- The Search for Karl Brown
In 1968, my filmmaking partner Andrew Mollo and I had the chance to make a film in Prague, a chance that was blown to bits when the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia. We were so anxious to make the film that as soon as the Russians let people across the border, we flew to Prague to see if there was any prospect left (there wasn't). I had another reason for the journey: I wanted to visit the Národní Filmový Archiv, where I knew there were many unique copies of American silent films.
On the morning we had arranged to visit the archive, we got up early and set off to look for taxis. None would stop. Oh well, the hotel said it was just a little way away. So we walked. And walked and walked. Andrew drew attention to the stench of cheap petrol. Finally, we asked a man for Malešická ulice. "About thirty minutes walk," he said. I managed to get through to archivist Myrtil Frida from a telephone box to warn him that we'd be late. The road was as long as the North Circular, and the area was just like Cricklewood—and you don't find taxis in Cricklewood. Just a constant flow of trucks and Czech Tatras. I was now panic-stricken. There was no one who knew where the street was—they simply could not understand. "Mallyssiskey?" I tried. "Mallyshitzki?" They shook their heads. Trouble was, they took hours to do so, standing there and thinking. Finally, a car sped up, the driver saw my expression, and he ground to a halt. It was a taxi! We climbed in gratefully and off he sped, but within a minute, he had drawn up next to what looked like the municipal rubbish dump. We walked past piles of rusty film cans, past an old shack, and up to another old shack. The stench of decaying nitrate was all too noticeable.
"Mr. Frida?" Three faces nodded, and we were led into the shack. Frida's secretary greeted us. The posters on the wall were a surprise: "HORROR HOTEL Just ring for doom service." Myrtil Frida seemed much younger and gayer than the demure, gray-suited apparatchik I had encountered at the International Federation of Film Archives conference in England. There was some confusion over the films I had asked to see, but we entered the theater, which was heated like a steam laundry. I asked for paper and was given two sheets. Could I have more? I was given three sheets. "That is all we have got."
Frida left us with a woman who did her best to translate the titles of Stark Love (1927). She made heavy weather of it, but it didn't matter. The film was remarkable in the Flaherty-Cooper-Schoedsack tradition. It was shot in the mountains of North Carolina, among people who seemed as primitive as any encountered by Flaherty. The film was directed by Karl Brown, who had photographed The Covered Wagon (1923), and it was one of Frida's favorites.
I was so enthused by it that when I returned to England, I wrote an article for a film society magazine describing Stark Love. It was called "How Could We Forget a Film Like This?" A year or so later, I was invited to work for the oral history department of the American Film Institute (AFI), interviewing the silent film people I had missed when I was assembling my book. Someone must have read my article at MoMA, for they had arranged with the Czech archive to bring a copy of Stark Love to New York. They also rang me up to ask if, in all the interviewing I had been doing, I had heard whether Karl Brown was still alive. Brown was G. W. Bitzer's assistant cameraman on The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). "If he had been alive," I told them authoritatively, "I would know about it." Later that day, I spoke to filmmaker and film historian George J. Mitchell. He had been asked the same question and, being a former intelligence officer, he...