Everyone loves Victor Fleming movies, although most people don’t know they do. Baltimore Sun film critic Michael Sragow is working to change that. ¶ For those unfamiliar with his legacy, Fleming is the director responsible for salvaging The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind from big-budget messes into modern cinematic masterpieces and for shaping an entire generation of leading men, from Gary Cooper to Clark Gable to Spencer Tracy, into the “strong, silent type.”
Fleming did it all, from acting as Woodrow Wilson’s personal cameraman during a tour of Europe after World War I to romancing screen goddesses like Clara Bow and Ingrid Bergman, from hunting big game in Africa to doting on his two little girls. “Of all the men I’ve known,” former lover Bow reminisced, “There was a man.”
A bigger-than-life character like Fleming seems like a slam dunk for biographers, but strangely, there’s never been a book length exploration of the man who left his fingerprints all over American movies. “Sometimes you read other biographies and some character jumps out and you think ‘Why isn’t the book about this guy?’” says Sragow. “And [with Fleming], that would always happen to me.”
Sragow, 56, was six years old when he saw Fleming’s Captain Courageous. “[It] was the first movie based on a book that made me want to go read the book,” he remembers. That was the initial step toward writing Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master (Pantheon Books), the only book-length biography ever written about the directing giant.
After writing an article about Fleming for The New York Times in honor of the 60th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz, Sragow, a Homeland resident, took it upon himself to start gathering Fleming’s scattered paper trail—an archaeological dig that included scouring film and document archives—and tracking down the few remaining people with firsthand knowledge of the director. “I did things I never thought I would do as a journalist,” he laughs, recalling how he tried to woo Academy Award-winning actress Olivia de Havilland into an interview with a Valentine’s Day gift of Venetian Glass cherries. (No dice, but she did come around after his research associate Kurt Jensen proved their sincerity by sending her copies of the documents on Fleming he’d already accumulated.) Slowly, the framework of a book started to take shape. “The more I got into it,” says Sragow, “the more interesting he became. There was something very authentic about everything he did, which is not always the case with these Hollywood guys.”
Fleming, who established his chops in the 1920s directing silent films before cementing his reputation with talkies like The Virginian (1929) and Red Dust (1932), wasn’t just a gifted director. He was also known in Hollywood as a fixer, a go-to guy for productions that had veered out of control. Often working to the point of exhaustion, his instincts about what needed to be done to capture great performances were right on, whether it meant scolding a giggly Judy Garland with a little slap (she forgave him) or coaxing tears out of Clark Gable. Any actor working under him couldn’t help but be swayed by his presence—and for his female leads, that usually meant an intimate liaison (although Sragow stresses that Fleming never bragged about his conquests: “He was a stand-up guy.”)
But for male actors, it meant absorbing some of Fleming’s man-of-action charisma into their own screen personas. “Scarlett O’ Hara only works because she has Rhett, [and] Fleming directed every scene with Gable and was responsible for the previous decade of molding Gable’s image,” Sragow points out. Had Fleming’s career not been cut short by his sudden death in 1949 (an assumed heart attack, although Sragow casts some doubt), one wonders what he could have done with the new generation of masculine actors like Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Clint Eastwood, or Steve McQueen. “It would have been very interesting to see Vic direct those guys,” agrees Sragow. “Because Vic wouldn’t have been afraid of those guys. Vic wasn’t afraid of anything.”
With so many lasting contributions to American movies, why is The Wizard of Oz’s “man behind the curtain” still so anonymous? “Fleming died early, before directors were lionized,” Sragow explains. “And a lot of the directors of his caliber like John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock, put their signatures on individual genres, [whereas] Fleming really did different films every time out.”
In April of next year, Sragow will visit the Margaret Mitchell house in Atlanta (accompanied by Bob Osborne of Turner Classic Movies) to promote his book. Local cineastes curious about Fleming can attend a Maryland Film Festival-sponsored screening of Bombshell (1933) starring Jean Harlow, at Maryland Institute College of Art on December 16, where Sragow will discuss the film and answer questions about the man behind the camera.
After spending a decade researching and writing a biography of Victor Fleming, has Sragow’s opinion of his subject changed? “I’d always known that this guy made a lot of great movies. I found out that he made even more great movies.”