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.”