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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.)