- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 1, 2009

By Michael Sragow
Pantheon, $40, 645 pages

The Baltimore Sun film critic, Michael Sragow, has long been admired for his ability to focus on non-mainstream movies deserving of the public’s attention. So it is fitting that during the course of his career he became intrigued by the work of Victor Fleming. Here was a name that kept appearing in all of the Hollywood histories but inexplicably had never received adequate attention. In 1999, Mr. Sragow was approached by Fleming’s younger daughter to write this book, after she read his New York Times appreciation of her father. Mr. Sragow has given the biography genre its due, with a handsome, well researched and wonderfully written book well worth the price.

Victor Fleming has until now been an unsung genius. He was a larger than life figure, described by contemporaries as “a composite between an internal combustion engine hitting on all twelve and a bear cub.” He was the role model for Clark Gable’s screen image — very much a man’s man — handsome, masculine, down to earth, quick-witted and well read. The studio bosses trusted him as a talented man who knew how to handle his alcohol; stars and writers loved him. (Gable and Spencer Tracy liked working with him above all else.) He was the director MGM tapped to take over two thorny, unwieldy and expensive projects — “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind” — and make them into enormous successes. Had he never completed those two epics, Fleming’s other cinematic triumphs had already sealed his reputation. They included “The Virginian,” “Red Dust,” “Mantrap,” “Bombshell” and “Captains Courageous.”

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Fleming was called “the biggest star on his sets,” appreciated by talent and crew. Mr. Sragow has compared him to Sydney Pollack, another famous director who enabled male and female stars alike to deliver “their boldest and most characteristic performances.” In Fleming’s case, the roster of fresh young talents he mentored into stardom included Gable, Tracy, Judy Garland, Olivia de Havilland, Gary Cooper and Clara Bow. He worked hard and loved hard, too; behind the scenes, this charismatic director and devoted family man was also a ladies man, indulging in flings with Clara Bow, Norma Shearer, falling hardest of all for Ingrid Bergman.

Part of Fleming’s appeal was that even though he was a part of Hollywood, he was apart from it. Unlike the enclave of transplanted Easterners, Fleming was a native Californian who loved the great outdoors. Much of his spare time was spent traveling, courting danger by hunting on safari and flying small planes. Indeed, he began his Hollywood career as a machinist, fiddling with automobiles and becoming a race-car driver. During the silent film era, men who could drive cars, operate cameras (and repair both) were in high demand. He worked on D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance,” before befriending Douglas Fairbanks. During World War I, Fleming worked on military films, serving as President Wilson’s private cameraman during the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. After the war, he retained his friendship with screenwriter Anita Loos and producer John Emerson, making several of their livelier movies. But it was Fairbanks who gave Fleming the chance to climb up the studio ladder. In 1931, MGM approached him to direct “one photoplay,” but it was not long before he became the most powerful director at the studio.

As a former cameraman, Fleming knew his craft and was able to set scenes in the best visual way. One of the most riveting chapters in this book is the story of “Gone With the Wind” and how Fleming was able to extract the best work from his stars and show the story in a way that it did not overwhelm their performances. Some of the most complicated takes were done in just one day. In the end, writes the author, “Fleming’s competence would stabilize the crew, renew Gable’s sense of security and inspire most of the male actors.” Against all odds, “Gone With the Wind” turned into a money-making, Oscar-winning sensation. Steven Spielberg credits the movie for modern Hollywood’s voracious appetite for manufacturing blockbusters.

Fleming’s last adventure at MGM was his final film, “Joan of Arc,” starring Ingrid Bergman, who also became his lover. Ever since the late 1920s, Fleming had wanted to be a director of epics. But this epic proved to be a disaster. Shortly after the movie and affair failed, Victor Fleming died of a heart attack.

Mr. Sragow deftly takes us through the twists and turns of Fleming’s life, with a vital sense of time and place. We learn much not only about Fleming, but also about his contemporaries and the Hollywood they lived in. Fleming left no paper trail of letters or diaries, but unlike other biographers who have faced similar hurdles, Mr. Sragow has dug deeply and well, looking into the oral histories and coming up with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s assessment of Fleming in a letter to Shelia Graham. A biographer must have the imagination to think beyond the obvious sources, and possess the commitment and passion for the long haul, to keep looking for that enriching nugget. At the same time, a biographer must never be in love with his own research, and be able to weave the best details in a way that the reader is entertained as he is being expertly guided along chapter by chapter.

Michael Sragow has achieved all this, and more. To the publisher’s credit, the typeset is easy on the eye, the paper is of good quality stock, and the photographs have been attractively displayed. Ultimately — and this must be gratifying most of all for Victor Fleming’s daughter, who wanted this book written in the first place — one finishes this biography wanting to see Fleming’s films all over again.

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast.”

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