The Wizard of Oz: Victor Fleming is revealed as not only an artist and craftsman but also a fascinating Jekyll and Hyde figure by former Bay Area critic Michael Sragow. (Photo courtesy Random House)

Sragow on 'An American Movie Master'

Michael Fox November 30, 2008

During his tenure at the San Francisco Examiner, Michael Sragow was one of the most respected and popular film critics in town. Ensconced at the Baltimore Sun since 2001, Sragow has inevitably fallen off the radar of most local moviegoers (even in the Internet age). The December 9 publication of his years-in-the-making opus, Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master (Pantheon, 656 pages) provides a splendid opportunity to get reacquainted with one of the most knowledgeable, enthusiastic and cogent writers about American film. Can’t place Victor Fleming’s name? Read on.

SF360: Remind us how long you were you in San Francisco.

Michael Sragow: [My wife] Glenda and I moved to San Francisco in September, 1985, when she got the job of Arts Editor at the Examiner and I got the job of lead movie critic. I stayed at the Examiner from 1985-92 (Glenda left a few years before that). I briefly shared the movie slot at The New Yorker with Terrence Rafferty; Bob Gottlieb, who hired me and often edited me there (Tina Brown fired me) also edited Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master.

SF360: I figured film historians had studied every aspect of the golden age of Hollywood. How did Victor Fleming, who made two of the biggest American movies ever, elude a biographer all this time?

Sragow: He died young (at age 59) in 1949, before directors became national artistic celebrities. Unlike many of his peers, he never hired a publicist to cultivate his mystique. He didn’t make it easy for a biographer: He left no stash of papers, no production journals, no diaries. And his best friends among directors—he was better friends with naturalists, explorers, fliers, auto guys—two other outstanding directors, Howard Hawks and King Vidor, spent many of the years after his death working off their resentment at the greater shadow he cast in real life by telling stories that diminished Fleming as a man and an artist. Both took undue credit for Fleming’s work—Hawks saying he helped write Test Pilot (when Hawks actually pilfered from it, albeit with genius, in Only Angels Have Wings), and Vidor by lengthening and expanding the role he had shooting the Kansas scenes in The Wizard of Oz, scenes that Fleming had asked his favorite screenwriter, John Lee Mahin, to rewrite, and that Fleming thoroughly planned out before he left to save Gone with the Wind. Aljean Harmetz wrote an absolutely essential book on the making of Oz, but she took a retrospective dislike for Fleming and revered Vidor—to the extent that even this sharp observer of Hollywood activity bought Vidor’s line that he was the first to move the camera during a musical number, a ridiculous contention that has been passed down ever since.

In addition, producer David O. Selznick was such a dominant presence on Gone with the Wind that it was easy to think the directors on that production were ‘just following orders.’ Not quite; as F. Scott Fitzgerald noted, it was Fleming who had the tensile strength that held the show together.

Also, it became easy to write about Fleming as the archetypal ‘MGM,’ when he did major work for Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., for Paramount, and for Fox as well as MGM, and alone among MGM directors never signed a long-term exclusive personal-services contract with [Louis B.] Mayer until he’d already been there for nearly a decade.

Historians raised in the conventional auteur wisdom assumed Vincente Minnelli and George Cukor were the only directors with enough clout to create art at MGM; for my book, I unearthed a great interview in which old-time producer Pandro S. Berman more or less snorts, ‘You’ve got to be kidding—the only guy with that kind of power was Victor Fleming!’ (I think Clarence Brown, another non-auteur, did pretty well there, too.)

I think it’s no accident that another school of academics embraced the notion of ‘the genius of the system’—that the studios’ terrific talent pools and technical expertise produced the ‘golden age of Hollywood’—at the same time journalists started to spend more time examining box office results than artistic results and examining supposed managerial geniuses such as Michael Eisner with greater care than directors such as Sam Peckinpah and Scorsese and De Palma and Philip Kaufman and Walter Hill. I think part of the problem, at the high end, is that some journalists got so caught up in the game of seeing patterns and philosophy in a director’s work they lost track of what any great director does: wring the most emotion and meaning and poetry out of a piece of material. And another part of the problem, at the low end, is that some journalists preferred scapegoating directors for the cinematic downturn of the ’80s than blame themselves for not keeping their eyes on the prize—movie art—or audiences for no longer turning great movies into hits the way they did in the days of the Godfather films and Taxi Driver and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

SF360: Was there a particular incident or anecdote that originally sparked you?

Sragow: Here’s what I say in the book, and it’s quite true: Victor and Lu Fleming’s younger daughter Sally encouraged me to write this book after she read an appreciation of her father that I’d written for The New York Times on the occasion of The Wizard of Oz’s 60th anniversary in 1999. She asked what led me to take on Fleming as a subject. For decades I’d known and loved the half-dozen great movies he’d directed before salvaging The Wizard of Oz for MGM and Gone with the Wind for producer David O. Selznick in 1939—movies like The Virginian (1929) and Red Dust (1932) and Bombshell (1933). But as I told Sally, I’d only recently seen the first film he made after that historic year— Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)—and I’d been astonished by its candid sexuality and by how much better it was than its reputation. Sally, who sprinkles frank convictions with spontaneous wit, laughed and said, ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde —that’s the film that’s most like Daddy.’ It didn’t take long to find out that Fleming was a man of more than two parts.

Beyond that, I’ve always found that when I read biographies it’s often a side character that jumps out at me. Reading about Hawks or [Clark] Gable or [Spencer] Tracy, I would always wonder, why hasn’t anyone done something on this guy Fleming?

SF360: How would you assess Fleming’s importance to American movies?

Sragow: From the beginning, when he became part of Douglas Fairbanks Sr.‘s team celebrating the vigorous American with a teeth-flashing smile, Fleming knew a thing or two about icons. Even those who slight Fleming’s contributions must recognize that by molding some of the key performances of Gable, [Gary] Cooper, [Henry] Fonda, and Tracy, Fleming either invented or perfected such American movie figures as the ‘strong, silent type’ (Cooper, Fonda), or the wise, cocksure yet grudgingly articulate fellow who conveyed complexities with a glance (Tracy) or the take-charge guy who was every man’s dream of competence and every woman’s dream of direct sexual power. He was just as influential in the direction of women—under his guidance, [Clara] Bow and [Jean] Harlow and [Ingrid] Bergman (in Jekyll and Hyde) gave their best embodiments of a carnal purity that went beyond either being the girl next door or simply having ‘it’—and was equally skilled with children, getting a performance out of Freddie Bartholomew in Captains Courageous that doubtless influenced Spielberg (a huge CC fan) and one out of Judy Garland that has demonstrated to generations of filmmakers the need to get some adolescent spunk into childhood fantasy. (Guillermo Del Toro is a huge Fleming fan and even wrote the coverage of him in a Mexican overview of film history.)

Fleming’s free use of locations in his silent work, of sound in his early talkies, of big-studio trompe l’oeil at MGM, of Technicolor in Oz and GWTW, of surreal fantasy in films from his Fairbanks comedies to Jekyll and Hyde and A Guy Named Joe (Michael Powell was a also a huge Fleming fan, and show it most explicitly in the Joe- like A Matter of Life and Death)—these can’t be underrated.

Add such non-movie accomplishments as his creation of some of the first military-training films and the first footage of a presidential European tour intended for archives, and you have a man important not just to film history but also to American and international history.

SF360: I expect you had trouble locating any living Fleming contemporaries and collaborators, and that your biggest challenge was having to rely on correspondence and memos and contracts rather than impressions of people who knew the man personally.

Sragow: Actually, from beginning to end, the very best stuff came from interviewing people who had firsthand or very close secondhand knowledge of Fleming, including John Lee Mahin’s son Graham Lee Mahin, who said one of the most profound things I’ve ever heard about filmmaking. He heard his dad tell Vic that what Vic should want from his screenwriter is verbs—the script should let the director provide the adjectives. Up until the very end I was discovering voices to back up my perceptions of Vic’s works. I always thought movies like Bombshell and The Wizard of Oz were amazingly modern, and one favorite instance of that is in Oz when the friends climb up to the Wicked Witch’s castle and you see the Tin Man tugging on the Cowardly Lion’s tail without any attempt to hide the tail’s block-like anchor in the Lion’s costume. That happened because (in a never-before-told story) the Tin Man’s double, USC football star Amby Schindler, pulled the tail straight off in rehearsal! No film is better than Oz at involving audiences in the fun of moviemaking while allowing them to share in the exhilarating illusions of filmmaking.

SF360: Could you share a revelatory moment from your research process?

Sragow: Maria Cooper Janis, Gary’s daughter, told me she couldn’t offer any direct reminiscences, but guided me to an old family friend and neighbor, Watson Webb, who’d been Zanuck’s ace film editor. It turned out Webb would host the intimate dinners Fleming and his wife Lu would share with his favorite producer, Louis ‘Bud’ Lighton and Lighton’s wife (and early writing partner) Hope Loring, [when] the Lightons would visit L.A. from their Arizona ranch. Webb conveyed the sense of shared understanding and affection and rapport among friends that fed into the great Fleming-Lighton collaborations on The Virginian, Captains Courageous and Test Pilot. He also was the first of many to demystify Ingrid Bergman. Webb said he and his circle would denigrate [Ingrid] Bergman and Grace Kelly as ‘porcupines,’ because they entertained ‘so many pricks.’

SF360: Would you describe Fleming as an artist or simply a great craftsman? I’m referring to the perception that directors who thrived in the heyday of the studio system weren’t gifted creative types so much as authority figures who thrived in a well-defined structure that provided enormous resources (including ace art directors).

Sragow: Again, I think there’s great ignorance about what directors did in the studio system. Michael Powell lists Victor Fleming as first among those who made Selznick and Mayer look good. Fleming always studied his source material (he often directed his silents from the original books, not scripts, the way Coppola sometimes does), always installed his favorite writers, Jules Furthman and then John Lee Mahin, on the scripts (and worked with them closely on the final screenplays), worked out the visual strategies with cinematographers and designers, and even ensured the cinematic impact of the special effects. Even when the projects were square—gloriously so in Captains Courageous, a movie of astonishing emotional purity—his ideas were often radical, such as his free yet seamless melding of film shot in a tank or on a wet stage [with] location footage. And anyone who thinks of film as even partly a theatrical art has got to give him credit for energizing the film acting careers of Bow, Constance Bennett, [Judy] Garland, and Myrna Loy as well as the male stars he’s most associated with. If this doesn’t add up to art, what does?

SF360: Fleming began in the film industy in the silent era, and in a month he’ll be dead 60 years. What lessons of his career can we apply to contemporary directors?

Sragow: Whether in the world of indies or corporations, ‘craft’ should not be something you learn and then bloodlessly apply film to film. It’s something you put body and soul into and reinvent and modify and modulate according to the demands of each project. And a director should be ranked as an auteur not according to how much aestheticized philosophy he allows to be read into his work, but by how much felt life he puts into each frame.

SF360: What films of Fleming’s, in the DVD age, would you commend to movie buffs to revisit or discover?

Sragow: Red Dust: still one the funniest, saddest, hottest and truest movies about adultery. Bombshell: the unsung prototype of the screwball comedy and one of the funniest inside-Hollywood movies ever. The Virginian: the essential expression of Western gallantry and nobility, without any fake heroism or sentimentality. The exuberant Fairbanks comedies, When the Clouds Roll By and The Mollycoddle, with their pretension-puncturing athleticism and democratic spirit.

SF360: Did Fleming ever shoot on location in San Francisco, or dare I say enjoy a liaison here with one of his conquests?

Sragow: Fleming spent a lot of time in San Francisco. He filmed much of Code of the Sea in the waters outside S.F. and made a stretch of Oakland look like the Bristol docks for Treasure Island. Adventure is set in San Francisco, and of course Tortilla Flat is set in Monterey. And there was a scandal, as I say in the book: MGM cameraman Paul Lockwood filed a $150,000 lawsuit accusing Fleming of ‘alienating the affections’ of his wife Marjorie DeHaven, a pert, big-eyed brunette and sometime dancer. She was the daughter of stage stars Carter DeHaven and Flora Parker, and the older sister of Gloria DeHaven. Such lawsuits were common in Los Angeles in the depths of the Depression—practically a weekly occurrence—until California finally outlawed them. Lockwood contended that the director ‘debauched and carnally knew’ his 21-year-old wife, dangled the prospect of a film career, and had an unnamed friend lure her to San Francisco and then abandon her on October 4, two days before Fleming sailed for Hawaii.

For the whole story, you’ll have to read the book!

SF360: Is there anything you miss about the Bay Area film scene, recognizing that DVDs have changed moviegoing everywhere in the last decade, and this isn’t the same town you left?

Sragow: I miss the Bay Area, period. It isn’t often a writer feels a direct connection with a large portion of his or her readers, but every time I come back someone pops up to say my reviews are missed—and that’s great to hear.

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