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Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master Hardcover – December 9, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Fleming, who directed most of The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, and all of The Virginian and Bombshell, was not just a consummate studio craftsman but a distinctive artist, contends this rapt biography. Film critic Sragow has a tough case to make. Fleming's varied oeuvre suggests no signature onscreen style; instead, Sragow celebrates his feel for action and fantasy, and his intuitive way of directing actors. He also credits Fleming with inventing the Hollywood masculinity embodied by screen idols like Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable. Fleming, a big-game hunter and a polished bon vivant known for bedding his female stars, was both a man's man and a ladies' man, Sragow writes, who made male characters correspondingly tough but chivalrous (though offscreen Fleming wasn't above twisting Lana Turner's arm or slapping Ingrid Bergman to draw on-camera tears). Sragow's intricate, engrossing accounts of the making of Fleming's films convey his on-set charisma (and form a fine montage of Hollywood's evolution), but the real auteur is the studio system itself and its well-honed myth-making machinery (Fleming's last movie, Joan of Arc, an independent production, was a fiasco). Sragow's Fleming is a man who personified Old Hollywood, but didn't transcend it. Photos. (Dec. 9)
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"Victor Fleming strides through Michael Sragow's eponymous biography with the panache of Rhett Butler―and no wonder, since the director helped forge Clark Gable's onscreen persona with Red Dust and Test Pilot years before they reunited for Gone With the Wind."―Wendy Smith, Los Angeles Times , reviewing a previous edition or volume
"Not only persuasive in its argument that Victor Fleming was one of the unsung titans of his era, [this book] also makes for a fascinating case study in how power was acquired, wielded, and lost during the 1930s and '40s. . . . For readers with a limited knowledge of the movie industry, its transition from silent to talkies, and the rise of the big studio picture, Sragow's thorough scene-setting could double as a cinematic history lesson―illuminating the many famous lives that Fleming touched (and helped to shape) and the ways in which sets, casts, contracts, and careers worked during Hollywood's grand glory days."―S. James Snyder, Time , reviewing a previous edition or volume
"Sragow is immensely attentive to Fleming's films, and he traces in detail the fortunes of all the people connected to them, but his book is held together by what can only be called the romance of movie-making in the studio era―the large, free, hard-drinking life that the men (but rarely the women) enjoyed when movies were still made quickly and relatively cheaply, craft was spoken of with respect, and art was barely mentioned."―David Denby, New Yorker , reviewing a previous edition or volume
"Michael Sragow's Victor Fleming is certainly among the best film director biographies ever published. Mr. Sragow captures the man, a life and an era that is, as the title of Fleming's most famous film put it, 'gone with the wind.'"―Peter Bogdanovich, Wall Street Journal , reviewing a previous edition or volume --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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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!
Fleming was a native Californian born to poor farmers who had migrated west from Missouri. He was enamored of photography, tinkering with cars, chasing women and general old fashioned carousing with his friends. During World War I he became an officer who photographed President Woodrow Wilson during the Versailles Peace Conference of 1919 which transpired in Paris.
Fleming became known as a photographer who soon won a director's chair during the Silent Screen era. He directed and befriended the great Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Fleming was the lover of such silent sexpots as the alluring Clara Bow the famous "It" girl and several starlets. He would later go have affairs with among many others: No
Bessie Love, Norma Shearer and most famously the incandescent Swede Ingrid Bergman.
Fleming was not faithful to his wife Lu but was a good father to his two daughters. He never got past the seventh grade in school but was an autodidatic chap who knew a good deal of history, the art of film directing, mechanics and flying aircraft. His pals were such he-men as Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Henry Fonda. He was a macho Hemingway man who was handsome, well spoken, sometimes gruff and always professional on the set. His best pal was probably the irascible film genius Howard Hawks.
We remember him, of course, for the great films he directed. In aadditon to Oz and GWTW that number includes such gems as: Tortilla Flat; Test Pilot; Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Treasure Island, "The Virginian, Abie's Wild Irish Rose;Red Dust with Gable and Harlow and Joan of Arc starring Ingrid Bergman. Fleming is notable for working in all genres from comedy to adventure to melodrama. He was the top director on the MGM lot. He had previously spent several years at Paramount.
Fleming was a tough hombre who was conservative who, suprisingly, often voted for the Democratic party. He did not care for easterners being proud of his native California heritage. He was an avid big game hunter, fisherman and loved the outdoors. Fleming was tall, handsome and well tanned. Gable based his GWTW role of Rhett Butler on Fleming's persona. He was loved by women and respected by men in the tough show business world of early Hollywood.
Sragow's biography will, hopefully lead to a renewed interest in such figures as Fleming, Wellman, Walsh, Ford and Hawks who were the men who made the movies great in the long ago golden age of Holywood.
Film buffs may most enjoy the chapters on the Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind and the backstories behind these films. After reading this book though, readers might want to have another look at Fleming's films.
A wonderful book that belongs on the shelves of academic and public libraries and should be on the bookshelves of film fans and historians. It is hoped TCM will collaborate with the author on a documentary about Victor Fleming.