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Overlooked Legend

Sun Movie Critic Michael Sragow's New Book Recasts Hollywood Craftsman Victor Fleming as An Early Cinematic Innovator

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 2/4/2009

Michael Sragow gives an illustrated talk about Victor Fleming

Creative Alliance at the Patterson, Feb. 5, 7:30 p.m.

As the credited director of both Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, Victor Fleming has long been the answer to a barroom trivia question. After he died of a heart attack in early 1949, other directors and producers associated with the two movies started to inflate their own role in their production, and criticized Fleming as a macho, anti-Semite, womanizer, more a craftsman than an artist.

Michael Sragow, the film critic for the Baltimore Sun who moonlights as a writer of capsule film reviews for the New Yorker, has long been an admirer--and defender--of Fleming's work. In 1998, when Sragow was a regular freelancer for the New York Times, he published a feature piece on the director for the holiday season, a time when Oz makes regular appearances on television schedules.

"I think that Victor Fleming made a lot of the movies that a lot of the boomers recognized as defining their sense of the movies, whether they knew it or not," Sragow says at a Mount Vernon coffee shop. "[Writing about him] was almost like recapturing where I got my sense of movies from."

This past December, 10 years after his initial article on Fleming, Sragow published his first book, Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master, a 656-page narrative biography of Fleming, whose filmmaking career stretched from the early days of Hollywood to its heights in the late 1930s and '40s. In the process, Sragow uncovers countless colorful anecdotes about Fleming, who left no personal papers for historians to browse, in order to present the director as he might have seen himself.

Fleming's own life could be the substance of a Hollywood movie. Yet it's not the instant celebrity tale seen in A Star is Born, but rather a hard-scrabble story. Born in 1889 in Pasadena, after his parents headed west from Missouri during the first of many real estate booms in Southern California, Fleming grew up in San Dimas, 30 miles east of Los Angeles. Fleming's father died when he was 4, and he went to live on a citrus ranch with his aunt and uncle. Like so many other ambitious young men of the period, Fleming threw himself in to everything mechanical and modern, including cars, planes, and the new film industry that was bubbling up in Los Angeles.

When Fleming found his way to Hollywood in the mid-1910s, he found an industry very different than the glitz and bauble of the star-obsessed place that began to form in the 1920s. Movie actors such as Douglas Fairbanks, one of Fleming's friends and first movie subjects, boasted of doing their own stunts and defined themselves as "men of action," ready to do anything for entertainment. Fleming thrived in an environment where the director was more a fixer than a boss, obsessed with getting the movie done despite hardships.

Sragow recalls watching Fleming's first movie, 1919's When the Clouds Roll By starring Fairbanks, as the point when he realized the range of Fleming's talents. "It's just amazing to me that this is not known as one of the first great movies of all time," he says. "It's incredibly inventive. It shows him working with the biggest star in the world with an incredible freeness and creativity in mocking this guy's image. Here's a guy who's known as a great athlete and entertainer and he's playing a hypochondriac who is manipulated by a weird psycho-neurologist to be crippled by his superstitions."

As he describes the movie further, Sragow makes what is a characteristic, if unlikely, move in the interview as well as in the book: he draws a comparison between Fleming and a contemporary director. "Charlie Taylor, a film critic and a friend of mine from my Boston Phoenix days, saw it at MOMA and afterward he called and just said something like 'Charlie Kaufman--suck ass,'" he says.

After making this unlikely parallel between Fleming, best known for epics and swashbucklers like Captains Courageous and Treasure Island, and Kaufman, long recognized as the most openly experimental of contemporary mainstream Hollywood directors and screenwriters, Sragow goes on to support his argument by offering examples from the early part of the movie. "He wanted to get away from staged proscenium shooting," he says. "He knew that the framing had to be different. It couldn't be stagey. There had to be an active flow to the imagery. He had an instinctive sense on how to play with an image.

"The film opens with an incredible 10-minute sequence, with the goon of a psychologist deliberately feeding the hero, Douglas Fairbanks, terrible foods after midnight--onions, Welsh rarebit, mince pie and lobster," he continues. "You see them all dancing around in his stomach. Then it turns into this nightmare where he's escaping these walls that are clutching at him and this mysterious stranger that's clutching at him, and he jumps through the wall and he's in a ladies club, and then he jumps into a painting of a pool and he's in a real pool, and the foods are chasing after him. It's really as great as Sherlock Jr. or any of those other comedies that we think of as homegrown American surrealism."

While Sragow successfully makes the case for Fleming as an inventive director able to shoot scripts others refused to tackle, such as a 1925 version of Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, he has a more difficult time pinning down what it was about Fleming that made him distinctive across a 25 year, 48-movie career. In the course of the book, which assigns a chapter to each major movie Fleming made, Sragow struggles to find middle ground between the two dominating theories of Hollywood history.

In the first account, made popular by the film critic Andrew Sarris, directors, not writers, actors or producers, are responsible for the artistry of the cinema. Single-genre directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford received credit for their individual touches on the movies they made, despite changing studios, actors, and everything else. Fleming, who made everything from westerns (the 1929 early talkie The Virginian) to horror films (1941's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), didn't make a habit of leaving his mark on every production, and his reputation as a fixer allowed him to get typecast as a director more interested in making movies than statements.

In the second account, popularized by film historian Thomas Schatz's book The Genius of the System, directors, actors, screen writers, producers and set designers are all part of a system that, through the use of interchangeable staff, consistently produces high quality movies.

Those who focus only on Fleming's late 1930s career, when he juggled several projects at once, tend to place him in this category, but Sragow argues that Fleming was more than just a technician. "He wrote this studio autobiography called Action Is the Word, and he really did believe that in movies and in his life," he says. "He believes in spontaneous behavior [and] that attracted people to him. It's an amazing idea that a guy in a system as stratified as the old Hollywood system could live that way. He really made it his own kingdom when he was working."

Sragow's book also makes a series of bold assertions about Fleming's role in shaping the star image of actors such as Jean Harlow, Gary Cooper, and Clark Gable, and he devotes a chapter to refuting the charges that Fleming was anti-Semitic, which is based on a single episode on the Gone With the Wind set. And while the book is written chronologically, Sragow says he wrote the chapters on Fleming's Wind and Oz first because he knew readers would want to know more about Fleming's role in two of the best loved American movies.

But Sragow ends up arguing that Fleming's long and varied career, making successful movies in various genres and time periods, is what makes him worth profiling. "This is a guy who deserves more than a footnote in film history or American history," he says. "He's a huge guy."

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