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.