Behind the curtain: Critics with Bay Area ties offer perspectives on the past in two holiday-released film books.

Reading Between the Frames: Fleming and Sturges

Michael Fox December 18, 2008

The rap against Victor Fleming and John Sturges is that they were competent and perhaps even skilled directors who lacked the imagination and grace that elevates craftsmen into artists. Michael Sragow’s Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master and Glenn Lovell’s Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges, [editor’s note: title corrected] both splendid new biographies by film critics with local ties, expressly aim to reestablish their subjects’ reputations. They hit that mark with varying success, but provide so much pleasure for even a casual moviegoer that it scarcely matters. Both Sragow and Lovell have a solid sense of where the legend diverges from fact, and though they tend to print both, they leave little doubt which is which.

Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master (Pantheon Books, 645 pp, $40), a thick hardcover whose notes and references fill 66 pages, is the more prestigious of the two. Sragow’s seamless and enthralling storytelling style, however, is the farthest thing from dusty academic-speak or arcane critic-speak. Sragow (also profiled in an earlier Platform) avoids the urge to dispense knee-jerk psychoanalysis, a smart move given his subject—whose films ranged from Mantrap (with Clara Bow) and Captains Courageous to The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind—was a self-educated, self-taught and self-confident fellow who used his mechanical acumen to break into motion pictures.

Fleming was born in Pasadena in 1899 to Missouri transplants who scratched out a living growing citrus. His father died when he was four, and his uncle raised the lad and his siblings. Fleming fell hard for autos at an early age, dreamed of becoming a racecar driver and became a good mechanic in his teens. He drove a cab in L.A. in the days before traffic lights, then landed a job as a chauffeur (the equivalent of being a private pilot today).

It was Fleming’s ability to handle and fix cameras that was his entree to the movie biz, and An American Movie Master etches a portrait of that electric time when ingenuity and personality were the most desirable qualities in Hollywood. (Ah, sweet nostalgia.) Although in time most film directors would come from the stage (or, much later, film schools), Fleming brought life experience as well as hands-on experience with the gear.

In 1916, after stints with Allan Dwan and D.W. Griffith, Fleming was appointed supervising cameraman of the Douglas Fairbanks Pictures Corporation, and just three years later made his solo directorial debut on the Fairbanks vehicle When the Clouds Roll By. (Fleming, incidentally, also got the college-educated mechanical engineer Howard Hawks his first job in the movies, building sets on the 1917 Fairbanks picture In Again-Out Again.)

Fleming rapidly developed into a man who instantly commanded respect on the set. He was a man’s man, who flew and hunted and had affairs with his actresses (Bow, Norma Shearer and, many years later when he’d been married several years, Ingrid Bergman), but he had a sensitive side that was rare among the macho men who filled Hollywood’s director’s chairs. (The gay George Cukor was another exception.)

Sragow’s great accomplishment in An American Movie Master is effortlessly weaving together the various film-book genres. His digressions to illuminate the careers and characters of Gary Cooper, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy are meaty and delicious, while the making-of chapters on The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind—big-budget, high-profile projects where Fleming was hired to replace the original director after production started—brim with well-chosen behind-the-scenes details that illuminate the bigger picture of Fleming as a fearless pro. Sragow also gives a strong sense of the dynamics of the studio system, while dropping in any number of contemporary references and critical assessments without slowing the narrative a whit.

Fleming ultimately comes across as a perfectionist who continually challenged and inspired cast and crew, and strove to plumb the essence of whatever material he worked on. Sragow, formerly the San Francisco Examiner critic and now with the Baltimore Sun, persuasively makes the case that Fleming—who died of a heart attack in 1949—was a major figure who cut a swath through Hollywood, but I’m still not convinced his body of work stands alongside that of John Ford or Howard Hawks.

No one will ever place John Sturges in the pantheon, but his Bad Day at Black Rock, The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape remain among the best-loved American genre movies of the ’50s and ’60s. Former San Jose Mercury News film critic Glenn Lovell, author of the soft-cover Escape Artist: The Life and Times of John Sturges (University of Wisconsin Press, 344 pp, $26.95), isn’t far behind Sragow in the daunting amount of research he did, and he has the advantage in that more of his subject’s contemporaries are still alive. That Lovell packs his book with quotes may be an admirable choice from a fidelity-to-scholarship point of view, but makes for a less reader-friendly narrative.

Sturges was born in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1910, and moved to Berkeley with his family in 1923 when his widowed mother inherited a good deal of money from her father. The strapping teenager attended Berkeley High, where he acted in school plays, and aspired to go to UCLA. But the crash and the Depression erased that dream, and he went to Marin Junior College (now called College of Marin) instead. He gravitated to the Arts Guild of Marin County, working as stage manager and director, before rejoining his family in Los Angeles.

Sturges’ first film job was inking blueprints at RKO—another example of a director whose start was made possible by a hands-on skill. He landed an apprenticeship as an editor (as did Robert Wise, who he worked alongside), where he learned the nails, bolts and egos of studio filmmaking. During World War II, he worked on training films and met director William Wyler; Sturges’ contribution to the documentary they made earned him a co-director credit, and a Wyler recommendation after the war.

Escape Artist
is recommended for those readers interested in the bruising battles required to make successful action pictures, and to survive as an independent producer-director within the studio system in the ’50s. The book serves as a blistering rebuttal to those who think that genre pictures require less creativity and ingenuity (there’s that word, again) than other types of films.

Both books expand our appreciation for eras when American movies prided themselves on innovation, energy, toughness, and emotion. Just as contemporary Hollywood films lack the courageous imagination of The Wizard of Oz or the deliberate urgency of Bad Day at Black Rock, it’s hard to imagine the current crop of Hollywood directors inspiring such colorful and engaging biographies as these.

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