My Most Unforgettable Studio Head
By Neil Earle
That would have to be Ewing Miles (“Lucky”) Brown.
As he told my friend Al Doshna and I on a scorching hot July day in Van Nuys, California, he has been in movies for just about a century.
Soon after his birth in December, 1921 he was featured as a female baby in a forgotten flick due to the connections of his father Dr. Howard Crosswell Brown. Dr. Brown set up a practice in the middle of Hollywood from where he treated just about all the who’s who in Hollywood’s Golden Era. That included Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Mae West, the latter of whom Lucky got along with very well.
Parts came quickly. He played “Algernon”(nicknamed “Stinky”) in the famed “Our Gang” comedies of the 1920s affecting an English accent and a superior manner. The great 1930s dance master and set designer Busby Berkely’s mother was also a patient of Dr. Brown, so Lucky kept getting the breaks.
Riding and Shooting
Then his direction in life took what looked like a major detour. His father was able to retire early to a horse ranch in the Ozarks in 1935 and Lucky’s days in the movies seemed over. It was in Dalton, Arkansas, however that he became a handy horseman and you can see where this is going. He persuaded his dad that a one-room schoolhouse would not be good for his future and returned to Los Angeles from 1938 to 1941 to study at at Belmont Junior High in the heart of downtown Hollywood. One of his classmates was Jack Webb, the creator of the popular “Dragnet” series two decades later.
This was the Great Depression so you took whatever work came. Working nights at the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, Lucky fell into another career groove as a lab technician and a fill-in photographer. Soon he was tapped by Uncle Sam to serve in the Philippines in the dying days of World War Two (1944-1945). It was there he won so much money at crap games that he earned his nickname, Lucky, which has stuck for 72 years.
Back in Hollywood the GI Bill allowed him to study at the Actors Lab. “You could go to school and they’d pay you what we called the 52/20 club. For one year you got $52 a week as long as you stayed in school.” Classmates included dancer Gene Kelly, handsome Tony Curtis and the most highly decorated American of the war, Audie Murphy. Odd-jobbing again he drove Donald O’Connor to rehearsals and caught a glimpse of Marilyn Monroe in the bargain.
In 1946 he and Raymond Burr (“Perry Mason”) were filming a movie where Lucky had to “kill” Ray. Shooting in a back alley one night two cops took them seriously and Lucky showed his ingenuity by letting the policeman watch the filming if they’d let them off. “I stayed friends with these two cops till they retired. They ate with the crew, they met all the actors.” One of Old Hollywood’s landmarks, Schwab’s Drug Store (where Lana Turner and others were discovered) was next door to the Studio and it was there one day that Lucky was asked “Do you ride a horse?” A Gene Autry colleague hired him and he was soon riding alongside legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt at Republic Pictures. By 1951 Lucky was under contract with Cecil B. De Mille for “The Greatest Show on Earth” with Charlton Heston and Dorothy Lamour. Then, soon after, came the break of his life. George Stevens, who had directed him as a child actor in the “Our Gang” movies in the 1930s, was scouting Hollywood for bad guys to play opposite Alan Ladd in a new Western called “Shane.” Stevens originally slated Lucky for the sadistic gunfighter role ultimately played by Jack Palance who had been at first unavailable. Lucky stayed on as one of the gunfighters while training Palance in how to ride and shoot.
The close-up spinnerama where Shane rotates and holsters his gun has been called “one of the most technically perfect scenes ever shot” but it was all Lucky Brown’s handiwork…and hands. He has also spent half a life-time living down the reputation as landing a punch on Alan Ladd in the bar scene. Lucky liked the affable star very much. “Other guys were bringing their girl friends to location but he brought his family and all the kids.” For the record, says Lucky, Ladd was 5’7” – not as short as was thought. While working in movies such as “Pony Express” with Charlton Heston and “Playhouse 90” serials on early television he became an associate of film editor Elmo Williams. This forgotten genius showed him the ropes of yet another career. Williams is credited with saving the movie “High Noon” through creative re-cutting. He also edited “The Longest Day” and “Tora! Tora! Tora!” But Lucky was instrumental in “re-synching” the sound into the picture tracks.
Government Work and Ed Wood
These experiences would stand him in good stead as cinematographer for the CIA, who wanted high-speed footage (200-5000 frames per second) for special projects perfected at a Howard Hughes facility near LAX. Lucky ended up in the New Mexico desert with Werner von Braun shooting missile-testing footage for NASA that was processed under strict government controls. Meanwhile, as Lucky told Classic Images, his personal life did not escape real-life drama. After ten happy years with wife Jacqueline who died of cancer, his present wife Jeanne was in the industry as well and, he claims, “picked me up wet, dried me off, and put me by the fireplace with a saucer of milk.”
Lucky in cards; lucky in love.
After a career in monster films and other drive-in grinders he had perfected about all there was to know about film and its 1001 demands. He doesn’t apologize for what has been called “exploitation” work. “Someone has to fill out the bill,” he says. “It can’t be all “Gone With the Wind” at the Cineplex so the B-movies for the drive-ins were just the action needed.“ (Hint: he says drive-ins are coming back!).
Lucky showed an amazing ability to do what it took to keep going. But even he was challenged by the ever-resourceful Ed Wood who produced the famous for being bad “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” “Lucky remembers that “whenever Ed got some money ahead he’d go out and shoot,” a part of the industry many people know little about. “Ed Wood – he did these things for fun. He didn’t care whether he made money on them. And he was a big brawny guy, a paratrooper in Normandy. He just liked to wear women’s clothes. He loved fuzzy angora sweater. They had this little actor (Johnny Depp, playing Wood in a film bio), you go poof and you’d blow him away. Ed was a big brute.”
Lucky had more than one bizarre experience shooting with Ed Wood. Standing in the back of an old Buick on Santa Monica Blvd. working the camera, they had to ride around to avoid the cops – Ed didn’t pay parking permits. Lucky got a laugh out of being told to shoot a Ford hubcap as a flying saucer. All part of the legend. “We were working till 2:00 in the morning but nobody cared because we were just having a party.” C’est La Vie in that part of Hollywood and in that period Lucky knew so well.
One of his most resourceful feats was finishing a Jayne Mansfield film after she died. He turned the picture into a retrospective, “The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield (1967).” He talked the family into playing along and then filming the star’s most iconic paraphanalia – heart-shaped pool and all. Those details and the voice-over saved the day. “I got a $5000 bonus for saving that project.” In 1977 it was time for his own serious movie starring William Shatner in Whale of a Tale. He won over the sometimes difficult Shatner for a great production – due for re-release soon.
Finally, in 1980 he started his own studio named “Movie Tech” providing background services to major television and movie productions such as “Police Squad” and “The Greatest American Hero.” After 25 years of this back-lot action he sold his premises in 2006 – not to retire – but to move to Van Nuys in the San Fernando Valley. There he battled zoning regulations for an expanded Movie-Tech studio with sound stage and filler scenes or retakes for major movies. His studio is humble and serviceable and almost a museum of Old Hollywood. His technicians proudly showed Al and I the camera used to film John Wayne’s first movie, The Big Trail (1930).
Thriving in the Pressure Cooker
The pictures and movie posters that adorn the walls of Movie Tech tell their own story of Lucky’s zest for a life inside one of the toughest and most demanding creative industries in the world. He knew them all – from Humphrey Bogart to Gloria Swanson to Cary Grant and he has the dossier to prove it. “Bogart was the real deal,” he said. “He took no nonsense from anyone. He had a barely visible scar on his jaw line from a World War One accident that gave him his distinctive speaking style.”
You think the memoir is over and then he drops in that he and Jack Kennedy used to sail off Cape Cod in the 1950s. A family connection back east knew the Kennedys. “Bobby wanted to be President, not Jack,” Lucky says smiling, thus confirming a historical speculation.
Lucky laughs often and heartily and he acts like he has all day to spin his many wonderful tales. Magazines are just beginning to discover him as a true incarnation of the lively spirit of Old Hollywood and an autobiography is in the works.
Resourcefulness and generosity of spirit and having fun with what you do pretty well sums him up. His raucous laugh lets you know he loves life, even life in the fast lane with big-name stars from Mae West to Ronald Reagan and as a talented behind-the-scene fixer. At age 96 he’s seen a lot of things come and go and his office is a working man’s demonstration of simplicity and a no-pretense approach to life. Studio-Tech is like the man himself, unpretentious and production-oriented. ”Get the job done!” The atmosphere among his staff is that of a respect you easily pick up. They know who the boss is. Some seem like students back in college learning from one of the past masters whose career has intersected almost all components of the up-and-down world of Hollywood, while never succumbing to its glamour and tinsel.
That has to be something worth celebrating. One of my friends in the film industry is Karen Covell, a film producer and leader of the Hollywood Payer Network, a support group offering encouragement to the thousands of Christians who work in Hollywood as writers, cameramen, carpenters, painters, directors and even actors. Lucky himself gave no indication of his religious beliefs nor were Al and I gauche enough to press the point. It was enough for us that we were in the presence of a giant among his contemporaries, one who has stayed sane and decent and generous over almost 100 years in “the business.”
A personal note: When I was called down from Canada to work as an editor in Los Angeles in 1993 I dreamt of maybe getting a script produced. (It’s in the air down here). Along with 25 other hopefuls I took the course at Universal Studios. Maybe, I thought, I could make some kind of contribution to the message machine that emanates worldwide from Hollywood. As Karen Covell puts it, “Los Angeles means ‘the Angels’ and angels give out messages. So let us pray that this magnificent tool of film can be used for godly purposes and let us support all those who work there – believers and non-believers.”
Wise words. My dreams didn’t turn out as big as I wanted. I did not get invited to a reception at a lavish Paramount studio or get invited to the Academy Awards but I did get to enjoy 100 years of behind-the scene glimpses of one of the world’s most dynamic industries from one of its premier insiders – Ewing Miles “Lucky” Brown, my most unforgettable studio head.