The Real Rhett Butler
A composite between an internal combustion engine hitting on all twelve and a bear cub”—that’s how a screenwriter once described the movie director Victor Fleming. An MGM in-house interviewer discerned that he had “the Lincoln type of melancholia—a brooding which enables those who possess it to feel more, understand more.” Known for his Svengali-like power and occasional brute force with actors and other collaborators, Fleming was also a generous, down-toearth family man, even in a sometimes-unfathomable marriage. He was a stand-up guy to male and female friends alike—including ex-lovers. He was a man’s man who loved going on safari but could also enjoy dressing as Jack to a female screenwriter’s Jill for a Marion Davies costume party. After he married Lucile Rosson and fathered two daughters, he reserved most of his social life for the Sunday-morning motorcycle gang known as the Moraga Spit and Polish Club. His ambition in the early days of automobiles to become a racetrack champ in the audacious, button-popping Barney Oldfield mold grew into a legend that he’d really been a professional race-car driver. (Well, he had, but just for one race.) He was one of Hollywood’s premier amateur aviators. Studio bosses trusted him to deliver the goods; many stars and writers loved him.
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 sixtieth 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 the 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.
In 1939, the MGM publicist Teet Carle, trying to sell Fleming as a subject for feature stories, noted how remarkable it was, even in what we now consider the golden age of Hollywood, for a director to be “a man like Fleming who has really lived through experiences.” Moviemakers like Fleming, who came of age in the silent era, forged their characters beyond camera range. Andrew Solt, the co-writer of Fleming’s disastrous final picture, Joan of Arc (1948), told his nephew Andrew Solt, the documentary maker (Imagine), “Victor Fleming’s story is the perfect Hollywood story, from A to Z; it represents the picture business of his time better than anyone else’s.” What the elder Solt meant, of course, was that Fleming’s story wasn’t merely about the picture business—it was about what men like Fleming brought into the picture business.
Fleming was born on February 23, 1889, in the orange groves of Southern California, and became an auto mechanic, taxi driver, and chauffeur at a time when cars were luxury items and their operators elite specialists. During World War I, he served as an instructor and creator of military training films as well as a Signal Corps cameraman, and after it, Woodrow Wilson’s personal cameraman on his triumphant tour of European capitals before the beginning of the Versailles peace conference. Fleming became a friend to explorers, naturalists, race-car drivers, aviators, inventors, and hunters. His life and work are the stuff not just of Hollywood lore but also of American history. It may seem puzzling that he hasn’t inspired a full-length biography until now. But he left no paper trail of letters or diaries, and he died on January 6, 1949, before directors had become national celebrities and objects of idolatry.
Long before sound came into the movies, Fleming had mastered his trade, directing Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in two ace contemporary comedies, When the Clouds Roll By (1919) and The Mollycoddle (1920). Fleming was part of the team that perfected Fairbanks’s persona as the cheerful American man of action, deriving mental and physical health from blood, sweat, and laughs in the open air. The director and the international phenomenon were friends from Fleming’s early days as a cameraman and Fairbanks’s as a star. They became merry pranksters on a global scale, whether hanging by their fingers from hurtling railroad cars or turning a round-the-world tour into one of the first full-scale mockumentaries (Around the World in Eighty Minutes). Fleming forever credited Fairbanks with establishing action as the essence of motion pictures. Fairbanks also set his pal an example of the art of selfcreation. The son of a New York attorney who abandoned Douglas’s family in Denver when the boy was five, Fairbanks turned himself into a model of dash and vim. Fleming was born in a tent; his father died in an orange orchard when he was four. But he metamorphosed from a Southern California country boy into a Hollywood powerhouse known for mysterious poetic talent, a courtly yet emotionally and sexually charged way with women, and a macho sagacity that spurred the respect and fellowship of men.
Many of Fleming’s silent pictures boast a prickly, evergreen freshness that emanates from their spirit of discovery. He designed his Fairbanks
films as if they were pop-up toys, playing with special effects, animation, and the audience’s knowledge of Fairbanks as a movie star. (Later, he brought some of that modernism into Bombshell and parts of The Wizard of Oz.) He became a household name in Hollywood. When the author of What Makes Sammy Run? and screenwriter of On the Waterfront, Budd Schulberg, and his boyhood pal Maurice Rapf played at being studio executives like their fathers (B. P. Schulberg and Harry Rapf), Maurice would name King Vidor his prize director, and Budd would counter with Vic Fleming.
That other underrated director, Henry Hathaway (The Lives of a Bengal Lancer), who trained with Fleming, once declared, without reservation, “Clark Gable on the screen is Fleming . . . He dressed like him, talked like him, stood like him, his attitude was the same toward women. He was funny.” But Hathaway hit closer to the truth when he said, “Every man that ever worked for him patterned himself after him. Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, all of them. He had a strong personality, not to the point of imposing himself on anyone, but just forceful and masculine.”
Among the stars of the major studios’ heyday, Gable was the charismatic cock of the walk; Gary Cooper, the natural aristocrat; Tracy, the grudgingly articulate Everyman. Fleming shaped each man’s legacy. Seven years before Gone With the Wind, Gable broke through as the hero of Fleming’s Red Dust (1932); its screenwriter, John Lee Mahin, Fleming’s close friend and collaborator, evoked the director in the character’s brusque authority, technical savvy, rough-edged humor, and lodestone sexuality. Gable was a projection of the Fleming who, on meeting the Olympic swimmer Eleanor Saville in 1932 at the Ambassador Hotel, genially snapped, “Nice legs, sister!” (And that’s all he said.)
A few years before Fleming partnered with Gable, he turned Gary Cooper into the paradigm of a chivalrous cowboy in The Virginian. Cooper became known as “the strong, silent type” less because he was silent (the Virginian is a joker and a genial if haphazard conversationalist) than because his banked intuition made every syllable count, gave richness to each casual gesture and weight to every decisive one. Cooper was the Vic who knew how few words it took to express emotion. When the producer of The Virginian, Louis “Bud” Lighton, wired Fleming that Lighton’s mother had died, he wired back, simply,
A few years after Fleming partnered with Gable, he forged a bond with Spencer Tracy that won Tracy the best actor Academy Award for Captains Courageous (1937). “He is probably the only guy in the world who really understands me,” Fleming said. “We’re alike: bursting with emotions we cannot express; depressed all the time because we feel we could have done our work better.” In Captains Courageous and other films, like Test Pilot (1938, co-starring Gable), Fleming and Tracy succeeded in creating characters who conveyed, physically and facially, more knotted-up notions and feelings than they could put across in words. “Fleming was quite inarticulate in explaining something to an actor, but he had such a way of getting around his inarticulateness that the actor would get it just like that,” said the Paramount propman William Kaplan, snapping his fingers.
With Gable, Cooper, and Tracy, Fleming mined some of the same territory as Hemingway and his creative progeny. The stars he helped create have never stopped hovering over the heads of Hollywood actors, who still try to emulate their careers, or of American men in general, who still try to live up to their examples. The director’s combination of gritty nobility and erotic frankness and his ability to mix action and rumination helped mint a new composite image for the American male. Fleming’s big-screen alter egos melded nineteenthcentury beliefs in individual strength and family with twentiethcentury appetites for sex, speed, and inner and outer exploration. His heroes were unpretentious, direct, and honest, though not sloppily self-revealing.
To Olivia de Havilland, “Vic was attractive because he was intelligent, talented, handsomely built, and virile in a non-aggressive way. He was also sensitive. A potent combination.”
“Every dame he ever worked with fell on her ass for him,” said Hathaway, naming “Norma Shearer. Clara Bow. Ingrid Bergman.” (He could have added Bessie Love and Lupe Velez.) Fleming helped turn Shearer and Bow into stars, and became the first director to bring out Bergman’s full sexuality, in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. From the start, he was as much a woman’s director as a man’s director. Fleming and Bow’s collaboration in Mantrap (1926) has won belated recognition as groundbreaking comedy. Bow’s embodiment of guilt-free sexual energy exploded stereotypes of the vamp and the girl next door and made clear to everyone that she had “It.” (She didn’t actually make the movie It until a year later.)
Much of Fleming’s attractiveness came from his vigor. He kept revitalizing himself away from movies with an anti-Hollywood home life and round-the-world travel and hunting. With his six-foot-twoinch frame and broken-nose profile and eyes that could narrow to slits and intensify humor or emotion, he looked as if he could handle himself on and off the movie set. Actors felt energized by the sight of this tall, powerfully built figure reflexively brushing back his mane and training a sharpshooter’s vision on their performances and on all the workings of the set. Craftsmen felt secure serving a director who could correct errors on the run, from lax ad-libs to skewed camera angles or faulty props. The cinematographer Harold Rosson, who collaborated with everyone from René Clair to John Huston, said, “Victor Fleming knew as much about the making of pictures as any man I’ve ever known—all departments.” And Fleming kept growing and extending his versatility for decades. To Hathaway, who worked with Fleming mostly during the silent era, “Fleming was the realist.” If a story was set in a certain place, “he wanted to go where it said it was made.” When talkies took over, Fleming was able to move indoors when necessary. He re-created Indochina in a studio for Red Dust and reveled in artifice on the most beloved flight of fancy of them all: The Wizard of Oz. This director knew how much visual detail an audience needed to make illusions feel real, and how much had to be contained in one shot. In that sense he was the Lucas or Spielberg of his day.
He was also the Sydney Pollack of his day. Male and female stars alike, Judy Garland as well as Gable, de Havilland and Bow as well as Cooper and Tracy, delivered, simultaneously, their boldest and most characteristic performances in Fleming’s movies. Unlike the stagetrained directors who invaded Hollywood in the sound era, Fleming had no set vocabulary to communicate with his actors. He relied on every ounce of his own being, expressing in face, tone, and body language the desired pitch of a performance and the impact he wanted for a comic or dramatic situation. To the sophisticated producer David Lewis, who watched Fleming film The Virginian, “he had an inner power that made him almost hypnotic.”
Fleming had the emotional advantage of being a Californian and an outdoorsman in an industry dominated by transplanted urban Easterners.In his book The Industry (1981), the producer Saul David characterizeddirectors of Fleming’s stripe as “The Old-Time Wild Men”:
They are intensely physical men who make physical movies in a physical world. Strength is their religion, endurance their pride, and alcohol their undoing. They are clannish and contemptuous of everything most of the world thinks is moviemaking. They are boorish and overbearing, tend to vote “wrong” and use socially unacceptable epithets in public. They are an unutterable pain to the Hollywood New Yorkers and a boon to caricaturists—but no one has yet figured out how to make big outdoor movies as well as they do without them.
What gave Fleming special sway in Hollywood was that he was an Old-Time Wild Man who could also be elegant, intelligent, and at ease indoors. (And he knew how to handle his alcohol.) Going through a roster of gifted directors who’d bridged silent films and talkies, the cult silent star Louise Brooks listed “Eddie Sutherland, the gay sophisticate; Clarence Brown, the serious repressed; Billy Wellman, the ordinary vulgar. Fleming combined all of them with a much finer intellect.” Fleming didn’t actively cultivate the Old-Time Wild Man image—he never enlisted a publicist to increase his visibility. Then again, he didn’t have to. When colorful fables clung to him like barnacles—even Mahin said “he was part Indian, and proud of it”—Fleming did nothing to scrape them off. Not only were his movies successful and acclaimed, but with female stars as different as Shearer and Bow falling hard for him, and male stars copying him, his personal reputation was stratospheric.
“He was always the biggest star on his sets,” said the MGM publicist Emily Torchia. “You could tell that by the attitude of the people who were there around him—he was very well appreciated,” says the former MGM child star John Sheffield (“Boy” in the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies). In her book on MGM, This Was Hollywood (1960), Beth Day observed, “Tall, silver-haired director Victor Fleming was privately considered by many feminine employees ‘the handsomest man on the lot’ ” and drew as much attention at the commissary as the man everyone knew as the King—Gable. Fairbanks had been billed as the King of Hollywood, too. But throughout his career, Fleming didn’t just serve Hollywood royals: he put them on their thrones. When he guided fresh young talents, he saw them whole and inside out, tapping
qualities that turned them into new American archetypes.
When talkies ruled and production boomed and the Hollywood studios became dream factories, fellows like Fleming and his favorite writers ( Jules Furthman, Mahin) developed the special seen and spoken language of “golden age” sound movies. This audiovisual dialect of expressive actors punching across snappy or suggestive talk in the molded light of a square frame was intensely stylized. It was also unabashedly emotional and sometimes cunningly erotic, even after the enforcement of the Production Code made explicit lovemaking verboten. Vintage Hollywood styles often felt more real than the slangy, jittery realism of today because the characters were substantial enough to cast long shadows and special effects didn’t swamp their crises and predicaments.
If he’d died before directing The Wizard of Oz and most of Gone With the Wind (in the same year) instead of a decade afterward, Victor Fleming would remain an outsized figure in American culture. The Virginian was a Western milestone as influential as John Ford’s Stagecoach. Red Dust was a classic sexual melodrama, fierce and funny—the peak of Hollywood’s few-holds-barred approach to sex before the enforcement of the Production Code. Bombshell predates Howard Hawks’s Twentieth Century (1934) as the seminal showbiz screwball comedy. Captains Courageous proved that movies without sex appeal could be smash hits and that something non-mawkish could be fashioned from tales of surrogate fathers and sons. And Test Pilot, an incisive look at what happens to flying partners when one gets married, brought the first wave of sound-film buddy pictures to a resounding culmination. Fleming’s daring matched his taste, tact, and craft. He frequently demonstrated that free adaptations of beloved novels could both honor their sources and become their own enduring works of art and entertainment. When Hathaway, Tracy, Gable, and others called Fleming the real Rhett Butler, they were referring not only to manner but also to mind. Rhett and Fleming shared the cynic-idealist’s ability to rise to a challenge realistically and, with competence and wiliness, achieve a tough nobility. From Fleming’s day to our own, American directors who navigate the whirlpools of movie-industry politics often generate denser moral and emotional environments in their films than the wanly virtuous
or frivolous worlds too often found in independent fare. Fleming’s artistry lay in the way he molded other men’s material. What’s extraordinary about his work is how often he fully realized or even transcended that material, not how often it defeated him. What’s extraordinary about his life is that he filled it with as much passion and adventure as he did his movies.
Excerpted from Victor Fleming by Michael Sragow. Copyright © 2008 by Michael Sragow. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.