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The Real Rhett Butler,
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This review is from: Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master (Hardcover)
I remember reading Michael Sragow's movie reviews years ago, when Pauline Kael ws still alive and Sragow was among the very first of her acolytes, the Kaelettes people used to call them. His reviews sounded like hers, though now as stimulating. However in his biography of Victor Fleming, he has developed his own voice. Occasionally it is a shrill one but on the whole it has some resonances and strengths that even Kael never had--perhaps she never bothered with them. Sragow's extended considerations of Fleming's films tell a persuasive story, though methinks he gopes too far when he decides that the lost epic, "The Rough Riders" was probably a great film because the faces of the actors in what stills survive look interesting (and, of course, because Fleming was the man behind the camera). He tells us over and over again that Fleming was the real Clark Gable (the first chapter is called "The Real Rhett Butler"), as if Rhett Butler was an interesting thing to be. Sragow builds up Fleming as handsome enough to be a movie star, so charismatic that every star (Gary Cooper, Gable, Spencer Tracy) modelled himself upon him, --and then he shoots himself in the foot by including dozens of photos in which Fleming appears as a sort of very tall nonentity with a forced smile.
He seems to have scoured every memoir written by any participant in Hollywood's studio system, looking for favorable references to Victor Fleming. Of such scattered gold dust a portrait does not appear, at least not a cohesive one. I couldn't tell whether he was a nog good son of a gun, as Henry Hathaway paints him, or a sensitive and cultured aesthete. Sragow attempts to broaden the canvases constantly, insisting that Fleming was both. He was in fact everything. The book begins with a listing of many such paradoxes, and then never really goes anywhere with them. One thing is for sure, he makes a convincing case that Fleming should indeed be named the auteur of GWTW and THE WIZARD OF OZ. What he can never really address is why Fleming's last films, ADVENTURE and JOAN OF ARC, are such indescribably bad failures. He admits it, just lets it sit there as an ignominous caboose to his glorious Fleming railroad. Was he in love too much with Ingrid Bergman to get a good performance from her? Sragow notes that Joan of Arc has more closeups of Ingrod than "Hula or Mantrap did of [Clara] Bow, The Wizard of Oz did of Garland, Gone with the Wind of Leigh, or all of them combined." And yet that can't be the answer because ADVENTURE is just as bad, and Fleming could barely conceal his dislike of its leading lady (Greer Garson).
This book was a gift to me from a wonderful American poet, Judith Goldman, now based in Chicago. I read it thinking of her all the way through, trying to see her in these pages. A funny thing happened the other dasy, we were watching the TCM documentary on Johnny Mercer, and a TV host asks Mercer how he came up with the phrase "Jeepers Creepers," and Mercer recalled watching a then current picture called THE FARMER TAKES A WIFE, where Henry Fonda says the phrase long and slow. The documentary director included the clip: it's a Victor Fleming picture, I knew that much from reading this wonderful book! And, as Sragow argues, you can get a lot more American history from watching THE FARMER TAKES A WIFE and all of Fleming's other films (including even OZ) than from reading the Congressional Record from cover to cover. Thank you, Judith!
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Oct 27, 2010 10:12:43 AM PDT
Thomas Plotkin says:
excellent review, but a small error needs correction: Kael's acolytes -- the aspiring young critics she placed in various journalistic sites in the early '70s, all men -- were not called "Kaelettes," but the more euphonious nickname "Paulettes."
In reply to an earlier post on Nov 2, 2010 9:34:20 AM PDT
Kevin Killian says:
Even as I wrote the word, I had a dread inkling I was remembering wrong... thanks Thomas for supplying the right one!
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