In Hollywood today, directors are generally considered the “authors” of their work (as famously spelled out in the “auteur theory” posited by French critics in the sixties), despite the fact that filmmaking is a hugely collaborative artform, with literally hundreds of people contributing to the creation (and then selling) of every motion picture. By the very nature of the title of this column, however, it’s clear that the concept of the auteur is very much a now noted one in the cinematic lexicon.
The director remains king, with the likes of Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino and so on afforded “rock star” status: the success or failure of their films rests on their shoulders, and they get the acclaim that that kind of relative danger inspires. In the early days of Hollywood, however, the landscape was completely different. In the pioneering thirties and forties, the studios set themselves up as minor serfdoms, and directors were seen largely as craftsmen – they were principally there to get a job done, and not to create pieces of art. Hollywood was a business, and directors were employed to keep it ticking it over.
Many of the filmmakers of this period (Michael Curtiz, John Ford, William Wyler et al) were tough, no-nonsense types as dictated by their job description, and one of the toughest of the lot was Victor Fleming. “Of all the men I’ve known,” said actress and one-time Fleming paramour Clara Bow, “there was a man.” Though he would eventually become a major Hollywood filmmaker with some of the biggest movies of all time under his belt, Fleming began his professional life in cars, working variously as a mechanic, taxi driver, chauffeur and race car driver. This led circuitously to the film business (he’d made valuable contacts while chauffeuring), where Fleming’s skills behind the wheel saw him grab work as a stunt driver.
Along with his facility for motor vehicles, Fleming had also developed an interest in cameras and photography, which he parlayed into a new career as a cinematographer. He shot many of the action adventure films for iconic star Douglas Fairbanks, and even the outbreak of war couldn’t halt the upward trajectory of Fleming’s career. He served as a cameraman in the US Signal Corps, and was US President Wilson’s personal cinematographer at the Versailles peace conference.
After WW1, Fleming was seen to have served his “apprenticeship”, and was signed to a directing contract by major studio Paramount. While directors today burst into the industry by writing a trailblazing script or making ads and music videos, in The Silent Era of the twenties, it was very much about paying your dues, and Fleming was seen to have done the expected hard yards. Obviously noting his tough guy past, Paramount largely tapped Fleming for action adventure pics and westerns, and he churned out a fistful of typically-of-the-era potboilers, with the obvious standouts being his adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim and the deliriously overheated Mantrap.
Fleming made his first major impression, however, with The Way Of All Flesh (now thought to be completely lost), which starred acclaimed German actor Emil Jannings. The film was nominated for Best Film at the 1927 Oscars, with Jannings picking up the inaugural Best Actor gong. In 1929, Fleming moved into the brave new world of talking pictures, and helmed The Virginian, a low key western most famous for its introduction of the legendary Gary Cooper as a laconic new leading man.
Fleming’s star continued to rise during the thirties, and he was responsible for a collection of strong, fast paced films, such as Red Dust (1932) and the impressive Bombshell (1933). Surprisingly ahead of its time, this tart, pithy screwball satire on the glitz and artifice of Hollywood stars the divine Jean Harlow as a screen goddess fighting against the negative press (in a prescient plot move, she even attempts to adopt a baby) spread by her studio publicist, who is secretly in love with her.
Fleming also delivered a very enjoyable take on the classic novel, Treasure Island (1934). Totally befitting Fleming’s undeniable facility for interpreting strong, adventure based literature for the big screen, this is a superior adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s rattling yarn about pirates and buried treasure, with Jackie Cooper and Wallace Beery superb as, respectively, young naïf Jim Hawkins and irascible rogue Long John Silver.
Working his wonders again with Captains Courageous in 1937, Fleming delivered another swashbuckling winner. In the first of five movies that Fleming directed starring the great Spencer Tracy, the gruff, charismatic star is brilliant (winning a deserved Best Actor Oscar) in this adaptation of the classic Rudyard Kipling tale as a noble Portuguese fisherman who provides a few life lessons to a toffy, upper class kid (Freddie Bartholomew).
The 1930s decade also saw the release of the two films that remain Fleming’s most famous: Gone With The Wind (1939) and The Wizard Of Oz (1939). Though fantasy was far from Victor Fleming’s most favoured genre, he effectively replaced George Cukor as the director of what stands as arguably the greatest family film of all time, a work so imaginative, enjoyable and utterly indelible that its place in cinema history cannot be denied. Fleming also replaced Cukor on the mighty Gone With The Wind. Along with the works of Cecil B. De Mille and D.W Griffiths, the famed (and now much debated) Civil War-set melodrama is the blueprint for epic Hollywood filmmaking.
Fleming’s controlled, no-nonsense approach may have seemed unusual for these lavish, florid projects, but he eventually brought both films under control after the floundering efforts of Cukor, while also providing each with a strong sense of visual flair. “Don’t get excited,” Fleming once famously said. “Obstacles make for a better picture.” He was obviously right: both films stand as towering classics of American cinema, but Fleming’s name is rarely mentioned when their praises are wildly sung.
Victor Fleming’s career headed downhill in the forties, however, and most of his films, with the exception of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1941), were deemed box office disappointments. He sadly ended his career with the troubled, overblown production Joan Of Arc (1948), starring Ingrid Bergman, which turned out to be a major critical and financial failure. For a stout, reliable Hollywood craftsman like Victor Fleming, it stands as a depressing and highly inappropriate capstone. Instead, let’s remember the good films of this tough, reliable Hollywood craftsman.
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Barbara Peeters, Robert Benton, Lynn Shelton, Tom Gries, Randa Haines, Leslie H. Martinson, Nancy Kelly, Paul Newman, Brett Haley, Lynne Ramsay, Vernon Zimmerman, Lisa Cholodenko, Robert Greenwald, Phyllida Lloyd, Milton Katselas, Karyn Kusama, Seijun Suzuki, Albert Pyun, Cherie Nowlan, Steve Binder, Jack Cardiff, Anne Fletcher, Bobcat Goldthwait, Donna Deitch, Frank Pierson, Ann Turner, Jerry Schatzberg, Antonia Bird, Jack Smight, Marielle Heller, James Glickenhaus, Euzhan Palcy, Bill L. Norton, Larysa Kondracki, Mel Stuart, Nanette Burstein, George Armitage, Mary Lambert, James Foley, Lewis John Carlino, Debra Granik, Taylor Sheridan, Laurie Collyer, Jay Roach, Barbara Kopple, John D. Hancock, Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.