A Forgotten Maker of the Unforgettable
by Michael Sragow
The New York Times November 15, 1998, Section 2A; Page 37
Michael Sragow edited "Produced and Abandoned: The National
Society of Film Critics Write on the Best Films You've Never Seen."
In 1938, the director Victor Fleming made a movie about a Kansas
farm girl who gets swept into the air and enters a dizzying world of excitement
and heartbreak. It was called "Test Pilot," it starred Myrna
Loy, Clark Gable and Spencer
Tracy, and it was an enormous hit.
Later that year, he took over a troubled production about another
Kansas farm girl who gets swept into the air and enters a dizzying world
of excitement and heartbreak. It was called "The
Wizard of Oz," it starred Judy
Garland, Ray Bolger and
Bert Lahr, and it failed to recoup its costs.
Fleming's career is a study in the vagaries of movie history. In
the days of the Hollywood "dream factory," he was a towering
figure. In his engaging memoir "Studio Affairs," Vincent Sherman
recalls Gable's telling him
that Mr. Sherman knew more about film than any director except Fleming.
Mr. Sherman took it as a compliment. Yet today, critics and festivals pay
more attention to Mr. Sherman, whose most famous movie is probably "Old
Acquaintance," than they do to Fleming, who directed two of America's
best-loved pictures -- "The
Wizard of Oz" and "Gone
With the Wind" -- for release in a single year: 1939.
Fleming's reputation as a tough leader, a savvy filmmaker and Gable's
favorite director led David
O. Selznick to recruit him to take over "Gone
With the Wind," a production even more troubled than "Oz."
Fleming won an Oscar for filming most of this prototype of prestige blockbusters.
Over the next half-century, "The
Wizard of Oz" and "Gone
With the Wind" would run neck and neck in stature and popularity.
"Oz" was one of
the first event movies on network television when it was broadcast in prime
time, in 1956. Between 1959 and 1998, "Oz"
was shown with unmatched regularity, going from a box-office disappointment
to a broadcast cash cow.
Last week the fabled musical re-opened on more than 1,900 screens,
nine months ahead of its 60th anniversary. It ranked sixth on the notorious
American Film Institute list of "the greatest American movies"
and fifth in a separate Los Angeles Times readers' poll. ("Gone
With the Wind" ranked fourth and first, respectively.) The MGM
production team has received most of the credit for "The
Wizard of Oz" and Selznick
for "Gone With the Wind."
Fleming is a forgotten man.
Yet the films he directed helped define "the movies" for
generations. His celluloid storybook versions of Stevenson's "Treasure
Island" (with Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper) and Kipling's "Captains
Courageous" (with Spencer Tracy
and Freddie Bartholomew) became childhood favorites not just for those
who saw them in theaters in 1934 and 1937, but also for the legions who
caught them after school in the 50's, on television slots like the "The
Early Show." In the 60's and 70's, college film series became hot
tickets whenever they double-billed Fleming's steamy pre-censorship-code
classics: the 1932 comic-erotic melodrama "Red Dust," with Gable
and Jean Harlow, and the 1933 satire of sex-symbol celebrity, "Bombshell,"
again with Harlow.
Whether directing swashbucklers or farces or horror films, Fleming
knew how to make a movie's kinetic impact serve a writer's intentions rather
than the other way around. But next to nothing has been written about Fleming.
You would have to read a biography of Ingrid
Bergman to learn that during the making of Fleming's "Dr. Jekyll
and Mr. Hyde" (1941) -- in which she displays a dazzling, un-self-conscious
sensuality -- she became infatuated with her director. "He got things
out of me that were different from anything I had done before," she
said to The London Times in 1971. "What more can an actor want?"
Bergman's 1946 performance
on Broadway in Maxwell Anderson's "Joan of Lorraine" prompted
Fleming to mount a screen version of the story, "Joan of Arc."
As partners and lovers, Bergman
and Fleming weathered this exhausting, ruinously expensive epic together.
Their affair ended with the movie. He died on Jan. 6, 1949, two weeks after
its premiere, while on vacation with his wife and daughters. Bergman
had photos of him nearby at the time of her death, 33 years later.
Fleming helped imbue "Gone
With the Wind" with the appeal of a "women's picture"
and the gusto of a bareknuckled adventure. After all, Fleming himself was
a man's man and a ladies' man. Male stars like Gable
and Gary Cooper and directors
like Howard Hawks patterned themselves
after him. Female stars -- Clara Bow, Lupe Velez and Norma Shearer, as
well as Bergman -- fell
in love with him. The renowned producer of musicals Arthur
Freed, who did uncredited work for "Oz,"
told the writer John Kobal that Fleming "was a poet, probably one
of the great unsung men of this business." To Freed,
he was not just a "strange fellow" who "had this feeling":
he was "even greater than John Ford,
who was one of the masters."
Born in Pasadena, Calif., in 1883, Fleming was a race-car driver
and mechanic and a Signal Corps photographer who got his big break in the
industry working as a cameraman for Douglas Fairbanks Sr. He was one of
those native Westerners who based stirring fantasy on real experience.
His hugely influential 1929 version of Owen Wister's cowboy romance, "The
Virginian," was an early talkie with the visual zest of the immortal
silents, a Western milestone comparable to John
Ford's "Stagecoach" (1939).
It was this movie that turned Gary
Cooper into an American icon: as the Virginian he walks softly and
carries a big gun. He is not just laconic; he is lyrically laconic. He
does not holler or simper or carelessly toss his weight around. What he
does is obey the rules of frontier morality, even when they hurt. He lynches
his closest friend (Richard Arlen) for cattle rustling and, hours before
his wedding, faces the ultimate black-hat villain, Trampas (Walter Huston),
in a shootout. From the rugged locations in the High Sierras to the unforced
sound effects and confident pacing, the feel and style of the film are
what used to be called "virile."
Traditional masculine pride demanded that a man take action against
threats or insults, serve his own independent morality and play the sexual
aggressor. Fleming's top films codified those values and made them irresistibly
seductive. Gable reached his
peak as a pulse-racing heartthrob in "Red Dust." Playing the
super-competent boss of an Indochinese rubber plantation, he mesmerizes
an elegant married woman (Mary Astor) and a good-natured prostitute (Harlow).
Few films are this funny and frank about committing adultery and covering
it up. Gable goes to bed with
both women without devastating Astor's decent husband. And he winds up
with the woman who is best for him, Harlow. Gable's
brusque persona is like Cooper's
with the courtliness singed off.
Fleming's "Bombshell" demonstrates how much clout he wielded
in his heyday. According to an interview with his favorite screenwriter,
John Lee Mahin, this delirious burlesque about the "Monarch"
studio began as the tragedy of an exploited star. Then Mahin said it struck
him as a comedy, and Fleming started reminiscing about the chaotic home
life of "the It girl," Clara Bow: she had a dog with the run
of the house, "a beautiful Oriental rug with coffee stains,"
and "her father'd come in drunk." Knowing without being smarmy,
Fleming and Mahin added arpeggios of grace notes. Harlow's title character,
for example, is just finishing up "Red Dust." In the studio-within-the-film,
the Hays Office censors threaten to cut the prostitute's nude bathing scene.
In 1934, the Hays Office suggestions for eliminating raciness from
the American screen became binding. Fleming answered the call for family
entertainment with "Treasure Island" and "Captains Courageous."
When the producer Mervyn LeRoy scrapped the early footage of "The
Wizard of Oz" and fired the first director, Richard Thorpe, he
turned to Fleming because he needed a moviemaker with a child's eye for
wonderment. Fleming had settled into marriage; Mahin thought Fleming took
on "Oz" because
it connected to his close bond with his daughters.
Much of the vitality of "Oz"
springs from the way Lahr, Bolger
and many others turn their roles into vaudeville acts. Fleming's sure touch
with these performers should not have been a surprise. He had directed
comedy since the silent days. And there had been a vaudevillian strain
to "Bombshell," too, which featured Frank Morgan, the Wizard
himself, as the bombshell's comical fraud of a father. Fleming's impeccable
handling of Judy Garland was
not different in kind from the work he did with other child actors or insecure
stars like Gable.
King Vidor took over the direction
of the sepia-toned Kansas scenes when Fleming departed for Tara. But Fleming
and Mahin had already left their mark. According to Aljean Harmetz's "The
Making of the Wizard of Oz," the pre-Fleming script commenced with
static farmland shots and a blase Dorothy "riding a pony, talking
to a scarecrow, and grinning." In Mahin's version, we see Dorothy
in turmoil from the get-go, anguished over the prospect of losing her dog,
Toto, to the vile Miss Gulch and unable to interrupt Aunt Em and Uncle
Henry as they deal with a malfunctioning incubator. Her urge to escape
is immediately understandable. Whether on the high seas of "Captains
Courageous" or in the high altitudes of "Test Pilot," Fleming
made sure to root adventure in sturdy emotions -- like Garland's
ardent, innocent yearning for happiness, then home, in "Oz."
His biggest stars long outlived and overshadowed him. Yet Fleming's
reputation remains high among filmmakers as varied as James Cameron and
Philip Kaufman (an admirer of "Red Dust"). In 1989, Steven Spielberg,
a devout fan of Fleming's, remade Fleming's World War II tear-jerker, "A
Guy Named Joe" (1943), as "Always." And no director had
a year like Fleming's 1939 until Spielberg made "Jurassic Park"
and "Schindler's List" in 1993.
Fleming is still anonymous to the general moviegoing public. Perhaps
that is because his contributions to American popular culture are so profound
as to be intangible. He conjured a sense of childhood that included risk
and wildness. And in bold, textured images, he conveyed a notion of adulthood
that was adventurous and sexually up-front but rarely flighty or irresponsible.
"Of all the men I've known," Clara Bow once said, "there
was a man."
© 1998 The New York Times Company