Born in Clinton, Massachusetts, the son of Larkin Harry Brown (1866-1942) a cotton manufacturer and Katherine Ann Brown (nee Gaw) (1865-1954), Brown moved to Tennessee when he was 11 years old. He attended Knoxville High School and the University of Tennessee, both in Knoxville, Tennessee, graduating from the university at the age of 19 with two degrees in engineering. An early fascination in automobiles led Brown to a job with the Stevens-Duryea Company, then to his own Brown Motor Car Company in Alabama. He later abandoned the car dealership after developing an interest in motion pictures around 1913. He was hired by the Peerless Studio at Fort Lee, New Jersey, and became an assistant to the French-born director Maurice Tourneur.
After serving in World War I, Brown was given his first co-directing credit (with Tourneur) for The Great Redeemer (1920). Later that year, he directed a major portion of The Last of the Mohicans after Tourneur was injured in a fall.
Brown moved to Universal in 1924, and then to MGM, where he stayed until the mid-1950s. At MGM he was one of the main directors of their female stars; he directed Joan Crawford six times and Greta Garbo seven.
He was nominated five times (see below) for the Academy Award as a director and once as a producer, but he never received an Oscar. However, he won Best Foreign Film for Anna Karenina, starring Garbo at the 1935 Venice International Film Festival.
Brown's films gained a total of 38 Academy Award nominations and earned nine Oscars. Brown himself received six Academy Award nominations and in 1949, he won the British Academy Award for the film version of William Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust.
In 1957, Brown was awarded The George Eastman Award, given by George Eastman House for distinguished contribution to the art of film. Brown retired a wealthy man due to his real estate investments, but refused to watch new movies, as he feared they might cause him to restart his career.
The Clarence Brown Theater, on the campus of the University of Tennessee, is named in his honor. He is tied with Robert Altman and Alfred Hitchcock for the most Academy Award nominations for best director without a single win.
Brown died from kidney failure on August 17, 1987, at the age of 97. He is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.
On February 8, 1960, Brown received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1752 Vine Street, for his contributions to the motion pictures industry
Clarence Brown features in the 1980 UK TV series Hollywood episode 12, his interview filmed in 1969 he discusses John GilbertTrilby (1915)The Law of the Land (1917)The Blue Bird (1918)The Great Redeemer (1920)The Last of the Mohicans (1920)The Foolish Matrons (1921)The Light in the Dark (1922)Don't Marry for Money (1923)The Acquittal (1923)The Signal Tower (1924)Butterfly (1924)The Eagle (1925)The Goose Woman (1925)Smouldering Fires (1925)Flesh and the Devil (1926)Kiki (1926)A Woman of Affairs (1928)The Trail of '98 (1929)Navy Blues (1929)Wonder of Women (1929)Anna Christie (1930) - Academy Award nomination for Best Director (see NOTE below)Romance (1930) - Academy Award nomination for Best Director (see NOTE below)Inspiration (1931)Possessed (1931)A Free Soul (1931) - Academy Award nomination for Best DirectorEmma (1932)Letty Lynton (1932)The Son-Daughter (1932)Looking Forward (1933)Night Flight (1933)Sadie McKee (1934)Chained (1934)Ah, Wilderness! (1935)Anna Karenina (1935)Wife vs. Secretary (1936)The Gorgeous Hussy (1936)Conquest (1937)Of Human Hearts (1938)Idiot's Delight (1939)The Rains Came (1939)Edison, the Man (1940)Come Live with Me (1941)They Met in Bombay (1941)The Human Comedy (1943) - Academy Award nominations for Best Director and for Best PictureThe White Cliffs of Dover (1944)National Velvet (1944) - Academy Award nomination for Best DirectorThe Yearling (1946) - Academy Award nomination for Best DirectorSong of Love (1947)Intruder in the Dust (1949)To Please a Lady (1950)Angels in the Outfield (1951)When in Rome (1952)Plymouth Adventure (1952)
NOTE: In 1929/1930, Brown received one Academy Award nomination for two films. According to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, "As allowed by the award rules for this year, a single nomination could honor work in one or more films."