American movie master Victor Fleming was born on February 23, 1889, in La Cañada, California. Despite being a son of dirt-poor parents who moved from the Midwest, he was able to rise from scratch and became responsible in directing the two greatest films of all times–The Wizard of Oz, which became a classic television hit, and Gone with the Wind.
During his film career, he was best remembered for bringing the magic of Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, and Judy Garland into the movie screen. He died on January 6, 1949, in Cottonwood, Arizona, due to a heart attack at the age of 60.
Fleming was raised by his parents in a California tent city before they migrated. When he was four years old, his father died while his mother remarried. At an early age, Fleming left school to earn a living.
Incidentally, the life story of his parents became instrumental in the narrative of The Gone with the Wind and the Wizard of Oz movies. The Oz had a scene of a tornado attack, the same as how Fleming’s house was also destroyed by a tornado.
His skills as auto and bicycle mechanic, driver, chauffeur, and racer led him to meet Allan Dwan, a famous movie director during their times.
Dwan hired him after Fleming helped repair his car. As a driver, his friendship with actor Marshall Neilan also catapulted him to the world of cinema.
In 1910, Fleming started as a camera repairman. He then joined the army in World War I.
He became a stuntman before he turned into being a cinematographer and director. He worked with Douglas Fairbanks, the star of the silent movie.
The Virginian (1929) movie became Fleming’s first road to film success. The movie also brought fame to actor Gary Cooper.
In the early 1930s, he continued his film career with movies like Red Dust, Bombshell, and Treasure Island.
His two renowned films The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind came out in 1939.
Interestingly, Fleming became a director of the two hit movies after replacing the two other directors in the said movies.
He replaced Richard Thorpe to direct The Wizard of Oz in 1938.
Before the film was finished, he was again asked to take over George Cukor in the filming of Gone with the Wind.
With his sheer determination and talent, he was able to transform the two troubled productions into top-billed cinemas.
However, Fleming’s luck in film waned in the 1940s. His movies during this period did not become as successful compared to his earlier films.
Only his film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1941 was the exception.
In 1948, Fleming’s production Joan of Arc became a financial disaster, leading to the end of his film career.
At the time of his death in 1949, Fleming was supposed to shoot the movie The Robe.
The misunderstood genius
Despite becoming the most sought-after director in the golden era of Hollywood, Fleming was denied the spotlight. Many looked at him as “underappreciated” and “one of the unsung titans of his era.”
He was also regarded as anti-Semitic. Ben Hecht, screenwriter and an ardent Zionist, called him “aloof and poetic.”
However, it took some 60 years for this brilliant director to reclaimed his rightful place in the grand halls of cinematography, courtesy of the breathtaking biography, Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master, by Michael Sragow.
Published in December 2008, the book painted a comprehensive story of Fleming’s talent and charisma as a film director.
The highlights of the book include Fleming’s super rapport with his stars in The Wizard of Oz: “When [Judy] Garland couldn’t stop breaking into giggles at the pseudomenacing advance of [Bert] Lahr’s Cowardly Lion, Fleming escorted her off the Yellow Brick Road, said, ‘Now darling, this is serious,’ slapped her on the cheek, then ordered, ‘Now go in there and work.’ It must have been one carefully calculated slap from a man with impressive upper-body strength who was also a master of the ‘corkscrew punch.’ … Apart from that smack, he stuck to his approach of treating young actors like adults — and the results could be startling.”
The book also narrated how Fleming was denied the spotlight in directing the movie Gone With the Wind, after he replaced George Cukor: “Most accounts of Gone With the Wind focus on everything [producer David O.] Selznick did before Fleming arrived … but rewrites continued during filming, and as [F. Scott] Fitzgerald wrote of Fleming for a 1939 lecture tour by [Sheilah] Graham: ‘[He was a] fine adaptable mechanism — which in the morning could direct the action of two thousand extras, and in the afternoon decided on the colors of the buttons of Clark Gable’s coat and the shadows on Vivien Leigh’s neck … Like all pictures, it had been a community enterprise … but the tensile strength of this great effort has been furnished by the director.'”