Today, Baltimore Sun film critic Michael Sragow releases his book about Hollywood giant Victor Fleming. We asked Sragow about the director who, in a single year, brought two icons to the screen. First question: What are Fleming's greatest accomplishments?
Sragow: Do you mean apart from directing Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz in the same year?
Forget all the tired punditry and academic tomes about American masculinity: Victor Fleming did more than anyone to create the key images of the American male, the ones that continue to have enormous impact both here and around the world. As a cinematographer and in his first films as a director, he helped mold the image of Douglas Fairbanks Sr., whose blend of athleticism and humor and open-air vitality made him the first action superstar, influencing comic-book heroes, later performers as different as Burt Lancaster and Cary Grant, and even politicians: Do the words “vigor” and “charisma” bring anyone to mind?
But that’s just the beginning. The strong, silent type, who articulated character in action and made every spoken syllable count – Gary Cooper perfected that character when Victor Fleming directed him in The Virginian, back in 1929, and Henry Fonda brought a new, more sensitive variation to it when Fleming directed him in Fonda’s debut film, The Farmer Takes a Wife.
Then there’s the can-do guy who knew how to do anything from run a Vietnamese rubber plantation (or run a Union stockade for the Confederacy) to tame a gorgeous hellion – that’s Clark Gable as shaped by Fleming in a series of films, most notably Red Dust and Gone With the Wind (despite the dispute of his sole directing credit, Fleming directed all of Gable’s major scenes as Rhett Butler – and Fleming was often described as “the real Rhett Butler”).
And there’s the character Pauline Kael used to call “the man with the hoe,” the fellow with complex emotions that he can’t express except through mood and posture: that’s the Spencer Tracy who Fleming brought to full-fledged stardom with Captains Courageous and Test Pilot.
With those two movies, and The Virginian, Fleming both invented the buddy movie and brought it to perfection.
He was just as skilled with women, summoning signature performances from Clara Bow in Mantrap, Jean Harlow in Red Dust and Bombshell, Janet Gaynor in The Farmer Takes a Wife, Myrna Loy in Test Pilot, Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, Ingrid Bergman in Dr. Jekyll and Mt. Hyde, Hedy Lamarr in Tortilla Flat, and Irene Dunne in A Guy Named Joe.
As a master of film craft, Fleming was nonpareil in his use of real locations on films such as The Virginian – and then became a master of studio illusion in films as different as Red Dust and The Wizard of Oz – and was a genius at mixing the two, as in Captains Courageous.
He came up through one- and two-reel Westerns, toyed with animation and special effects as early as 1919, pioneered the naturalistic use of sound, made the first feature-length mockumentary, used the Technicolor camera with unparalleled ebullience and invention in Oz, and, had he lived, might have been the first to use CinemaScope in The Robe. And in non-Hollywood achievements, he was one of the first to make instructional films for the Army and also served as President Woodrow Wilson’s personal cameraman for Wilson’s tour of the European capitals after World War I; Fleming filmed the first political photo ops as well as the first footage designed for government and presidential archives.
Read Street: Despite those accomplishments, he's not well-known today. Why is that?
Sragow: He never hired a press agent; in Hollywood he was such a huge figure, he didn’t have to. James Agee never got around to profiling him for Life Magazine as Agee once planned. Fleming died before directors became national celebrities. He left no diaries, papers or production journals (though his pal Charles Cotton kept a detailed chronicle of an African safari with Fleming). His moviemaking friends developed a bad habit after his death of taking credit for Fleming’s work. It became easy for some academic to credit great films made at big studios to “the genius of the system,” and easy for other academics to ascribe “auteur” status only to a chosen few, such as Ford, Hawks, and Hitchcock, who had clear-cut directorial signatures instead of doing something new every time out, the way Fleming did.
Read Street: What attracted you to his story?
Sragow: Because I am a critic, first, the greatness of his films. But he was also a great man. Every time I read a biography of someone else, Vic just leapt out as the authentic protagonist, a fellow who made himself up as elegantly as Gatsby yet was as rough and tumble as a Hemingway hero. He was a friend to naturalists, inventors, race-car drivers, aviators, and playwrights. He romanced great beauties but never exploited them or talked about them., and even stood up for them, whether with friends or the press or even a mogul like Louis B. Mayer, who tried to chisel Norma Shearer (she and Vic had a brief affair, and he made her career with Empty Hands) out of money owed her estate after the death of her husband, Irving Thalberg.
Read Street: What surprised you as you learned more about him?
Sragow: He never stopped growing. People wrote him off as a silent director, then he had huge back to back hits with The Virginian and Common Clay. They thought he’d lost his game when he aborted his production of The Yearling, then he made the ultimate World War II weepie hit, A Guy Named Joe. Besotted with Ingrid Bergman, he failed terribly with Joan of Arc, but might have come back stronger than ever, as he did after he followed Reckless with Captains Courageous. And as a man he had seemingly inexhaustible energy. He was devoted to his family, and would always return home for dinner with his wife and daughters even when he was shooting GWTW during the day, editing OZ at night, and squeezing in a radio play with James Cagney. Despite his legions of romantic conquests, he was intent on staying faitfhul to his wife, and was downright courtly to her in public – until he succumbed to Ingrid Bergman.
Read Street: Can we see echoes of his work in today's movies?
Sragow: Directly and indirectly: Australia quotes liberally (though pointlessly) from GWTW and OZ, David Lynch and Guillermo del Toro are OZ fanatics, Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff harks back to Test Pilot and Red Dust and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde also inform aspects of Unbearable Lightness of Being and Henry & June. Walter Hill’s epic Broken Trail, a record-breaker for cable movies, recalls The Virginian as well as Hawks’ Red River.
Since Fleming invented much of today’s filmmaking vocabulary, he can be seen everywhere. And actors and American men in general have never stopped measuring themselves against the personae he and Gable and Cooper and Fonda and Tracy invented, just as children of both genders and all ages put themselves into Dorothy’s ruby slippers and smart, sexy women continue to identify with Mary Astor and Jean Harlow as they were in Fleming films and fantasize about what it must have been like to be Clara Bow.
Read Street: How do you feel knowing that your book will be released the same day as Michael Phelps'?
Sragow: Hey, bring on the crossover readership! When MGM asked Vic to meet Olympic swimmers at the Ambassador Hotel (remember, Olympian Johnny Weissmuller was MGM’s Tarzan), he took one look at Eleanor Saville and genially snapped, “Nice legs, sister!” You can look it up in the book!