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Speakeasy with Michael Sragow

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Director Victor Fleming is sometimes remembered as the most famous pinch-hitter of Hollywood’s Golden Age. He took over back-to-back directing duties on arguably the two greatest films of the studio era: The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. Baltimore Sun film critic and New Yorker contributor Michael Sragow has written a biography to rehabilitate the reputation of one of America’s most underrated directors, Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master. Sragow joins TCM’s Robert Osborne and author/critic Molly Haskell for lectures at the Margaret Mitchell House and the Atlanta History Center Sat., April 18, as part of the Atlanta Film Festival’s Gone with the Wind: A 70th Anniversary Celebration.

Do you have a favorite story about the making of Gone With the Wind?
Gone With the Wind was such a watershed, a pinnacle of Old Hollywood and a harbinger for a new Hollywood of these sound blockbusters that really hadn’t existed before. A lot of that new Hollywood really came from Old Hollywood and Victor Fleming. On the set, Fleming had humor and toughness even under great stress. One of the things that makes Clark Cable seem so relaxed in the movie, even though he knew the eyes of America would be on him, was the way that Fleming treated him, with a lot of practical jokes that came right out of the days of silent film.

When they were shooting the great scene where he lifts Scarlett O’Hara up the stairs of the mansion, they had to do four or five takes because of technical problems. Then Fleming said, “One more time!” and when Gable asked if they had to, Fleming said, “No, I really just wanted to see if you could do it.” That kind of byplay opens up what kind of movie Gone With the Wind was. I think it’s important to treat Gone With the Wind as a real film made by real people and not this icon.

When film historians write about Fleming, they tend to label him a “craftsman” kind of director, and not an “auteur” with a signature style and an attachment to abstract ideas. Would he have seen himself as an auteur?
It depends on how you define auteur. When the French used the word, it was because they found that by studying a strong director’s work, you could see what their strengths and concerns were. Now it’s used to suggest a director who says, “I’m going to make the ultimate statement about male-female relationships,” or something like that.

I think it’s dangerous not because it elevates what a director does, but it misunderstands what a director does, what Fleming did picture after picture. The fact that his films stand as self-contained works of art is a testament to his ability and range, not his limitations. People say, “He was just this supreme craftsman.” Just! I think it does a disservice to the contributions these filmmakers made to movies, especially Fleming.

Clark Gable, Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper all developed their screen personalities from working with Fleming. Fleming’s career began with great one- and two-reel silents, then sound features, and his first color films were The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. Directors make all these contributions in all these different areas. To reduce this to a vulgarized idea of what auteurs do is to reduce very good art into very bad philosophy.

Fleming took over The Wizard of Oz after it had begun, and did not direct the Kansas sequences. What did he bring to the film that might not have been there?
Things from beginning to end. He usually worked with screenwriter John Lee Mahin, and together they revamped the script, and made it much more directly a comic melodrama. They gave the cowardly lion a counterpart on the Kansas farm that he didn’t have. The yellow brick road wasn’t even made of identifiable yellow bricks — in early production shots you can see it had these ovals. Fleming gave it bricks and a curb. There would be no “Yellow Brick Road” song without Fleming. He realized that Dorothy would need a big send-off when she left Munchkinland. He made that film.

He didn’t shoot the Kansas scenes, which came afterward, but the idea that he doesn’t get credit is just unbelievable. I dare say he was the person on the Oz set who had been raised on a farm by an aunt and uncle, just like he was probably the only person on the Gone With the Wind set who had veterans from both sides of the Civil War on his family tree.

Were there any films by Fleming that you rediscovered or grew to appreciate while researching the book?
I can’t claim to have rediscovered them, but I really liked his first silent movies with Douglas Fairbanks, When the Clouds Roll By and The Mollycoddle. When the Clouds Roll By is going to be appreciated as this comic masterpiece. It has this great 10-minute opening scene, this incredible flight of fancy that’s seldom been equaled, which climaxes with Fairbanks doing a walk up a wall, across a ceiling and down a wall. What makes it more fun is the fact that it disperses the notion that [the fantasy of] The Wizard of Oz was a stretch for him, since he’d done this 20 years earlier.

When did you start as a film critic and how do you think film criticism will change?
Film criticism has already changed since I started doing it in 1969. I think there have been a lot of changes in the culture as a whole. There’s been a kind of complacency in the culture for some time. These [films] are reduced to hobbies instead of reflections of ways people live now or work now.

Graham Greene said that real escapism is great because it reflected what it’s escaping from. We’ve had decades where [film] wasn’t doing that, where it’s operating in a banal, time-killing way. If people start making movies about the times we live in, there may be a passionate, spirited discussion of film. I’m not as downbeat about the future of film criticism as I am about venues for film criticism, with the problems in the newspaper industry. But you can always find that there are many, many talented people writing about film. You just have to seek them out.

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