The life and career of a protean figure from Hollywood’s early days.
The present obscurity of Victor Fleming (1889–1949) doesn’t reflect the extent of his influence and achievements, suggests Baltimore Sun film critic Sragow (editor: James Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism, 2005, etc.). Displaying an early fascination with and facility for things mechanical, the California native occupied himself with automobiles before devoting his energies to photography, which led him to work as a cinematographer and director for MGM. Sragow authoritatively discourses on Fleming’s strengths as a filmmaker, analyzing the director’s knack for conveying the kinetic excitement of what were, after all, moving pictures, his ease with a diverse range of genres and his deft touch with actors. Douglas Fairbanks, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper and Jean Harlow were among those who developed much of their iconic personae through their associations with Fleming. Sragow provides ample evidence that his male stars incorporated the director’s mystique into their own on-screen identities, quoting family members and colleagues who inevitably described Fleming as an uncommonly charismatic man’s man: a sportsman, gentleman and irresistible catnip to the ladies, including lovers Clara Bow and Ingrid Bergman. (He directed Bergman in Joan of Arc, a punishing project and critical flop that may well have lead to his premature death.) Fleming’s most famous accomplishment is his miraculous 1939 double-header. After The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind foundered in early going with their original directors, he stepped in and stewarded two of cinema’s all-time classics to the screen despite impossibly difficult technical demands, studio politics and temperamental talent. The section on these two films alone, filled with backstage gossip and expert insight into the methods of Golden Age studio filmmaking, is worth the price of admission, but the rest of Sragow’s meticulously researched and engrossing history of this largely forgotten great director is a must for any serious movie fan.
Scholarly, impassioned and riveting—a dandy corrective to an undervalued legacy and an immersive trip through a vanished era of popular entertainment.