Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master
by Michael Sragow
(Pantheon, 645 pages, $40)
Film director Victor Fleming was “a man’s man,” says critic Michael Sragow. Trained as a machinist and infatuated with motorcycles and fast cars, the rugged Californian became a quiet king of 20th-century Hollywood because male stars couldn’t help admiring him and female stars couldn’t resist his advances. In early 1939, he was called in to save Gone With the Wind just months after he’d done the same for The Wizard of Oz—a challenge that at one point prompted him to slap Judy Garland on the cheek to keep her from giggling through one of her scenes with the Cowardly Lion. Yet it’s no accident that even most classic-movie fans barely remember Fleming’s name, let alone his actual contributions. The director, says Sragow, wasn’t the kind of man interested in self-promotion.
Sragow’s deeply researched new appreciation of Fleming must be counted “among the best film-director biographies ever published,” said Peter Bogdanovich in The Wall Street Journal. Fleming doesn’t fit the genius stereotype: He “alternated between making solid pictures and ones that just didn’t work.” But his career epitomized the “anything-goes, haphazard quality of the early movie business,” and in Sragow’s telling he makes an “engaging, complex, and endearing” character.
Fleming’s contributions to American culture have lived long beyond him, said Walter Addiego in the San Francisco Chronicle. Starting in 1919, when he began a long collaboration with silent star Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Fleming helped shape the Hollywood ideal of masculinity, providing a model that the Clark Gables and Gary Coopers of the world would emulate. But it was a great actress, Ingrid Bergman, who proved his undoing, said Dennis Drabelle in The Washington Post. Though he’d had affairs with many stars before her, the much-younger Swede obviously “rattled him.” The second film he made with her, 1948’s Joan of Arc, went down as “one of Hollywood’s first mega-flops” and probably contributed to his death, at 59, in early 1949. Sixty years later, he finally has been awarded “the smart, sympathetic biography he deserves.”