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Victor Fleming

Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master

Series: Screen Classics
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 694
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  • Book Info
    Victor Fleming
    Book Description:

    Best remembered for the iconic classics Gone with the Wind (1939) and The Wizard of Oz (1939) to the silver screen, Victor Fleming also counted successful films such as Red Dust (1932), Captains Courageous (1937), Test Pilot (1939), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), and the groundbreaking Joan of Arc (1948) among his more than forty directing credits. One of the most sought-after directors in Hollywood's golden age, Fleming (1889--1949) was renowned for his ability to make films across a wide range of genres. In Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master, author Michael Sragow paints a comprehensive portrait of the talented and charismatic man who helped create enduring screen personas for stars such as Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Gary Cooper.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4443-6
    Subjects: History, Performing Arts

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-2)
  3. INTRODUCTION: The Real Rhett Butler
    (pp. 3-10)

    “A composite between an internal combustion engine hitting on all twelve and a bear cub”—that’s how a screenwriter once described the movie director Victor Fleming. An MGM in-house interviewer discerned that he had “the Lincoln type of melancholia—a brooding which enables those who possess it to feel more, understand more.” Known for his Svengali-like power and occasional brute force with actors and other collaborators, Fleming was also a generous, down-to-earth family man, even in a sometimes-unfathomable marriage. He was a stand-up guy to male and female friends alike—including ex-lovers. He was a man’s man who loved going...

  4. 1 Born in a Tent
    (pp. 11-23)

    Victor Fleming got his biggest professional break when he began working the camera for Douglas Fairbanks Sr., the actor and producer who set the early-twentieth-century standard for all-American exuberance and athleticism. Fleming often photographed Doug in robust Westerns—frontier sagas such asThe Man from Painted Post(1917) or contemporary cowboy tales likeWild and Woolly(1917). Before Fleming entered the service in World War I, he may even have shot pieces of Fairbanks’sModern Musketeer(1918), which featured a fictional Kansas cyclone twenty-one years beforeThe Wizard of Oz.

    The humor and heroism of these Fairbanks mini-epics must have...

  5. 2 Cars, Cameras, Action!
    (pp. 24-40)

    Early American adventure films and comedies had an infectious, antic movement. Even the machines—cars and motorcycles, trains and planes—behaved with improvisational abandon. Heroes and heroines soared to improbable heights by seizing on opportunities with confidence and prowess. Yet these flights of fancy weren’t all make-believe. They had emotional roots in the experiences of filmmakers who made up their lives as they went along. Fleming’s early years, like those of other directors such as Allan Dwan and Marshall “Mickey” Neilan and producer-stars like Fairbanks, were breathless amalgams of industry, gamesmanship, and hustle.

    In 1928, a Paramount publicist described Victor...

  6. 3 The Importance of Shooting Doug
    (pp. 41-54)

    Fairbanks proved to be a crucial influence on Fleming, personally as well as professionally. Fans knew him as “Doug.” He was the epitome of the self-created individual—F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby on a jungle gym. He almost never spoke of his roots. With a swarthy complexion emphasized by a constant deep tan and gray-blue eyes sparkling under his receding brown hair, “he often enjoyed telling some people he had American Indian blood, others Italian or Spanish, or whatever amused him at the moment,” wrote Douglas junior to Richard Schickel. (His son said that Douglas’s brother Robert was even darker.)


  7. 4 In Manhattan for the Great War
    (pp. 55-65)

    When the United States entered the Great War in April 1917, every healthy male between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-one anticipated induction by autumn and then service in the field. The twenty-eight-year-old Fleming didn’t appreciate the bump it would put in his career path; in what looks like an attempt to lower his chances of going in the first wave of draftees, he changed his birth year to 1888 on his draft card. But once he was called up, he didn’t flinch from the challenge. He wrote his mother in August that John Fairbanks arranged to have Fleming’s draft...

  8. 5 Filming the Conquering Hero: With Wilson in Europe
    (pp. 66-74)

    “No one in America, or in Europe either, knows my mind and I am not willing to trust them to attempt to interpret it,” President Wilson said in October 1917. So a year later he determined that only he should head a delegation to sell European allies on his Fourteen Points—planks of a treaty for a just and lasting peace that would also serve as the Covenant of the League of Nations, his United Nations prototype.

    In his final task for the Signal Corps, Fleming photographed the ecstatic citizens of the victor nations who swarmed Wilson in Europe. They...

  9. 6 The Importance of Directing Doug
    (pp. 75-85)

    Douglas Fairbanks Sr. was committed to exploring all the possibilities of movies. Charlie Chaplin remembered ruminating with him over life’s meaning or lack of it one night at the summit of a large water tank. “ ‘Look!’ said Douglas, fervently, making an arc gesture taking in all the heavens. ‘The moon! And those myriads of stars! Surely there must be a reason for all this beauty? It must be fulfilling some destiny!’ ” In the thrill of his epiphany, Fairbanks focused on Chaplin and asked, “Why are you given this wonderful talent, this wonderful medium of motion pictures that reaches...

  10. 7 Scaling Paramount Pictures
    (pp. 86-98)

    If Fleming had remained with Fairbanks for many more years, his career might have stumbled like Ted Reed’s. Reed stayed a Fairbanks colleague for a decade. He became a full-fledged director withThe Nut(1921), the last of Fairbanks’s modern comic adventures—in part, a Chaplinesque satire of mechanical obsessions. But the success ofThe Mark of Zorro(1920) persuaded Fairbanks, afterThe Nut, to concentrate on heroic period spectacles that consumed months in production. Fairbanks turned to Fred Niblo (The Three Musketeers, 1921) and Dwan (Robin Hood, 1922) to direct these epics; Reed later served the company as a...

  11. 8 Courage and Clara Bow
    (pp. 99-116)

    Bravery under stress was a natural theme for “outdoor” directors, and as a man and a professional Fleming had a bone-deep feeling for it. He’d wandered into a profession that enabled him to turn one of his ruling appetites—voracity for action—into a creed. Physical bravery was integral to his sportsmanship. It also fed his yen for knockabout jokes and urge to complete any task swiftly. Artistic and existential bravery were significant for him, too, but here the quality became more complicated. Fleming had dared big by leaping into a quicksilver creative and social life. He’d had help from...

  12. 9 A Lost Epic: The Rough Riders
    (pp. 117-129)

    Fleming and Bow may have set the screen and the box office ablaze (at a cost of $216,584,Mantrapnetted $415,600 in rentals), but exactly when their affair turned serious isn’t clear. In their few weeks between pictures back in Los Angeles, they followed separate tracks. Bow was still an outsider. Though Fleming was living not far from Bow’s Hollywood Boulevard home and then in the Hollywood Hills, he was becoming a member of “the Club”—literally. In 1925, the Hollywood Sixty Club, a group that tried (and failed) to build a “clubhouse” for moviemakers, proudly announced Fleming as one...

  13. 10 From The Way of All Flesh to Abie’s Irish Rose
    (pp. 130-144)

    When Paramount seduced the German star Emil Jannings in 1926 with $400,000 a year—and the rare guarantee that his films would be shot in sequential order, “according to plot instead of according to the set-builders’ convenience”— B. P. Schulberg (Budd’s father) assigned Fleming to Jannings’s first American production,The Way of All Flesh(1927). Schulberg reckoned that one outsized personality demanded another. Jannings was an international acting potentate with transcontinental charisma. He saw himself as a cinematic demigod: maybe that’s why he maintained that he was born in Brooklyn to Americans of German descent, when actually he was born...

  14. 11 Creating Gary Cooper
    (pp. 145-158)

    On July 14, 1928, Paramount announced that Fleming would direct Paramount’s “first all-sound picture” from the hit showBurlesque, with Nancy Carroll signed for the role Barbara Stanwyck created on Broadway as the long-suffering mate of a drunken dancer. Fleming left the picture because the studio delayed production, reluctant to cast the stage lead, Hal Skelly. Two months later, Fleming heard Paramountwasshooting its first all-sound picture, but it wasn’tBurlesque. The studio had mandated Roy Pomeroy, its despotic special-effects boss, to move Paramount into talkies, and the first film designated to get the Pomeroy treatment was a William...

  15. 12 A Woman’s Film and a Man’s Adventure at Fox
    (pp. 159-175)

    In 1927, six months after the spectacular success ofMantrap, Paramount raised Fleming from $1,750 a week to $2,000. But in the immediate wake of the sound revolution, the studio had neglected Fleming and other seasoned pros. His long-term contract expired before he shotWolf SongandThe Virginian. One Paramount producer who recognized Fleming’s worth was David O. Selznick. After those back-to-back hits, the director let Selznick know that Fox had offered him $3,250 weekly and that he wanted to concentrate on “epics, not melodramas.” Selznick badly wanted to reteam Fleming with Cooper, Lighton, Paramore, and Keene Thompson to...

  16. 13 Guiding Gable in Red Dust
    (pp. 176-196)

    On October 2, 1931, Fleming received the most important document of his professional life. MGM delivered a letter of agreement for him to direct “one photoplay” within a seventeen-week period for a salary of $40,000. (Several days later,Varietyannounced that MGM had showered him with fifteen scripts.) For most of the 1930s, similar notes would fly back and forth between Vic’s lawyers and the studio, because he resisted any long-term contract.

    Fleming would soon becometheMGM director. In 1971, for an oral history project at Columbia University, the producer Pandro S. Berman, who joined MGM in 1940, was...

  17. 14 Pioneering the Screwball Comedy: Jean Harlow in Bombshell
    (pp. 197-209)

    While Lu Rosson was signing property agreements before her divorce from Arthur Rosson, Fleming was giving interviews about his new version ofThe White Sister, long slated for Helen Hayes and now featuring Gable. Fleming said that when it came to remakes, what mattered was “the original idea”: in this case, turning an aristocratic virgin, an Italian soldier, and God into a romantic triangle.

    Fleming and the producer Hunt Stromberg assigned Donald Ogden Stewart to update F. Marion Crawford’s novel, setting it during World War I rather than the 1880s. A Yale-educated satirical novelist who contributed dialogue toLaughter(1930),...

  18. 15 Treasure Island
    (pp. 210-219)

    While Fleming was making his next picture, the quintessential pirate adventure,Treasure Island, Hollywood was going through an abrupt and concentrated climate change. The rising Hays Office censor Joseph Breen had done everything he could to heat up the animus between the Catholic Church and Hollywood’s Jewish moguls. In a letter to Father Wilfrid Parsons (the editor ofAmerica), he called the studios’ Jewish leadership “probably, the scum of the earth.” When Breen became the head of the newly formed Production Code Administration office, he set out to give the code teeth. He succeeded. The innuendoladen adult humor audiences had...

  19. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  20. 16 Introducing Henry Fonda, Farewell to Jean Harlow
    (pp. 220-229)

    A fan of Fleming’s since Vic’s Paramount days, David O. Selznick was in the middle of his brief but spectacular producing stint at MGM, designed, said his father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer, to take pressure off the ailing Irving Thalberg, who suffered from a bad heart. Under various working titles, includingSalute,There Goes Romance, andA Woman Called Cheap, Selznick, using the pseudonym Oliver Jeffries, cooked up the original story for Fleming’s first musical,Reckless(1935), with the director himself. Ten writers, including Joseph Mankiewicz, Philip Barry, S.N. Behrman, and Val Lewton, had some involvement with the script; P.J. Wolfson...

  21. 17 Bagging Game on Safari, Losing The Good Earth
    (pp. 230-234)

    WhileScribner’smagazine serialized Ernest Hemingway’s nonfiction novel about a safari,Green Hills of Africa, from May through August in 1935, Fleming was experiencing the real thing in the same terrain.

    Hemingway peppered his narrative with literary discussion, including his most famous proclamation: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain calledHuckleberry Finn.” But Fleming, who went on the safari as his vacation afterThe Farmer Takes a Wife, wasn’t discussing Twain, Gertrude Stein, or Stephen Crane with his fellow adventurer, Charles Cotton. Going by Cotton’s safari diary, their cultural excitement came from whatever they could...

  22. 18 Spencer Tracy and Captains Courageous
    (pp. 235-255)

    No matter how odd the circumstances of Lu’s pregnancy, the delight Fleming took in parenting surpassed the disappointments of forfeitingThe Good EarthandThey Gave Him a Gun, an antiwar adventure set to star Spencer Tracy. (Mayer had lured Tracy from Fox with a promise of leading roles.) Victoria turned one as Fleming was recuperating. A few weeks later, she piled some twigs in her tiny fists and gave them to him. He wrote, “Missy gathered up these beautiful things to her daddy one March morning—her first gifts to him,” then lined a jewelry box with cotton batting...

  23. 19 Test Pilot
    (pp. 256-269)

    During all the tumult, illness, and complications ofCaptains Courageous,Vic and Lu conceived a second child. “The stork will stalk the Victor Flemings in February,” theLos Angeles Timesannounced on December 23, 1936, and their new daughterwasborn on February 16. But settling on a name took months. “They’re still trying names on the Victor Fleming baby. And after seven weeks they can’t find one that fits,” ran one column in April. Victoria’s sister was called “Little Bit” before Sara Elizabeth was settled on. But that quickly became Sally.

    Nearly twenty years after Fleming promised his mother...

  24. 20 Salvaging The Great Waltz
    (pp. 270-281)

    In April 1938, theHollywood Reportermentioned that Fleming “almost cracked up in his own cabin plane, a few days afterTest Pilottrade raves.” Nothing else seemingly went wrong for Fleming in the spring of 1938.Test Pilotand Warner Bros.’Adventures of Robin Hoodwere the only new hits packing theaters; throughout the first half of the year, exhibitors desperate to fill seats rebooked old favorites likeDracula, The Count of Monte Cristo, King Kong,and Fleming’s ownTreasure Island.MGM was still pressuring him to sign a contract, but he continued working on a handshake deal with...

  25. 21 Putting Oz into The Wizard of Oz
    (pp. 282-315)

    The spate of work Fleming did in the late 1930s drained his resilience and on occasion nearly cost him his sanity. But it also sparked his talents and elevated his stature as both an artist and a Hollywood professional. Sometimes directors, like actors, take on aspects of their greatest creations. Francis Ford Coppola was never more of a film-industry godfather than he was afterThe Godfather.Fleming would never be more of a wizard than he was afterThe Wizard of Oz.

    Ozwould have been a complex, iffy production under any circumstances—and Fleming shouldered it with little preparation,...

  26. 22 Saving Tara and Gone With the Wind
    (pp. 316-355)

    The bond between a reformed rake and a headstrong woman is the imperfect union at the core ofGone With the Wind.IfThe Wizard of Ozcrystallized Fleming’s feelings for the resilience of children,Gone With the Winddrew out his understanding of the traumas of matrimony. The Civil War and the destruction of antebellum Georgia provide the film with its breadth—at its widest reach the movie is about how people react when social upheaval rends a settled way of life. The wedding of the dashing, piratical Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) to the Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien...

  27. 23 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
    (pp. 356-374)

    Before Fleming did his epic salvaging ofThe Wizard of OzandGone With the Wind,he and Spencer Tracy, still flush with the success of their partnership onCaptains CourageousandTest Pilot,planned on teaming up for an adaptation of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s superb novelThe Yearling.AfterGone With the Windwas finished, Fleming and Tracy approached John Steinbeck in December 1939 about filmingThe Red Pony,based on four linked stories set on a Salinas Valley, California, ranch early in the century. Its tale of a boy facing the death of a beloved animal and growing...

  28. 24 The Yearling That Wasn’t
    (pp. 375-384)

    While Fleming was wrestling withDr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,preparations forThe Yearlingwere stumbling ahead. Fleming had juggled projects before, withRed DustandThe White Sister.ButThe Yearlingwould ultimately stymie him.The Yearlingwould eventually be made not by Fleming but by Clarence Brown, starring not Tracy but Gregory Peck. Fleming’s reputation as a ruthlessly efficient fixer of faltering productions had taken on mythic proportions; that’s why everyone was stunned when he aborted his production ofThe Yearling.

    The director’s link to the project dates back to MGM’s acquisition of radio, TV, and motion picture...

  29. 25 Bonhomie in Bel-Air and Tortilla Flat
    (pp. 385-400)

    Any MGM executive thinkingThe Yearlinghad extinguished Fleming’s fire would soon change his mind. For three days in August, Fleming consulted with Eddie Mannix on the studio’s attempt to keep the project going, then took off for a two-month vacation. While he was away, reports filled the entertainment wires of him and Hawks co-directing an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” to star Gary Cooper, for Goldwyn. An assistant treasurer at Loew’s shot a letter to Goldwyn, Hawks, Cooper,andHemingway, demanding they respect MGM’s exclusive-services contract with Fleming. Zoltan Korda made the film...

  30. 26 World War II with Tears: A Guy Named Joe
    (pp. 401-424)

    Before his death in 1936, Billy Mitchell, one of America’s aviation heroes, had been predicting a Japanese air assault on the American fleet. The aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, brought Fleming some embarrassment along with the same fear of an impending assault on Southern California shared by everyone else. Sid Deacon, who had suffered a stroke the previous year, wrote President Roosevelt to offer his services at discovering Japanese submarines off the California coast. “I think he had a special tip on his witching rod for that,” Edward Hartman recalls. The White House didn’t...

  31. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  32. 27 A Confounding Political Life
    (pp. 425-435)

    George Sidney, who knew Fleming only in studio settings, said, “I can’t tell you if he was Democratic or Republican!” Others assumed that he was conservative because he befriended men like the strident right-winger Ward Bond. He maintained a blunt and often confounding irreverence to the political turmoil of his day: Joseph L. Mankiewicz recalled him laying down bets in 1940 that Great Britain would tumble before the Germans in six weeks.

    Although Fleming was well-read, and had acquired broad firsthand knowledge of the world as well as an idiosyncratic and elegant personal style, he retained some of the naïveté...

  33. 28 One Last Adventure at MGM
    (pp. 436-445)

    With Gable, the MPA catalyzed an embarrassing episode, one that betrayed him as a great star in need of great filmmakers. Upon his return from duty overseas, he became the featured speaker at an MPA gathering. McGuinness (who bore a broad resemblance to Gable) wrote a dunderheaded speech for him, which Gable dutifully read. “It has been said that there are no atheists in foxholes. There were no communists either in the foxholes where I was,” said Gable. “The boys sit around and talk about home and what they want to find when they get back—and it’s not communism.”...

  34. 29 Ingrid Bergman and Joan of Arc
    (pp. 446-489)

    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 productions ofCleopatraorApocalypse NoworHeaven’s Gate.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. Even its presentation of Ingrid Bergman as an apple-cheeked warrior-saint—the ultimate tomboy heroine—backfired shortly after the film’s release, when the American public condemned her for deserting her...

  35. 30 Death in the Desert
    (pp. 490-500)

    Fleming had declared that he wanted to be a director of epics ever since the late 1920s. ButJoan of Arc,his one independent foray into epic territory, was a creative debacle.Time’smovie column, generally sympathetic to him, said the heroine “becomes a lifeless symbol in a pageant.” RKO found no better way of promoting the film thanasa pageant. The critical reception scotched the idea of sending it out as the American-produced equal to Olivier’sHenry V:Crowther put the two heroic-medieval portraits head-to-head and declaredJoan of Arccompetitive only in its pictorial “perfection,” because Fleming...

  36. AFTERWORD: A Great American Movie Director
    (pp. 501-506)

    “Someday someone’s going to bring up what Fleming meant to this business,” Arthur Freed said in 1974. More than twenty years later, Todd McCarthy conjectured inVarietythat a biography of Victor Fleming would be “highly unlikely” because he left no extensive letters or memoirs and had not “given lengthy interviews or been prone to undue self-promotion.” As McCarthy observed, “The modern reputations of some filmmakers from Hollywood’s golden age are directly related to how long they managed to live, and whether or not they lasted long enough to be enshrined through career interviews, biographies and honorary awards.”

    Luckily, Fleming...

  37. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 507-514)
  38. Notes
    (pp. 515-580)
  39. Filmography
    (pp. 581-596)
  40. Bibliography
    (pp. 597-612)
  41. Index
    (pp. 613-645)
  42. Errata
    (pp. 646-652)
  43. Back Matter
    (pp. 653-654)