Brown studied at the University of Tennessee and was an engineer before getting a job as assistant to Maurice Tourneur. He acknowledged a great debt to Tourneur, with whom he worked for seven years.
Brown’s first solo film was scripted with John Gilbert and by the mid-1920s he was with Universal. Subsequently he joined MGM and stayed there until the 1940s. He was one of their leading directors of female stars. Five times he worked with Joan Crawford: Possessed, Letty Lynton, Sadie McKee, Chained, and The Gorgeous Hussu. More important, he had the reputation of being Garbo’s director: Flesh and die Devil, A Woman of Affairs, Anna Christie, Anna Karenina, and Conquest.
But these are not Garbo's best films—just as the Crawford movies are more reserved than those she made with, say, Michael Curtiz or Robert Aldrich. Brown had a gentle, reflective taste, inclined to persist with lush visual effects learned in the silent cinema. He was at his best with atmosphere, and least assured with dialogue.
Idiot ’s Delight, for instance, is a garrulous muddle, but The Yearling and Intruder in the Dust are touching works, even if old-fashioned and very slow. Attempts to elevate Brown's status are stopped in their tracks by a comparison with George Cukor. It is more useful to see him as a pictorialist who managed to negotiate sound without effectively altering his stvle. Like so mamdirectors of that generation in America he was conventional, placid, and humorless. He never outgrew novelettish material, and The Goose Woman, Anna Karenina, and National Velvet have the same soothing plush of absorbency. Essentially, Brown treated Louise Dresser, Garbo, the young Elizabeth Tavlor, and animals in The Yearling and National Velvet with the same considerate hut uncritical awre.