By Michael Jarema, contributing writer
Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
One of the best-remembered lines from MGM’s 1939 Technicolor musical classic, The Wizard of Oz, would also work as a fitting epitaph for the film's director – Victor Fleming.
Anyone with an interest in American cinematic history can name at least a few great directors from Hollywood’s Golden Age (late-‘20s through the early-‘60s): Frank Capra, George Cukor, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Billy Wilder. These are some the names that come to mind.
But Victor Fleming is less well-known – this despite his having directed two of the best-loved films in the history of cinema: The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind.
An icon of American pop culture, The Wizard of Oz is easily the best-known and most commercially successful of the many stage, film and television adaptations of L. Frank Baum’s children’s fantasy book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Released on August 25, 1939, the film is remembered primarily for its pioneering use of Technicolor, as well as its score (including the now-standard “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”) and its cast – notably, Judy Garland in the lead role of Dorothy Gale, with Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr as Dorothy’s companions the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion.
With a production budget of $2.8 million ($51.6 million today), it was MGM’s most expensive production to-date. It wasn’t an immediate commercial success, earning just $3 million on its initial release, falling short of marketing and distribution costs.
But it became profitable on its 1949 re-release and MGM continued to make money on Oz when they sold the television rights, initially in 1956. On TV, it became a perennial favorite and has been regularly broadcast, cablecast and streamed to this day.
According to The New York Times1, the Library of Congress ranks The Wizard of Oz as the most-watched film in history.
Victor Fleming joined The Wizard of Oz team as the third of what would eventually be four directors. In a St. Louis Post-Dispatch2 article about the 1998 big-screen re-release of the film, Bob Thomas chronicled the succession:
Four directors worked on The Wizard of Oz. Richard Thorpe was fired after two weeks. George Cukor filled in for three days, then Victor Fleming directed for four months. When Fleming was summoned to replace George Cukor on "Gone with the Wind," King Vidor agreed to complete the final 10 days.
In the Hollywood studio system of the 1930s, this procession wasn’t as much an indicator of a troubled production as it would be today. It wasn’t unusual for a studio to assign their various contract directors to specific aspects of a film according to their talents. While it’s true there were problems on the Oz set and MGM wasn’t happy with Thorpe’s progress, Cukor was hired since he was known for working with women – an advantage on a film with a female lead.
Fleming’s talents were efficiency and workmanship, and he was brought in to direct the bulk of the film’s scenes that featured large numbers of actors, extras and dancers on large-scale, elaborate sets. Vidor wrapped up production by shooting the unfinished black-and-white/sepia scenes that took place outside the fantasyland, Oz.
On set, Fleming sometimes had his hands full with the actors portraying Dorothy’s three companions – all with vaudeville stage backgrounds – upstaging star, Judy Garland. Thomas quoted Garland from her ex-husband, Mickey Deans’ book, Weep No More, My Lady:
I was supposed to be up front with the three of them...but I always trailed after them because they managed to push me in the back. I was too scared to complain. But Victor Fleming, sitting on the boom, yelled, ‘Hey, you three dirty hams, let's have the little girl in there.'
Additionally, according Thomas, there were the actors and extras who portrayed “the Munchkins”:
124 little people – mostly recruited from the vaudeville act Singer's Midgets – proved to be a headache. They were housed in the Culver City Hotel, which became the site of sex orgies and drunken brawls. Almost nightly the police had to be called.
The Technicolor process created problems as well. The banks of huge arc lamps required for lighting created intense heat on the sets, greatly reducing possible shooting time with the heavily made-up and costumed actors – especially the trio of Dorothy’s companions. Even the seasoned Fleming was taxed. According to Smith:
The brutal eight-month period during which Fleming shot The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind back-to-back tested him to the limit, and Sragow acknowledges that he was occasionally uncharacteristically impatient and ill-tempered on the set.
Fleming had a brusque style of direction that reflected his workmanlike approach to the profession, which was inspired by his early experience. Prior to his birth in in 1889, Fleming’s parents migrated to California to work in the orange groves of Pasadena after, in what would be a twist of irony, their Midwestern home was blown away in a tornado. Fleming, who as a child developed an interest in the rapidly-developing world of engineering and machinery, quit school at 14 to work at times as a motor mechanic, machinist, cab driver, car racer and chauffeur.
In the latter role, he encountered pioneering movie director, Allan Dwan. Fleming got an unintentional start in the film industry when Dwan, recognizing Fleming's mechanical aptitude, put him to work tinkering with cameras. Fleming eventually became a cinematographer, and in that role came to the attention of the greatest action star of cinema’s Silent Age, Douglas Fairbanks. The two began a fifteen-year association, with Fairbanks becoming, per a 2008 New York Times article3, “a crucial influence on Fleming.”
Wendy Smith, in a Los Angeles Times4 review of columnist/film critic Michael Sragow’s 2008 biography, Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master, similarity described how Fleming and Fairbanks approached their shared medium:
By 1917, (Fleming) was a highly regarded cinematographer for Douglas Fairbanks, whose emphasis on physical action reinforced Fleming's understanding that motion pictures needed to move.
Following Fleming’s World War II commission as a film instructor for the military and cameraman for the Signal Corps, Fairbanks gave Fleming his first opportunity to direct. According to The New York Times the pair’s working relationship would have an enduring impact:
Their first film as star and director, When the Clouds Roll By (1919), was a fast-paced comic masterpiece full of joyous action, built to showcase the stardom of Fairbanks – characteristics that would come to define Fleming’s work.
Not much of a writer – Fleming left behind few correspondences or journals – Sragow dug up one descriptive sentence Fleming penned in 1939, the year he directed The Wizard of Oz, that summed up his career to-date: “In this business, action is the word.”
In the dozen years between 1919 and 1931, Fleming directed almost thirty films, many of them successful vehicles for the biggest stars of the day – Mantrap (1926) with Clara Bow, The Way of All Flesh (1928) with Emil Jannings, The Virginian (1929) with Gary Cooper, and others.
Fleming began his association with MGM in 1931. MGM was, according to The New York Times, “the right studio for Fleming, who understood movie stars. In their world of physical beauty, he was an equal.” The article described him as “handsome (not a pretty boy), tall (6-foot-2), sporting a full head of thick hair and an authentic tough-guy broken-nose profile, he exuded an aura of vigor and masculinity.”
Sragow said that by the end of the decade, Fleming was the director MGM “could trust with everything” – (their) “ruthlessly efficient fixer of faltering productions.” The biographer added:
He was the logical choice to take over two problematic MGM projects: The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind...In both cases Fleming had to “assume command of a formidably complicated and expensive production that had already started shooting.
When Fleming left to take over Gone with The Wind after the film’s original director George Cukor was fired over disagreements with producer David O. Selznick and star Clark Gable, King Vidor replaced him on the set of Oz for the final days of shooting.
Still, Fleming’s influence was felt on the set. Vidor followed Fleming’s storyboards and Fleming returned to the production to assist with the editing process. In the end, his contributions to the film were among the most remarkable. According to The New York Times, Fleming’s biographer noted that the director “(put) the ‘Oz’ into The Wizard of Oz.”
The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind both rank in the top ten of the American Film Institute’s 100 Years, 100 Movies5. The list was determined by a jury of 1,500 directors, producers, actors, critics and scholars, first in 1998 and updated in 2007.
Victor Fleming is the only director with two films in the list’s top ten.
Why then is Fleming not recognized to the same degree as so many of his contemporaries? Diane Scharper theorized on the subject in a 2008 article about Fleming for The Baltimore Sun6:
He was a director at a time when filmmaking was seen as a collaborative affair, and the studio received credit instead of the individual director. Fleming was not a self-promoter. His films were not about him. They were about creating art and making people believe in it. He did this by making films whose parts meshed together so seamlessly and realistically that there seemed to be no director controlling the strings, which unfairly eclipsed the man behind the efforts.
Scharper is correct in saying directors were as celebrated in the studio system as they are today. Contemporary film directors are largely auteurs with more creative freedom than their ‘30s counterparts.
But why then are other directors of the Golden Age remembered when Fleming is not? Philip French focused a theory on Fleming’s reputation within MGM, on his position of “troubleshooter” on the studio’s two great films of 1939.
He was the studio's safe pair of hands, the man who a couple of years later was proposed to Life magazine by America's most celebrated film critic, James Agee, as the perfect subject for a feature on "the reliable journeyman director".
Since their release, The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind have become two definitive examples of studio-system output of Hollywood’s Golden Age. In the 1930s, movies were, as Schaper suggested, more collaborative productions – with studios maintaining stables of talent and skilled tradespeople to craft their films.
And that’s how Fleming, ironically due to his role on his two best-remembered films, is thought of today – as a craftsman more so than the modern definition of a director as an auteur. Ultimately – to Fleming's loss – they’re remembered as MGM films, not Victor Fleming Films.
Michael Jarema is an Ypsilanti, Michigan-based writer, filmmaker, sometime-foodie, and full-time craft beer enthusiast. He regularly incorporates the latter when working on his current pet writing project – a graphic novel titled, I Kill Nazis with Dinosaurs.