Saturday, November 15, 2014

Appreciating Victor Fleming

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in Victor Fleming's Gone with the Wind
“It’s amazing: you ask people as a trivia question ‘Who directed Gone with the Wind?” and nobody knows; you give them a second clue – it’s the same guy who directed The Wizard of Oz – and they say Mervyn LeRoy. Victor Fleming was either a wonderful director or the luckiest son of a bitch in the world.”  – Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Among the big studio-era Hollywood filmmakers whose sturdy masculinity – an affinity for Westerns and other kinds of action pictures, a love of robust characters (both male and female), a comfortableness with the physical and the outdoors, a skill for shaping the distinctive qualities of all-American movie stars – Victor Fleming has traditionally been shortchanged. John Ford has been glorified, partly because he made the most consciously pictorial movies; he was always after art, and at his best he got it, in Young Mr. Lincoln, The Long Voyage Home, How Green Was My Valley. Howard Hawks, who worked in every genre, parlayed a love of raucousness and sass and tossed-off professionalism into a hard-boiled character ethic that infused all his work, whether he was making a gangster picture like Scarface or an aviator actioner like Only Angels Have Wings or a newspaper movie-cum-romantic comedy like His Girl Friday; his movies were companionable and often so speedy (the overlapping dialogue) that they felt wired. Fleming doesn’t get the same kind of respect. One reason may be that he did his best work in the thirties and very early forties and was dead by the end of the decade, whereas Hawks and Ford continued to make movies for another couple of decades; they were still around and working, if not at the height of their talents, when the film studies programs started operating in the sixties. Another reason, ironically, is that the two most famous projects Fleming was attached to, The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, came out the same year, 1939, and because they were vastly different and he wasn’t the only director who worked on either – King Vidor directed the Kansas footage in the first after Fleming prepared it, and Fleming replaced George Cukor in the latter – Fleming has been saddled with a reputation as a hired gun.

The fact is, as Michael Sragow shows in his first-rate biography Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master (which came out at the end of 2008 and which the University Press of Kentucky released in paperback last year), that Fleming was not just the director of record on these two movies but unmistakably their auteur – and that they came at the peak of a career that was studded with terrific films, both in the silent era and after sound came in. Those two 1939 Hollywood legends, both still greatly beloved, have eclipsed the rest of his output; much of his other work is obscure or has fallen out of fashion. But beginning in 1919,when he graduated from cinematographer to director, and 1941, he made some of the most finely crafted entertainments to come out of the studios:  When the Clouds Roll By and The Mollycoddle (both starring Douglas Fairbanks), Mantrap with Clara Bow, The Virginian (one of the first talkie Westerns), Red Dust and Bombshell with Jean Harlow, Treasure Island, Captains Courageous – all before GWTW and The Wizard – and afterwards, the Spencer Tracy version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Several of these, including The Wizard, illustrate what Sragow calls Fleming’s “nose for the contemporaneity of classic tales” – Owen Wister’s The Virginian, Kipling’s Captains Courageous, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Jekyll and Hyde. In every case, his screen versions not only do justice to their sources; it can be argued that they are just as memorable. More so, in some cases: Fleming and his favorite screenwriter, John Lee Mahin, put flesh and blood on Stevenson’s iconic tale of the scientist who succeeds in splitting the psyche into good and evil alter egos, and his 1937 film of Captains Courageous, with Spencer Tracy as the Portugese fisherman, Manuel, who helps the privileged boy Harvey (Freddie Bartholomew) to come of age, stays in your head long after you’ve forgotten Kipling’s original. Among the movies you might want to raise kids on, I’d class it just beneath Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion and The Wizard of Oz.

Fleming grew up in San Dimas in the southern-California Citrus Belt, and he worked as an auto mechanic, a taxi driver and a chauffeur; he dreamed of becoming a racing driver, and he flew planes. In the mid-teens he worked as one of D.W. Griffith’s assistants (Josef von Sternberg was another) on the Babylon sequence of Intolerance and photographed Doug Fairbanks comedy-adventures. When America got into the war, he made army training films; after the war he was assigned to shoot Woodrow Wilson’s trip to the Versailles Peace Conference. Sragow is marvelous on the seat-of-your-pants mood of the early silents:
Early American adventure films and comedies had an infectious, antic movement. Even the machines – cars and motorcycles, trains and planes – behaved with improvisational abandon. Heroes and heroines soared to improbable heights by seizing on opportunities with confidence and prowess. Yet these flights of fancy weren’t all make-believe. They had emotional roots in the experiences of filmmakers who made up their lives as they went along. Fleming’s early years . . . were breathless amalgams of industry, gamesmanship, and hustle.
He’s also marvelous as a close-textual reader of the documentary material, which he treats, convincingly, as early evidence of Fleming’s gift as a craftsman and image maker. “[T]here are . . . frames,” he writes of footage of the troops assembling at Camp Merritt in New Jersey and debarking at Hoboken, “that rival those in Vidor’s The Crowd: rows of female secretaries stooped over their desks and a wall-length filing cabinet stretching from the floor to some high windows.” In an abandon-ship drill, “life rafts slowly slither down the sides of the ships, like rubbery mollusks.” He says of a tracking shot along the rooftop of a pier building as Wilson’s ship pulls out that it “has the inexorable pull of Francis Ford Coppola’s harbor and rooftop scenes of roughly the same period in TheGodfather: Part II. Patriots spill out of windows and doorways; an ebullient mob waves handkerchiefs below. Flag wavers line the piers, biplanes cut the air in blocky loops and zigzags, and a Navy dirigible circles watchfully, with eerie evenness . . .” Sragow, who has written insightfully about movies for four decades for a wide variety of publications including The New Yorker, Rolling Stone and The Boston Phoenix, applies his gift for getting deep inside a movie, for particularizing its feel and recreating the individualized experience of sitting through it, even to these unknown non-fiction reels.

Victor Fleming behind the camera

The volume deals deftly and easily with Fleming’s personal life – his marriage to Lu Rosson, his children, his friendships (including a highly competitive one with Hawks), his romance with Ingrid Bergman, which led him into the disastrous 1948 Joan of Arc movie that was, unhappily, his final venture. But it’s mostly about his movies, and those are the richest and most yielding material Sragow has to work with. The book is a treasure chest for movie buffs; it provides a multi-layered assessment of the career of an underappreciated master, and it sends you back to the films themselves, to work through them on your own and put them side by side in your head and match your own conclusions with his. Of the ones I was able to dig up, it turns out we disagree on only two. Though the action sequences in the 1938 Test Pilot are thrilling and it has an affable looseness and a kind of gallantry, I find both the script by Vincent Lawrence and Waldemar Young and Fleming’s direction overplayed. And his 1942 Steinbeck adaptation, Tortilla Flat, which Sragow calls “a merry chaos,” struck me as hopelessly fraudulent, just as it had the first time I saw it, when I was writing about John Garfield, one of its stars, thirty years ago. This time around I just couldn’t get myself to sit through all of it.

Sragow gets at both Fleming’s impeccable movie sense and his almost uncanny ability to draw the best work out of his actors, men and women alike. “Victor Fleming knew as much about the making of pictures as any man I’ve ever known – all departments,” his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Harold Rosson, attested, and Sragow elucidates: “This director knew how much visual detail an audience needed to make illusions feel real, and how much had to be contained in one shot.” His technique was instinctual and worked in tandem with his feeling for how to shoot actors. The celebrated photographer James Wong Howe, who lit a couple of Fleming’s silent movies, explained that directors who approach filmmaking as Fleming does “will not move the camera unless it’s absolutely necessary to follow the actor. They play most of their shots with a stationary camera, allowing the actor to play within the frame. They’ll cut with the camera. They’ll establish the shot and let the action dictate where the cuts should be.” In the early days of sound, “when talkies ruled and production boomed and the Hollywood studios became dream factories,” Sragow writes, “fellows like Fleming and his favorite writers (Jules Furthman, Mahin) developed the special seen and spoken language of ‘golden age’ sound movies. This audiovisual dialect of expressive actors punching across snappy and suggestive talk in the molded light of a square frame was intensely stylized. It was also unabashedly emotional and sometimes cunningly erotic . . . Vintage Hollywood styles often felt more real than the slangy, jittery realism of today because the characters were substantial enough to cast long shadows and special effects didn’t swamp their cries or predicaments.”

Spencer Tracy in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)
The performances in Fleming’s movies evidence his extraordinary talent as an actor’s director.  Here are a few of the standouts: Clara Bow in Mantrap; Gary Cooper in The Virginian; Clark Gable in Red Dust and GWTW; Jean Harlow in Red Dust and Bombshell; Wallace Beery in Treasure Island; Tracy in Captains Courageous and Jekyll and Hyde; Bartholomew in Captains Courageous; Judy Garland, Bert Lahr and Ray Bolger in The Wizard of Oz; Vivien Leigh, Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen in GWTW; Ingrid Bergman in Jekyll and Hyde. Fleming was drawn temperamentally to Cooper, Gable and Tracy, with whom, according to Sragow, he “mined some of the same territory as Hemingway and his creative progeny. The stars he helped create have never stopped hovering over the heads of Hollywood actors, who still try to emulate their careers” – look at Robert Redford and George Clooney – “or of American men in general, who still try to live up to their examples. The director’s combination of gritty nobility and erotic frankness and his ability to mix action and rumination helped mint a new composite image for the American male.” He felt close to Tracy because, he said, “we’re alike: bursting with emotions we cannot express.” And Tracy, who could be banal or fake-folksy on the screen, responded with what, in Captains Courageous and Dr. Jekyll, may have been the finest acting he ever did. These men got on Fleming’s wavelength; according to his fellow director Henry Hathaway, Gable tried to emulate him on camera. As for the women, again quoting Hathaway, “every dame he ever worked with fell on her ass for him.” (Fleming had an affair with Bow, some details of which, as well as biographical information, show up in the screenplay Mahin and Furthman wrote for Bombshell, the comic portrait of a Hollywood star.) The one leading lady who evidently disliked him was Vivien Leigh, who was furious when he replaced Cukor on GWTW, but except for in A Streetcar Named Desire she never gave a better performance.

Sragow writes of Douglas Fairbanks, the first star Fleming ever worked with, that he “was the epitome of the self-created individual – F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby on a jungle gym” and that when you directed him, “the goal was to bottle electricity.” You see what he means in When the Clouds Roll By, Fleming’s 1919 directorial debut, and in The Mollycoddle, which he made the following year. (You can view them both in a welcome box set of Fairbanks’s movies put out by Flicker Alley.) The first is primarily a comedy, the second primarily an adventure story, though both have elements of each. Tom J. Geragthy, listed in the credits simply as “T.J.G.,” wrote the script for When the Clouds Roll By, but the plot feels as if it was improvised as the moviemaking went along. There’s an evil scientist (Herbert Grimwood) who’s meant to manipulate the love triangle and the intrigue about a scheme to swindle the heroine’s dad out of oil land, but the narrative would work just as well without him. You couldn’t take him out, though, without giving up the best part of the movie besides Fairbanks himself: the nifty Georges Méliès-like visual effects that show us what’s going on in Doug’s stomach and brain as the scientist, unbeknownst to him, experiments on him. Actors in silly costumes dance around to suggest food items that he shouldn’t be ingesting and nightmares that plague him, which are in a vaudevillian-surrealist style. (Some of the visual tricks look ahead to The Wizard of Oz.) In The Mollycoddle, Fairbanks, this time sporting a mustache, plays a young man, seemingly softened by his comfortable upbringing, who leaps to heroism when he aids a member of the Secret Service (Ruth Renick) – whom he also falls for – in capturing a diamond smuggler (Wallace Beery). The movie is very enjoyable, and it builds to an exciting climax in the Painted Desert involving diamonds, dynamite, horses and Hopi Indians. These are the only Fleming silents I was able to find – some, of course, have been lost (Sragow bemoans especially the loss of The Rough Riders, about Teddy Roosevelt in the Spanish American War) – in addition to Mantrap (1926), which was culled from a lesser-known but highly readable Sinclair Lewis novel. Fleming and the three screenwriters trimmed Lewis’s narrative and shifted the focus from the hero (Percy Marmont), a Manhattan divorce lawyer who goes on a camping trip in the western-Canadian backwoods, to the Clara Bow character, a Minneapolis flapper married to the store owner (Ernest Torrence) who hosts Marmont when he and his camping buddy (Eugene Pallette) can no longer endure each other’s company. Lewis protested, but you can’t help thinking that Fleming’s instincts trumped Lewis’s: the movie, simultaneously hard-boiled and affectionate, showcases Bow’s verve and sexy physicality better, perhaps, than anything else she ever did.

It makes sense that a director who knew how to make the most of Fairbanks’s and Bow’s physicality would have a sixth sense for performers like Gary Cooper and Clark Gable. Fleming worked with Cooper on two back-to-back pictures, Wolf Song and The Virginian, both released in 1929 – though the first was a silent with sound sequences and the second an all-talkie. (The juxtaposition gives us a glimpse into how fast things were changing in the Hollywood of the late twenties.) Sragow observes that Fleming taught Cooper the trick of “holding in more than giving out,” and his supremely relaxed underplaying is at the heart of the movie, a loose, casual Western with an emotional kick. The film has a tall-tale quality and a lot of physical humor; the larger joke is the roughness and gruffness of the Old West, which has a hominess that even the woman from the east (Mary Brian) can’t resist – any more than she can resist the Virginian. Unlike John Ford’s Westerns, The Virginian isn’t poetic or carefully composed; it’s bristling, rambunctious. But the scene where the Virginian and the other men in his posse have to hang his best friend Steve (Richard Arlen) for cattle rustling and the one where Brian’s Molly holds her own against the Western hausfrau who defends lynching have are as poignant and complex as the communal scenes in Ford’s great Stagecoach. (Neither woman wins the argument.)

Jean Harlow and Clark Gable in Red Dust (1932)

Similarly, Red Dust, which marked the beginning of Fleming’s collaboration with Gable, refuses to cheerlead for either of the two women, the whore (Jean Harlow’s Vantine) or the lady (Mary Astor’s Barbara), who both fall for Gable’s Dennis Carson on a Vietnamese rubber plantation – even though he winds up with Vantine after pretending he doesn’t love Barbara so that she won’t desert her husband Gary (Gene Raymond), who hero-worships him. (He has to sacrifice his relationships with both husband and wife; greater love hath no man.) This movie, in Sragow’s words, “wrings humor and pathos from the unfairness and ruthlessness of love, and hopefulness from the varieties of love.” It’s one of the sexiest of the early, pre-Hays Code talkies – it came out in 1932 – and it’s so lean and pared-down that it feels as if Fleming and the writer, John Lee Mahin, whose dialogue feels startlingly fresh more than eight decades after he penned it, made it in shorthand; the eighty-four-minute running time doesn’t yield a single extraneous moment.  Fleming’s refusal to linger, in combination with his love of the low-down and his transparent enjoyment of all the human appetites, make this movie feel more tossed-off and less substantial than it is.

I’d say that’s the characteristic that seems truer of Fleming’s movies than of any other American filmmaker of his caliber – and perhaps it provides, finally, the most plausible explanation for the short shrift he’s been given, and that Sragow strives to correct in this book. Except perhaps in GWTW, which feels like an epic, and Joan of Arc, which is an epic fiasco of the kind Hollywood has always been capable of producing, Fleming always refuses to underscore his own technical prowess – even though, in a movie like Captains Courageous, the closer attention you pay to the set-piece sequences, the more staggeringly difficult you realize they must have been to pull off. Nor does he allow his actors to show off (even in good ways); he crafts his movie around the performances without ever giving the impression that he’s showcasing them. For Fleming it seems to be a matter of honor to do the best work possible without making people aware of the labor, to make beautiful movies that don’t strut their beauty.

My favorite Flemings are the “literary” ones, that is, the adaptations of classics; I’ve put the word in quotations because not one of them carries the prestige of its source around like a medal. Instead they present their gaily worn, well-loved stories with tremendous fondness and spirit (occasionally hambone, as in Treasure Island, or vaudevillian, as in The Wizard of Oz). Fleming may have a natural aversion to self-promoting flamboyance, but he’s never afraid to unleash emotion, and these movies are drenched in it. We’re so used to being worked over by coming-of-age movies that when you encounter one like Captains Courageous, which earns every tear you shed, you may feel that you’ve rediscovered something precious from childhood that you’d almost forgotten even existed. Of course, that’s what the greatest children’s movies have always done; it’s what you feel when you watch the Lord of the Rings trilogy or the best of the Harry Potter movies (the ones directed by Alfonso Cuarón or David Yates). Fleming, it seems, did it first. In Captains Courageous, where Spencer Tracy and the young Freddie Bartholomew give performances in the two major roles that you can’t imagine being improved upon, the path to maturity winds through discomfort and shame to humility and tragedy and ends with a recognition, at last, of all the things that are of the greatest value in life: bravery, honor, honest achievement, loyalty, friendship and love.

His last foray into literature, the 1941 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, works differently from these earlier adaptations – but then, the Stevenson novella isn’t for kids. It’s a true horror story. Jekyll and Hyde had been made into a silent starring John Barrymore, and a famous early talkie for which Fredric March won an Oscar, and both have their virtues. But neither comes close to the achievement of Fleming’s, with Tracy as Jekyll and Ingrid Bergman as the barmaid, Ivy, whose joie de vivre Hyde snuffs out before he finally murders her, in scenes that are perhaps unequaled for their depiction of sexual enslavement. Like David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, the film is a trenchant examination of Victorianism. (Mahin wrote the ingenious screenplay.) At the church Jekyll attends with his fiancée (Lana Turner) and her father (Donald Crisp), the bishop is heckled by a parishioner, his mind warped by the shock of a gas explosion at a factory, who laughs at the idea of wiping out evil and insists that he can tell the deluded clergyman what real adult men think about. Though he’s not permitted access to the afflicted man, Jekyll theorizes that the trauma of the explosion has repressed his good side and allowed his evil side to emerge full-blown, and his prospective father-in-law is scandalized by the idea that all of us are capable of evil; it upsets his sense of respectable Christian aristocrats like himself as pure-hearted, close to the angels. Jekyll conducts an experiment on himself to show that evil lurks inside everyone, and the results are nightmarish. Both Barrymore and March played Hyde as a real gargoyle, with the help of some filmmaking magic, but Jack Dawn, who designed Tracy’s make-up, understates the grotesque side, and Fleming relies on Tracy to supply it in his performance – and to make him a terrifying monster of the all-too-human kind. It’s a superb piece of acting, and Bergman’s heartbreaking one matches it.  This Jekyll and Hyde was, for me, the biggest surprise in the Fleming oeuvre, and I’m grateful to Sragow for making me aware of it. This is, for me, the most impressive accomplishment of Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master: that his re-evaluation of Fleming’s career, which is full of revelations, is fully borne out when you look beyond the book to the major evidence on which he builds his argument, Fleming’s movies. 

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movie.

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