Victor Fleming, An American Movie Master
By Michael Sragow
Pantheon Books / 656 pages / $40
In filmmaking as in any art, God is in the details. If that's not the point of Michael Sragow's definitive biography of Victor Fleming (1889-1949), it's one of them. Another is that Fleming, a great though mostly forgotten film director, was a detail man - par excellence.
Take the scene in which Clark Gable cried in Gone with the Wind, one of Fleming's hits. Gable rebelled when Fleming directed him to cry. Believing that the movie needed "this cathartic revelation," Fleming tried various means of persuasion, some nice and others - such as getting Gable drunk, cussing him out and insulting him - not so nice. Although there are discrepancies as to what transpired, in the end Fleming won. Gable cried. Gone With the Wind garnered several Academy Awards - including one for Gable as best actor and one for Fleming as best director.
While almost everybody recognizes the name Clark Gable and remembers his masterful performance in GWTW, very few know Fleming, the director responsible for Gable's triumph and the movie's fame.
That's wrong, according to Sragow, who believes that Fleming was one of Hollywood's greatest filmmakers. Sragow, film critic for The Baltimore Sun, contributor to The New Yorker and editor of several film studies books, brings his knowledge of literature, films and filmmaking to this lengthy biography.
With 65 pages of notes, a 15-page bibliography and a filmography that contains vital statistics and capsule reviews for all of Fleming's films, Sragow's account brims with scholarship. It includes excerpts from studio archives, letters, film reviews, biographies and autobiographies as well as interviews with historians, journalists, film critics and Fleming's family.
Sragow likes his subject and writes about Fleming in a reader-friendly style, which is difficult to do if one is sharing insights into filmmaking techniques. Discussing Lord Jim (1925), for example, Sragow points out that Fleming "excels at the poetry of disaster." The film becomes "direct and visceral, nothing like the knotty experience of reading the book." To keep the text from becoming too heavy, Sragow includes apt - at times juicy - quotes. Fleming emerges as not just a consummate director but also as a colorful character, who had an eye for the actresses he directed - as they did for him. As one of his daughters said, "If there's ever a question of whether Daddy and some woman did or they didn't, assume they did."
Sragow keeps readers hooked by balancing the history of Fleming's career with anecdotes from his private life. Using a loose narrative structure, the book offers an absorbing look at a filmmaking artist able to "translate thought back into images," instead of merely action as most American directors do. Sragow even tries to get inside Fleming's head and often succeeds, although Fleming left behind few personal papers.
Born in a tent in Southern California, Fleming worked his way up from an ambidextrous auto mechanic to chief cinematographer for President Woodrow Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference to MGM director. Tall, light-haired and striking, Fleming, as Sragow describes him, had eyes that "could narrow to slits and intensify [any] emotion." With a sharpshooter's vision, he could energize actors and their performances. He was able to correct errors almost instantaneously, be they skewed lines, camera angles or props.
One of Hollywood's most versatile directors, Fleming directed more than 40 films, including westerns, melodramas, family entertainment, comedies, romances, adventure stories and classics. His career spanned Hollywood's Golden Age and bridged silent films and talkies.
Some of his well-known pictures are The Virginian (1929), Bombshell (1933), Treasure Island (1934), Captains Courageous (1937) and Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941). His blockbuster hits are The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Gone With the Wind (1939). But Fleming also had his mishaps, especially Joan of Arc (1948), considered his one real flop, which was released just weeks before Fleming died of a heart attack.
His downfall came in the form of 29-year-old Ingrid Bergman, star of the film. An "apple-cheeked" seductress, Bergman, who had been attracted to Fleming several years earlier, could make 65-year-old Fleming feel like a teenager as evidenced in Fleming's gushing letters with their inverted sentences: "If you care - or if you don't, these things to you with love I say." This May-December love affair adversely affected his judgment, to say nothing of his relationship with his wife and two daughters. What was he thinking? According to this book, Fleming was infatuated, caught by the very sensitivity that made him the artist he was.
Sragow believes that Fleming, with his poet's sensibility, knew how much detail was necessary to create the illusion of reality. He also knew how to bring that detail into each shot. Fleming brought out the best performances from actors and actresses. Yet with all his genius, Fleming was never given the recognition he deserves. Why?
He was a director at a time when filmmaking was seen as a collaborative affair, and the studio received credit instead of the individual director. Fleming was not a self-promoter. His films were not about him. They were about creating art and making people believe in it. He did this by making films whose parts meshed together so seamlessly and realistically that there seemed to be no director controlling the strings, which unfairly eclipsed the man behind the efforts. But that was history. Now, as Sragow's convincing biography argues, it's time to give credit where it's due.
Diane Scharper is co-editor of the anthology, "Reading Lips and Other Ways to Overcome a Disability," winner of the first Helen Keller international memoir competition. She teaches English at Towson University.
"The making of Fleming's last picture, Joan of Arc, became one of those behind-the-scene sagas far more fascinating than the finished film, like the production of Cleopatra.... It would span a decade and a half of creative flirtations, turbulent love affairs, and discordant ambitions. In the end, it would humble a renowned playwright, Maxwell Anderson; a towering director, Fleming; and an adventurous producer, Walter Wanger."