Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Peter Tonguette
by Michael Sragow. New York: Pantheon Books, 2008. 645 pp., illus. Hardcover: $40.00.
In his collection of interviews, Who the Devil Made It, Peter Bogdanovich offers an inventory of professions held by a number of Hollywood directors prior to their entering the film business. As far as Bogdanovich is concerned, “one of the things that’s gone wrong with the movies these days is that so many of us making them grew up wanting to make them.” In contrast, he presents examples from the golden age: “Victor Fleming was an auto mechanic. Alfred Hitchcock was schooled as an engineer, specializing in mechanical drawing. Howard Hawks built racing cars and airplanes.” And so on.
If the line about Fleming always intrigued me, maybe it’s because—unlike Hitchcock and Hawks—he isn’t among those interviewed in Who the Devil Made It. Fleming died in 1949. Indeed, in his breathtaking new biography, Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master, Michael Sragow quotes Variety’s Todd McCarthy as saying that the lack of “lengthy interviews” with the director is one of the reasons why a biography was “highly unlikely.”
Sragow’s book will satisfy anyone who, like me, wanted to know the back story of one of Hollywood’s most successful directors, whose films, dating from the silent era, included When the Clouds Roll By, Red Dust, Captains Courageous, The Wizard of Oz, and Gone With the Wind. Typical of this meticulously researched work, Sragow confirms Fleming’s “auto mechanic” background with exhaustive precision. “Nothing dulled Fleming’s appetites for cars and speed and automotive tinkering,” Sragow writes in a chapter entitled “Cars, Cameras, Action!” He describes several of Fleming’s early occupations—race-car driver, machinist, one of the “first motorized-cab drivers” in Los Angeles, and chauffeur in Santa Barbara—before tracing how they ultimately led to his movie career.
Sragow is the film critic for The Baltimore Sun, and his opinion of Fleming’s stature as a filmmaker is apparent from his book’s subtitle. In his critical insights, Sragow has a refreshingly broad frame of reference, invoking, for example, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking in describing the appeal of one of the director’s best films, A Guy Named Joe. (About the same film, he digs up lavish praise from Sergei Eisenstein!) In a few different spots, he references the work of contemporary Fleming fan Philip Kaufman, comparing aspects of Test Pilot and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to The Right Stuff and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, respectively.
I’ve long admired a number of Fleming’s films, but it took seeing The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind in fine 35mm prints several years ago for me to begin to appreciate the judgment of Harold Rosson, the DP on several of his films, who is quoted as saying, “Victor Fleming knew as much about the making of pictures as any man I’ve ever known—all departments.” That may be debatable, but there’s no denying that Oz and Wind hold up very well on the big screen; as Sragow points out about the first shot of Gable in Wind, “To this day, audiences applaud Gable’s close-up,” a shot which the author considers comparable to “the tracking shot that ratchets into a close-up of John Wayne as the Ringo Kid in John Ford’s Stagecoach.”
Yet, as David Thomson writes in his entry on Fleming in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, “It is easy to say that those fascinating perennials [Oz and Wind] appear undirected, or that they owe their life to Mervyn Le Roy and David Selznick”—and many writers still say just that. But in his authoritative chapters on the making of these films, Sragow sets the record straight.
Sragow clarifies the involvement of George Cukor and King Vidor in the making of Oz. Cukor, we learn, “stayed on Oz briefly and adjusted the look of several characters.” “But,” Sragow notes, “if [Sydney] Guilaroff and Cukor made [Judy] Garland look like Dorothy, Fleming made her act like Dorothy.” Similarly, much has been made of the uncontested fact that Vidor directed the film’s Kansas scenes, including “Over the Rainbow.” While Sragow pays homage to what he terms the “supreme limpidity” of Vidor’s graceful camera movements in that scene, he nevertheless provides the useful information that “Vidor shot the Kansas scenes after Fleming and [John Lee] Mahin reconceived them.” Sragow sensibly concludes, “Without Fleming’s exuberance, instinct, and strict hand—and his gifts for upheaval and excitement—the movie would have collapsed into campy chaos.”
Crucially, it is revealed that Fleming was involved, to some extent, in the editing of both Oz and Gone With the Wind, the latter of which Andrew Sarris described as “one of the notable exceptions to the notion of directorial authorship” in The American Cinema. Don’t tell that to Sragow, who chronicles how Fleming came on board the project and, more importantly, what he—“the only major figure on Gone With the Wind with a family tree that boasted Civil War veterans on both sides of the conflict”—brought to it, particularly in the realm of performance. (Fleming’s work with actors—Gable, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, and even Jackie Cooper—comes up again and again.) Sragow connects the celebrated shot of “the camera moving back and up to take in the wounded and dying soldiers of the Confederacy” with Fleming’s experience as an assistant on D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. Of “the most famous crane shot in movie history,” Sragow concedes the participation of Val Lewton and William Cameron Menzies, “But if Lewton thought it up and Menzies designed it, on May 20, Fleming was the one who called ‘Action!’”
In the end, David Thomson’s recent assessment that, in the making of Wind, “Fleming had the drive, and Selznick had the vision,” is not so very dissimilar from Sragow’s conclusion: “Gone With the Wind would never have become the resplendent thing it is without Selznick, but it never would have found its voice—its bark and its bite—without Fleming. Fleming’s temperament, background, and aptitude made him more than a journeyman enjoying a stroke of luck. He was the ideal director to save and vitalize the movie.”
While much of the book is taken up with production history, Sragow is just as assiduous in documenting Fleming’s personal life, including his affair with Ingrid Bergman. An entire chapter is dedicated to the matter of his “amorphous politics.” Sragow believes that Fleming’s political convictions may have resembled those of Fleming’s producer on three films, Louis Lighton, who, according to Elia Kazan, “was against the New Deal of Roosevelt, believed that a real man would not accept relief, that it amounted to pity.” Yet “known Communist” Dalton Trumbo was the screenwriter of A Guy Named Joe. The further revelation that “the other Roosevelt, Theodore, was Fleming’s idea of a great man” makes the loss of his silent epic The Rough Riders—to which Sragow devotes an entire chapter—all the more lamentable.
Other critics have written perceptively about Fleming’s work. While Sragow would surely find points of contention with Pierre Sauvage’s two-and-a-half page essay on Fleming in Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Sauvage’s American Directors, Sauvage wrote with considerable admiration of, among others, Oz (“directed with a sympathetic touch”) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (“underrated, provocatively Freudian.”) And while Sarris’s inclusion of Fleming in the “Miscellany” category of The American Cinema is dismissive, he nevertheless thought Adventure and Joan of Arc contained “somewhat more merit than their reputations would indicate.”
But Sragow’s claims for Fleming are much grander, and at times they aren’t entirely convincing, such as when Tortilla Flat is seen as anticipating, among others, Fellini’s I Vitelloni. I am persuaded that Fleming doesn’t belong in “Miscellany,” but is he really a “Master”? If Sragow is occasionally too effusive in his passion for Fleming’s films, I still found myself wanting to revisit (or see for the first time) a number of the works discussed—even Adventure, which, flaws and all, Sragow considers to have “all the earmarks of a personal project.”
It turns out that it would have been possible for me to learn more about Fleming’s early years had I uncovered Action Is the Word, which Sragow describes as “a studio-edited autobiography from 1939,” and which he quotes from periodically. With a hint of pride, Sragow observes that this work was “for seven decades, the main source for Fleming’s life story.” For seven decades, that is, until now.
To buy Victor Fleming click here.
Peter Tonguette is currently at work on a book on the films of James Bridges to be published by McFarland and Company.
Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXIV, No. 3