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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.