Book Review: 'Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master'
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
An American Movie Master
By Michael Sragow
Pantheon. 645 pp. $40
Is easy labeling a prerequisite for lasting greatness in the arts? At first blush, the case of Victor Fleming suggests that the answer may be yes. Although he directed two of the most durably popular movies of all time, "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone With the Wind," Fleming is seldom mentioned in the same breath as D.W. Griffith, Ernst Lubitsch, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford and Howard Hawks.
Griffith formulated "the grammar of film"; Lubitsch applied his elegant "touch"; Hitchcock was "the master of suspense"; Ford once summed himself up by saying, "I make westerns"; and Hawks is famous for dramatizing the same theme in movie after movie: the camaraderie exulted in by men (and the occasional woman) who team up skillfully on dangerous assignments. No phrase or motif sums up Fleming, who failed to specialize in a genre or develop a trademark approach to the variegated material he took on. In this nimble, well-paced biography, however, Baltimore Sun film critic Michael Sragow tries to find room for his man in the pantheon.
Born in California in 1889, Fleming broke into the movie business on the strength of his abilities to drive and fix cars. Working for Flying A during the early silent era, he helped the studio crank out two pictures a week by chauffeuring, acting in bit parts, operating the camera and, finally, directing. In 1915 he landed a job with Triangle and got to watch Griffith make "Intolerance," the colossal follow-up to "Birth of a Nation." Sragow astutely links this apprenticeship to Fleming's own stupendous moment, 25 years later -- "the most famous crane shot in movie history for 'Gone With the Wind': the camera moving back and up to take in the wounded and dying soldiers of the Confederacy."
Thanks to his association with Douglas Fairbanks, whom Fleming guided in films that molded the star's image as a tongue-in-cheek swashbuckler, Fleming was able to muscle his way into Hollywood's top tier, eventually becoming MGM's most trusted director. Several of his silent features are lost, but Sragow makes the reader want to sample the survivors, notably "When the Clouds Roll By" (1919, with Fairbanks), "Lord Jim" (1925, with the forgotten Percy Marmont in the title role) and "Mantrap" (1926, a vehicle for sexpot Clara Bow).
Fleming's first all-out sound movie was a sensation: "The Virginian" (1929), which made a star of Gary Cooper. Fleming's rapport with the rugged Cooper, along with others of his stripe, seems to have been a case of charisma-transferal. "Every man that ever worked for [Fleming] patterned himself after him," said his fellow director Henry Hathaway. "Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, all of them. He had a strong personality, not to the point of imposing himself on anyone, but just forceful and masculine." The young Fleming was also a womanizer, though known for going about it in a gentlemanly way. Once the affairs were over, his girlfriends, many of them actresses he worked with, remained his friends.
Fleming's glory days were the '30s. In addition to "Oz" and "GWTW" (both 1939), he directed the smashing "Red Dust" (1932), set in a steamy jungle and featuring a love triangle whose three sides are Gable, Jean Harlow and Mary Astor. The dialogue snaps, and the stars shine: Harlow at her bawdy best, Astor elegantly sexy and Gable swaggering about as the Fleming surrogate. "Red Dust" enjoys yet another distinction: Hollywood movies of the period are awash in self-sacrifice, but this is one of the few in which the abnegation doesn't seem maudlin or contrived.
Sragow makes grand claims for other Fleming pictures in the sound era, but after renting them, I wasn't always convinced. "Bombshell" (1933) has too much bellowing by its male stars and not enough repartee between the Harlow character and her maid, played by the ribald Louise Beavers. And wooden acting by little Jackie Cooper in the role of Jim Hawkins all but ruins "Treasure Island" (1934).
Assessing Fleming's direction of his two great hits is a complex exercise. He was pulled off "Oz" to replace George Cukor on "GWTW," with the result that Fleming directed less than the entirety of either film: Despite winning an Oscar for "GWTW," he was responsible for no more than 60 percent of its footage. It must have been flattering to be told by Louis B. Mayer that you're the only man who can save the biggest picture of the decade, but by the same token it doesn't help your status as a Hollywood auteur when your studio treats you like a relief pitcher.
Fleming lost his way in the 1940s, making the bloated "A Guy Named Joe" (1943), with Lionel Barrymore as God, and turning out one of Hollywood's first mega-flops, "Joan of Arc" (1948), starring Ingrid Bergman.
Fleming had married in 1933 and had been a faithful husband until the proximity to Bergman rattled him. Though he was 58 and she 31, the old charmer still exuded appeal, but their affair may have helped sink an already troubled production. A year later, Fleming was dead, perhaps as a result of malpractice by his dentist.
Even if you make allowances for how hard he is to pigeonhole, Victor Fleming probably doesn't deserve the epithet Sragow wants to bestow on him: "A Great American Movie Director." But he was in charge of at least two masterpieces -- "Red Dust" and "The Wizard of Oz" -- and he has now gotten the smart, sympathetic biography he deserves.