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Victor Fleming

An American Movie Master

Michael Sragow

Publication Year: 2013

Best remembered for the iconic classics Gone with the Wind (1939) and The Wizard of Oz (1939) to the silver screen, Victor Fleming also counted successful films such as Red Dust (1932), Captains Courageous (1937), Test Pilot (1939), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), and the groundbreaking Joan of Arc (1948) among his more than forty directing credits. One of the most sought-after directors in Hollywood's golden age, Fleming (1889--1949) was renowned for his ability to make films across a wide range of genres. In Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master, author Michael Sragow paints a comprehensive portrait of the talented and charismatic man who helped create enduring screen personas for stars such as Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Gary Cooper.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Series: Screen Classics

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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Introduction: The Real Rhett Butler

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pp. 3-10

A composite between an internal combustion engine hitting on alltwelve and a bear cub??that?s how a screenwriter once described thewhich enables those who possess it to feel more, understand more.?Known for his Svengali-like power and occasional brute force withactors and other collaborators, Fleming was also a generous, down-to-...

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1. Born in a Tent

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pp. 11-23

...working the camera for Douglas Fairbanks Sr., the actor and producerwho set the early-twentieth-century standard for all-American exuber-Westerns?frontier sagas such as The Man from Painted Post (1917) orcontemporary cowboy tales like Wild and Woolly (1917). Before Flem-ing entered the service in World War I, he may even have shot pieces of...

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2. Cars, Camera, Action!

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pp. 24-40

Victor Fleming is an American boy, born a Yankee and bred of staid, Yan-kee parents. He set out on a personally conducted tour to conquer the worldsome years ago, and he has succeeded in some respects. His mother wantedVictor to become President of the United States. Victor, in turn, didn?t,Early American adventure films and comedies had an infectious, antic...

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3. The Importance of Shooting Doug

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pp. 41-54

Fairbanks proved to be a crucial influence on Fleming, personally aswell as professionally. Fans knew him as ?Doug.? He was the epitomeof the self-created individual?F. Scott Fitzgerald?s Gatsby on a junglegym. He almost never spoke of his roots. With a swarthy complexionemphasized by a constant deep tan and gray-blue eyes sparkling under...

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4. In Manhattan for the Great War

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pp. 55-65

When the United States entered the Great War in April 1917, everyhealthy male between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-one antici-pated induction by autumn and then service in the field. The twenty-eight-year-old Fleming didn?t appreciate the bump it would put in hiscareer path; in what looks like an attempt to lower his chances of going...

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5. Filming the Conquering Hero: With Wilson in Europe

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pp. 66-74

...?No one in America, or in Europe either, knows my mind and I am notwilling to trust them to attempt to interpret it,? President Wilson saidin October 1917. So a year later he determined that only he shouldhead a delegation to sell European allies on his Fourteen Points?planks of a treaty for a just and lasting peace that would also serve as the...

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6. The Importance of Directing Doug

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pp. 75-85

Douglas Fairbanks Sr. was committed to exploring all the possibilitieslife?s meaning or lack of it one night at the summit of a large water tank.? ?Look!? said Douglas, fervently, making an arc gesture taking in allthe heavens. ?The moon! And those myriads of stars! Surely there mustbe a reason for all this beauty? It must be fulfilling some destiny!? ? In...

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7. Scaling Paramount Pictures

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pp. 86-98

...career might have stumbled like Ted Reed?s. Reed stayed a Fairbankscolleague for a decade. He became a full-fledged director with The Nut(1921), the last of Fairbanks?s modern comic adventures?in part, aChaplinesque satire of mechanical obsessions. But the success of TheMark of Zorro (1920) persuaded Fairbanks, after The Nut, to concen-...

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8. Courage and Clara Bow

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pp. 99-116

Bravery under stress was a natural theme for ?outdoor? directors, andas a man and a professional Fleming had a bone-deep feeling for it.He?d wandered into a profession that enabled him to turn one of hisruling appetites?voracity for action?into a creed. Physical braverywas integral to his sportsmanship. It also fed his yen for knockabout...

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9. A Lost Epic: The Rough Riders

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pp. 117-129

Fleming and Bow may have set the screen and the box office ablaze (ata cost of $216,584, Mantrap netted $415,600 in rentals), but exactlywhen their affair turned serious isn?t clear. In their few weeks betweenpictures back in Los Angeles, they followed separate tracks. Bow wasstill an outsider. Though Fleming was living not far from Bow?s Holly-...

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10. From The Way of All Flesh to Abie's Irish Rose

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pp. 130-144

...with $400,000 a year?and the rare guarantee that his films would beshot in sequential order, ?according to plot instead of according to theset-builders? convenience??B. P. Schulberg (Budd?s father) assignedFleming to Jannings?s first American production, The Way of All Flesh(1927). Schulberg reckoned that one outsized personality demanded...

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11. Creating Gary Cooper

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pp. 145-158

Paramount?s ?first all-sound picture? from the hit show Burlesque, withNancy Carroll signed for the role Barbara Stanwyck created on Broad-way as the long-suffering mate of a drunken dancer. Fleming left thepicture because the studio delayed production, reluctant to cast thestage lead, Hal Skelly. Two months later, Fleming heard Paramount...

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12. A Woman's Film and a Man's Adventure at Fox

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pp. 159-175

In 1927, six months after the spectacular success of Mantrap, Para-mount raised Fleming from $1,750a week to $2,000.But in the imme-diate wake of the sound revolution, the studio had neglected Flemingand other seasoned pros. His long-term contract expired before heshot Wolf Song and The Virginian. One Paramount producer who rec-...

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13. Guiding Gable in Red Dust

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pp. 176-196

...of his professional life. MGM delivered a letter of agreement for himto direct ?one photoplay? within a seventeen-week period for a salaryshowered him with fifteen scripts.) For most of the 1930s, similar noteswould fly back and forth between Vic?s lawyers and the studio, becauseoral history project at Columbia University, the producer Pandro S....

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14. Pioneering the Screwball Comedy: Jean Harlow in Bombshell

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pp. 197-209

While Lu Rosson was signing property agreements before her divorcefrom Arthur Rosson, Fleming was giving interviews about his new ver-sion of The White Sister, long slated for Helen Hayes and now featuringGable. Fleming said that when it came to remakes, what mattered was?the original idea?: in this case, turning an aristocratic virgin, an Italian...

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15. Treasure Island

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pp. 210-219

While Fleming was making his next picture, the quintessential pirateadventure, Treasure Island, Hollywood was going through an abruptbetween the Catholic Church and Hollywood?s Jewish moguls. In a let-ter to Father Wilfrid Parsons (the editor of America), he called the stu-dios? Jewish leadership ?probably, the scum of the earth.? When Breen...

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16. Introducting Henry Fonda, Farewell to Jean Harlow

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pp. 220-229

A fan of Fleming?s since Vic?s Paramount days, David O. Selznick wasin the middle of his brief but spectacular producing stint at MGM,designed, said his father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer, to take pressure offthe ailing Irving Thalberg, who suffered from a bad heart. Under vari-ous working titles, including Salute, There Goes Romance, and A Woman...

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17. Bagging Game on Safari, Losing The Good Earth

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pp. 230-234

While Scribner?s magazine serialized Ernest Hemingway?s nonfictionnovel about a safari, Green Hills of Africa, from May through August in1935,Fleming was experiencing the real thing in the same terrain.cluding his most famous proclamation: ?All modern American litera-ture comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.?...

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18. Spencer Tracy and Captains Courageous

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pp. 235-255

No matter how odd the circumstances of Lu?s pregnancy, the delightFleming took in parenting surpassed the disappointments of forfeitingThe Good Earth and They Gave Him a Gun, an antiwar adventure set tostar Spencer Tracy. (Mayer had lured Tracy from Fox with a promise ofleading roles.) Victoria turned one as Fleming was recuperating. A few...

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19. Test Pilot

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pp. 256-269

During all the tumult, illness, and complications of Captains Coura-geous, Vic and Lu conceived a second child. ?The stork will stalk theVictor Flemings in February,? the Los Angeles Times announced onDecember 23,1936,and their new daughter was born on February 16.But settling on a name took months. ?They?re still trying names on the...

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20. Salvaging The Great Waltz

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pp. 270-281

In April 1938, the Hollywood Reporter mentioned that Fleming ?almostcracked up in his own cabin plane, a few days after Test Pilot traderaves.? Nothing else seemingly went wrong for Fleming in the springof 1938.Test Pilot and Warner Bros.? Adventures of Robin Hood were theonly new hits packing theaters; throughout the first half of the year,...

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21. Putting Oz into The Wizard of Oz

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pp. 282-315

The spate of work Fleming did in the late 1930s drained his resilienceand on occasion nearly cost him his sanity. But it also sparked his tal-ents and elevated his stature as both an artist and a Hollywood profes-sional. Sometimes directors, like actors, take on aspects of theirgreatest creations. Francis Ford Coppola was never more of a film-...

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22. Saving Tara and Gone With the Wind

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pp. 316-355

...imperfect union at the core of Gone With the Wind. If The Wizard of Ozcrystallized Fleming?s feelings for the resilience of children, Gone Withthe Wind drew out his understanding of the traumas of matrimony. TheCivil War and the destruction of antebellum Georgia provide the filmwith its breadth?at its widest reach the movie is about how people...

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23. Dr.. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

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pp. 356-374

Before Fleming did his epic salvaging of The Wizard of Oz and GoneWith the Wind, he and Spencer Tracy, still flush with the success oftheir partnership on Captains Courageous and Test Pilot, planned onteaming up for an adaptation of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings?s superbnovel The Yearling. After Gone With the Wind was finished, Fleming and...

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24. The Yearling That Wasn't

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pp. 375-384

While Fleming was wrestling with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, prepara-tions for The Yearling were stumbling ahead. Fleming had juggled proj-ects before, with Red Dust and The White Sister. But The Yearling wouldultimately stymie him. The Yearling would eventually be made not byFleming but by Clarence Brown, starring not Tracy but Gregory Peck....

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25. Bonhomie in Bel-Air and Tortilla Flat

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pp. 385-400

Any MGM executive thinking The Yearling had extinguished Fleming?sfire would soon change his mind. For three days in August, Flemingconsulted with Eddie Mannix on the studio?s attempt to keep the proj-ect going, then took off for a two-month vacation. While he was away,reports filled the entertainment wires of him and Hawks co-directing...

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26. World War II with Tears: A Guy Named Joe

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pp. 401-424

Before his death in 1936, Billy Mitchell, one of America?s aviationheroes, had been predicting a Japanese air assault on the Americanfleet. The aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7,1941, brought Fleming some embarrassment along with the same fearof an impending assault on Southern California shared by everyone...

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27. A Confounding Political Life

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pp. 425-435

George Sidney, who knew Fleming only in studio settings, said, ?I can?ttell you if he was Democratic or Republican!? Others assumed that hewas conservative because he befriended men like the strident right-irreverence to the political turmoil of his day: Joseph L. Mankiewiczrecalled him laying down bets in 1940that Great Britain would tumble...

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28. One Last Adventure at MGM

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pp. 436-445

...betrayed him as a great star in need of great filmmakers. Upon hisreturn from duty overseas, he became the featured speaker at an MPAwrote a dunderheaded speech for him, which Gable dutifully read. ?Ithas been said that there are no atheists in foxholes. There were nocommunists either in the foxholes where I was,? said Gable. ?The boys...

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29. Ingrid Bergman and Joan of Arc

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pp. 446-489

The making of Fleming?s last picture, Joan of Arc, became one of thosebehind-the-scene sagas far more fascinating than the finished film, likethe productions of Cleopatra or Apocalypse Now or Heaven?s Gate. Itwould span a decade and a half of creative flirtations, turbulent loverenowned playwright, Maxwell Anderson; a towering director, Flem-...

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30. Death in the Desert

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pp. 490-500

Fleming had declared that he wanted to be a director of epics ever sincethe late 1920s. But Joan of Arc, his one independent foray into epic ter-ritory, was a creative debacle. Time?s movie column, generally sympa-thetic to him, said the heroine ?becomes a lifeless symbol in a pageant.?RKO found no better way of promoting the film than as a pageant. The...

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Afterword: A Great American Movie Director

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pp. 501-506

...business,? Arthur Freed said in 1974. More than twenty years later,Todd McCarthy conjectured in Variety that a biography of Victor Flem-ing would be ?highly unlikely? because he left no extensive letters ormemoirs and had not ?given lengthy interviews or been prone to undueself-promotion.? As McCarthy observed, ?The modern reputations of...

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pp. 507-514

Individuals whom I interviewed or corresponded with: Evangela Ander-son, Dorothy Barrett, Rex Bell Jr., Alain Bernheim, Lennie Bluett,Rand Brooks, Kevin Brownlow, June Caldwell, James Cameron, KeithCarradine, Cammie King Conlon, Jeff Corey, Charles Cotton, ThomasCripps, Jules Dassin, Cecilia DeMille, Andr? de Toth, Ruth Duccini,...


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pp. 515-580


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pp. 581-596


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pp. 597-612


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pp. 613-645

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pp. 646-652

...342, line 4 (possibly from Pickfair days) (he dated Lu?s daughter Helene ...

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About the Series, Other Works in the Series

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pp. 653-654

Screen Classics is a series of critical biographies, film histories, and analyti-cal studies focusing on neglected filmmakers and important screen artists and subjects, from the era of silent cinema to the golden age of Hollywood to the international generation of today. Books in the Screen Classics series are in-tended for scholars and general readers alike. The contributing authors are es-...

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Image Plates

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pp. 664-695

...(left) Starting out in California: Victor Fleming?s parents, Lon and Eva, in Pasadena,1891. (right) Eva and her second husband, Sid Deacon, early 1920s. Srag_9780375407482_ins_001_r6.qxp:Layout 1 10/21/08 9:23 AM Page 1(top) Fleming in Santa Barbara, 1912. (bottom) Fleming is in the passengerseat of this camera car (year unknown), but his first goal in life was to...

E-ISBN-13: 9780813144436
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813144412

Page Count: 694
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Screen Classics