March 5-18 at Film Forum
Film Forum's two-week, 22-film Victor Fleming retrospective continues a project begun with the 2008 publication of Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master by Baltimore Sun film critic Michael Sragow—an attempt, per the dust jacket blurb, to restore the director "to the pantheon of our greatest filmmakers."
Most writers like to position themselves on the happy-few side of historical slightings, but Sragow has justification. David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary assigns Fleming only a few perfunctory paragraphs, while Andrew Sarris's The American Cinema deposits him in "Miscellany." Fleming, who died in 1949, missed the opportunity to spend his twilight years hosting a parade of USC students with tape recorders. After his banner year of 1939, in which he had directing credits for both MGM's The Wizard of Oz and David O. Selznick's Gone With the Wind, Fleming went into a period of decline, by general consensus. That neither film was entirely directed by Fleming cannot aid our argument that he is more than just another Norman Taurog. Even before his falloff, the quality of Fleming's output vacillated too wildly for some—a flaw largely concealed by Film Forum's cherry-picked program (the reason The White Sister isn't playing probably has very little to do with print availability).
Modern biographers of safely canonized Golden Age figures will feel free to disprove their subjects' cultivated self-mythologies (Hawks, Lang) or out dismal truths (the ineffable image of Hitchcock waddling after Tippi Hedren, pants around ankles). Sragow's 645-page labor of love is frankly and infectiously hero-worshipful. The author is dedicated to reclaiming the lost legend of Fleming: A Midas touch director; a bullseye shot and the handsomest man in town; a discreet and courtly cavalier, enjoying and being enjoyed in the sexual roundelays of Cocoanut Grove Hollywood. (Sragow doesn't place undue emphasis on the rather large number of anecdotes that involve the director slapping actresses to produce on-screen tears, and we're assured that Fleming's rumored anti-Semitism was of the 20s slangy joke-pejorative type.)
Fleming's early life straddled two Americas, that of the still-rural, vestigially Victorian late 19th century and the patent-mad 20th. Born in 1889, in a citrus grove in cowtown Pasadena, he showed an early aptitude for tinkering and, coming of age as he did in a time when there were uniquely so many really new things to be, the young Fleming—strapping, mechanically inclined, enterprising—might've easily becoming a success in any of the era's emerging industries, made a fortune selling iceboxes or brake pads, become a solid-citizen Republican alderman in some Citrus Belt town. As it happened, Fleming, having already driven a hack and worked at an L.A. "Locomobile" dealership, was chauffeuring in the Santa Barbara of 1915 when Alan Dwan and the Flying A movie company came through town to grind out some two-reelers in front of the scenery. Fleming left with them.
Over the next few years, Vic showed a knack for getting close to "top men." He apprenticed as cameraman for producer-star Douglas Fairbanks and, after the Signal Corp, did a stint in postwar Europe filming Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points victory lap. Returning to California and the newly formed United Artists, he advanced to the director's chair as if it was a birthright.
Film Forum's sampling of Fleming's silent filmmaking is necessarily fractional-less than half of his known output has survived. The Mollycoddle (1920) is a goof on Fairbanks's roistering persona, with Doug, Sr. playing a frontier-stock expat sissified by a European upbringing.
Fleming's other great silent-era collaboration was with Clara Bow, fresh off her first hit when Paramount teamed them on an adaptation of Sinclair Lewis's Mantrap (1926). Bow plays a Minneapolis beautician stranded by impulse marriage in the Great White North; her itch to flirt foiled in the land of dour Presbyterians, she twitches, tousles, snaps the waist on her skirt, ever poised on the brink of a fox-trot seizure. (Fleming pulled off the impressive feat of simultaneously escorting Bow and Alice White—First National's blonde answer to Bow.)
Part of Sragow's case is Fleming's presence at the establishment of some of the all-time-great screen personas. Fairbanks' grin was already trademark and Bow's "It" was on the way by the time Fleming worked with them, but he played an essential role in laying the groundwork for Clark Gable, Henry Fonda, Spencer Tracy and, first, Gary Cooper, with whom Fleming made two movies in 1929. One was The Virginian, from Owen Wister's novel, Fleming's first complete sound film—surprisingly fluid in its outdoor ride-and-talk setups—and the first "large scale" sound Western. It provided future directors a pattern of screen measurements to fit Cooper: Rarely flamboyant in his set-ups, what Fleming had was the instinct sometimes called "camera smarts" or, if you have an advanced degree, "filmic sense."
Moving to MGM in 1931, Fleming's first hit was Red Dust, another career-making synthesis with an up-and-comer: Clark Gable. Gable stars as a second-generation rubber plantation overseer in back-country Indochina (the Tarzan lot) whose hard-on acts as a homing device to every white woman in the Mekong Delta. This creates particular complications when his new engineer comes off the boat with wife in tow. Mary Astor's Main Line patrician remembers her propriety in the face of Gable's doll eyes right up until a monsoon turns her dress into an afterthought. Add wiggling-walk Jean Harlow (very funny) to this Tijuana Bible Dream Team and you've got one of the hottest movies of Pre-Code Hollywood—with a very moving, adult comprehension of love and sex.
Harlow would go on to not only star but be the sort-of subject of Bombshell, in which she plays Lola Burns, property of MGM analog Monarch Pictures, run by studio head H.E. Gillette (L.B. Mayer), jugging the affections of Lee Tracy's publicity man "Space" Hanlon (Howard Strickling), director Jim Brogan (Fleming), and Hugo, the Marquis di Pisa di Pisa (any number of titled Hollywood Blvd. gigolos). It's a soft razz on Hollywood in general and especially on quixotic twenty-year-old blondes with disposable income—notable bits involve Lola's three enormous sheepdogs and a prescient plot predicting the celebrity adoption craze. It is as good as accepted that Fleming was the model for Gable's screen persona in general, and Rhett Butler in particular; this comes across in the way his camera takes in women: askance, curious, slightly condescending yet fully susceptible.
Fleming had known Howard Hawks since they were both young gearheads, and their careers often ran parallel lanes. Released in fall of '33, Bombshell beat Hawks's Twentieth Century into theaters and, with Tracy as its antic comic metronome, deserves recognition as a proto-screwball. But where Hawks flitted between studios through his career, Fleming was increasingly identified with MGM, even if he didn't sign a multi-picture contract until 1940. With the arrival of Joe I. Breen in Hollywood in 1934 and the subsequent strengthening of the Production Code, Metro's house style moved away from the worldliness of the Harlow films to all-American wholesomeness—which suited L.B., a superpatriot who took the 4th of July for his birthday and a softie who was known to dissolve into tears at Andy Hardy. If a viewer is particularly immured from sentiment, Fleming's work may become increasingly difficult to stomach.
No doubt L.B. was devastated by the ending he himself imposed on Fleming's 1934 adaptation of Treasure Island, as Jackie Cooper blubbers goodbye to Wallace Beery's Long John Silver. Who could blame him? Eclipsed in the collective memory through the Boomers' mass indoctrination under the live-action Disney film of 1950, Fleming's is the definitive. It pairs nicely with his next semester-at-sea sentimental education, Captains Courageous (1937), with Freddie Bartholomew an unbearable only child of obscene wealth, lost at sea and salvaged into manhood by Spencer Tracy's erratically accented Portugee fisherman. It's a masterpiece of maritime photography, from belowdecks roll to what Otis Ferguson called "walking on water" shots of the schooner We're Here plunging home toward Glouchester.
That Fleming's father died when he was four years old may explain his ability to synchronize so completely with the young, lone protagonists of these films—and in fact Fleming did much of his best work from the books of his boyhood: Captains, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (published 1900), The Virginian (1902), The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Treasure Island (1883). (If he is forgotten for the services he rendered some of these titles, this only indicates the over-valuing of the subversion or the revision of myths rather than the production of sterling urtexts.)
Outside this discernable trajectory towards Oz, the 30s also produced The Farmer Takes a Wife (1935), Henry Fonda's screen debut opposite Janet Gaynor, a bucolic romance with the Erie Canal circa 1853 as its backdrop (I have always wondered why American films haven't made more of the George Caleb Bingham flatboat era). Otherwise, the kibosh on visibly iced nipples didn't mean that Fleming's Code-era romances were necessarily chaste; 1938's Test Pilot has Gable, in the title role, applying his considerable pheromones to Myrna Loy after he sets down in her Kansas backyard one morning and she strides out to greet him, dressed for the country club. True to its name, the movie goes just about as far as it can toward total mutual romantic destruction before finally ejecting.
Dutifully shooting retakes for The Crowd Roars and rescuing The Great Waltz for MGM, Fleming gained a reputation as the studio troubleshooter nonpareil. This made him a natural choice when two '39 megaproductions ran into early trouble. Are Fleming's most epochal works a result of the genius of the system or a genius in the system? His authorship claim on Wizard is stronger, with only the Kansas scenes delegated to King Vidor; on Wind he shares credit with George Cukor, Sam Wood, William Cameron Menzies, and of course Selznick himself (who assigned "60%" of the picture to Fleming, apparently enough to warrant him the Best Director statuette). Molly Haskell, in last year's book-length GWTW revisitation, Frankly, My Dear, divvies credit between "David Selznick, Margaret Mitchell, and Vivien Leigh," though paradoxically concludes of Gable that "without Fleming, his man's man of a director supporting and guiding him, Gable might never have relaxed enough to expose the vulnerable side of himself." Whatever the case, Gone With the Wind is the American War and Peace—while Margaret Mitchell may fall short of Tolstoy, Mosfilm is no match for Fleming-Selznick-MGM—and the trash-aristocratic rococo of the Butlers' Atlanta manor is the most psychically resonant and symbolically potent Hollywood set since D.W. Griffith's Babylon (in which a young Fleming had commanded a unit of Persians).
The exhausting workload of 1939 was a plateau. Afterwards, Fleming's adaptation of The Yearling sank in Florida swamps. Adventure, with Gable, is possibly Fleming's most universally disliked project. Tortilla Flat, a 1942 adaptation of an anecdotal Monterey-set Steinbeck novel, has Spencer Tracy essentially replaying his wise-simple Captains Corageous role, but now in a chorus with Akim Tamiroff and John Garfield's "zesty" sing-alonging high-spirited Latins, the whole thing unbearably briny with salt-of-the-earth.
Though often unfavorably compared to the March-Mamoulian film of 1931, which it closely follows, Fleming's 1941 Jekyll and Hyde is the most satisfying of his 40s films: for Spencer Tracy in the title role(s), with his transmogrifying deliriums and hoarsely insinuating Hyde; for Franz Waxman's score; and for DP Joseph Ruttenberg's gaslight stage London and haloed close-ups of Ingrid Bergman in domestic hostage scenes with Hyde that uncannily suggest daughter Isabella Rossellini and Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet.
Maybe because most of the living interviewees Sragow has produced met Fleming when they were green technicians, child actors, or nieces and nephews, he comes across as an impressive, aloof, even threatening, but never quite knowable figure. It's in his suffering over Bergman, his last mistress, reprinted from love notes, that the private man is most visible, if shriveled by melancholy: "Someone met me at the train. I'm very much afraid she found me crying. A hundred years old and crying over a girl. I said, 'There's no fool like an old fool.'"
Fleming's last film was a monument to Bergman, Joan of Arc (1948). The Maid of Orleans has had perennial trouble with critics and box-office, from Preminger to Bresson to Besson, but Walter Wanger's independently produced $4.5 million epic was perhaps the most conspicuous white elephant, and its reception devastated Fleming. He died two months after its premiere, a heart attack while hunting coyotes in Arizona, with scarcely a dozen very good to great films behind him.