compose any music, apart from the occasional short bridge,” he recalls. “We chose segments from about 30 classics. I can remember only a few; we used Suppe's Morning, Noon and Night, the overture from Rossini's Semiramade, Southern tunes such as Dixie, and a tune called The Sweetest Bunch of Lilacs, which became a theme song.”

Playing in the orchestra every day was tortuous. “There was no intermission, remember, and because it as the war, catgut for violin strings was hard to find. We had to settle for fish line, which ate right into the fingers until we bandaged them up with adhesive tape.”

Joining Warner Brothers in the twenties, Brown became both sound man and musician. Some of the early recorded effects were crude but effective for their novelty. “I had to do sound for some really B-type films. I remember one where a man was bending down to pick up his wife’s earring, and she kicks him in the fanny. I got a Chinese gong for that one, and turned up the volume when it went off. People jumped up and screamed. It was a sensation.”

The first brief soundtracks, made of wax, added their own problems. “If you got one revolution out of sync, a man would be talking for a woman and the woman instead of the man. Then there'd be a loud scratch as the operator pushed it back into sync.”

Sound only started being treated seriously with the success of The Jazz Singer. There had been talking in shorter films before, but for the first time, camera and turntable were synchronized during production, and talking and singing were both put on the same wax record. And although only 10 per cent of The Jazz Singer boasted sound, Brown ensured that it seemed like more. "People remember the last thing they see, so we made sure a lot of that dialogue was at the end of the film." In The Jazz Singer, the back of Brown's brilliantined head can clearly be seen conducting the orchestra while Al Jolson mouths the song Mammy to pre-recorded music.

Paramount was fast matching Warner Brothers in the technology of transferring sound from discs onto the film itself. "We went to see Paramount's new film Old Arizona, and there was a scene where someone shoots a money box open with a .44. It was a tremendous cracking, and it really registered with Jack Warner, who was a little hard of hearing anyway. But it gradually sold him on the idea of a soundtrack on the film itself, and of course in a year or two the whole industry had converted to it.

Brown's work in the thirties included some pioneering sound effects — from the complex (he was the first to construct a "train effects machine") to the simple (he realized that the loud splintering of falling trees could be imitated by crunching peanut shells close to a mike).

And he supervised the first Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons for Warners. He also moonlighted with the Disney studios in the making of Fantasia in 1940.

But some of his most satisfying experiences were with singers, especially Deanna Durbin.

“Doug Shearer, who was the brother of Moira [sic] Shearer, the wife of MGM's boss Irving Thalberg, was a tennis partner of mine.” Brown is a devoted tennis player. “One day he said, ‘They had a screen test for Judy Garland and Deanna Durbin, and they've let Deanna go. This is your chance.’ I knew why they had let Deanna go. She had such a range that she kept hitting the high frequencies, and their equipment couldn't handle it, while Judy was sticking to the middle register. But I knew how to work with Deanna, and once I sold Warner Brothers on her, she became a star."

Miss Durbin had a problem that plagued her career. “Every day right at noon — and this was really strange, because she didn't have a watch — she would stop on the set and say ‘I'm hungry.’ I'd say, ‘Okay, Deanna, I'll go get some sandwiches.’ She'd say ‘Forget the sandwiches, I want a plate of spaghetti.’

Brown sighs. “That's why we never gave her any time off. She'd put on 10 pounds just like that.”

There was talk of Miss Durbin, who now lives in Paris, making a comeback. “I wrote her about four years ago, and asked if she'd like to work with the old gang again. She replied that she was in better voice than ever, and that she would consider making another movie as soon as she lost 30 pounds.”

Brown hasn't heard from her since.

Some singers appreciated him more than others. Bing Crosby refused to return to Paramount after making a picture for Warners unless they hired Brown to remake their scoring stage. “Bing had that deep, casual voice that made him sound as if he was singing in a rain barrel at Paramount. In their sound studio, they had up all these drapes which damaged the natural brightness in his voice. I just tore them down.”

Nelson Eddy was more of a problem. By 1939, Brown had switched studios, to Universal and vowed that “If Nelson Eddy comes to this studio, I'll make a new singer out of him.” When Eddy was contracted to make A Phantom of the Opera with Claude Rains in 1942, Brown had his chance.

“Eddy had no brightness, no character, no oomph. But I built a special studio, that gave timbre and definition to his voice.

“The first time he heard his voice played back on the set, he was furious. He thought we had hired a double.” Eddy was ultimately delighted with his new resonance. “But when he went back to MGM,” says Brown smiling, “he lost a bit of it.”

Brown retired from film in 1953 after a projected film company to be formed in Jamaica with his friend Errol Flynn fell through. (Of the recent allegations concerning spy activities by Flynn, Brown says “That's nonsense. I was so close to Errol I would have known. We played tennis nearly every day.”) Although he has kept up with new sound techniques, he doesn't think much of them. Mention a gimmick like Sensurround, and he looks depressed. The new lush sound of sci-fi films? “I went to Star Wars at Grauman's Chinese Theatre with some friends from Honolulu, and if they hadn't come from Honolulu I would have walked out,” he says. “It's just too much of everything. There's no clarity, no definition.”

Today, Brown keeps busy minding his real estate investments in Los Angeles and Palm Springs, wondering how to market his facial peel, playing tennis every morning at 6:30, and preparing his projected three volumes of memoirs. But still, film tempts him back.

“You know this Neil. . . Diamond?” he says slowly, as if he didn’t. “Well, he’s starring in a remake of The Jazz Singer. And just three days ago they phoned and asked me if I would consider supervising the sound.”

He rocks back in his chair, but it still doesn’t look remotely like a rocking chair. “I guess I can still remember where the music goes.”

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