SFSFF 2015: Kevin Brownlow – Stories from the Trenches of Film Restoration

I credit Kevin Brownlow for my passion for silent movies. I studied silent cinema in college film classes in the 1980s, viewed from 16mm classroom prints. I admired the era but, apart from Chaplin and Keaton and a few choice dramas, I never really embraced it as a unique form of storytelling. Then I saw Brownlow’s 1983 documentary The Unknown Chaplin and read his invaluable book “The Parade’s Gone By.” They helped me appreciate the beauty and expressiveness of silent storytelling.

‘Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ’

Since then I’ve seen numerous silent film that Brownlow helped restore through Photoplay Productions (which helped me really see and appreciate the films on their own terms), watched his documentaries on Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow, Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius, D.W. Griffith: The Father of Film and his epic thirteen-part documentary series Hollywood: A Celebration of American Silent Film (among others), read his books on silent film history, and had the good fortune to see his restoration of Abel Gance‘s Napoleon three times (two of them thanks to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which brought the film to Oakland in 2012 for its only American screenings to date).

He has been honored by the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the American Society of Cinematographers and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which gave him the 2010 Silent Film Festival award for his lifelong commitment to silent film preservation and history. And in 2010 he received the Academy Honorary Award, the first film preservationist to be so honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The 20th San Francisco Silent Film Festival closes with Brownlow’s restoration of the original Ben-Hur (1925) and he will appear onstage in conversation with 2015 Silent Film Festival award recipient Serge Bromberg. I spoke with Brownlow (who lives and works in London) about his adventures in preserving the legacy of silent cinema and the state of film restoration.

Sean Axmaker: You were involved in restoration long before the digital era.

Kevin Brownlow: Well it was certainly before the digital days but I’m certain that people were restoring films before me. I just picked titles that seemed not to be what regular cinema would call ‘commercial.’

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