Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Victor Fleming: Did the Auteurist Theory Do Him Wrong?

You must... you simply must set aside ten minutes today to read this terrific piece at The New Yorker on Victor Fleming and 1930s Hollywood. It digs into Fleming's heavily debated contributions to the twin immortals of 1939 (Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz -- he was a replacement director on both) and what it unearths is fascinating, indeed. Frankly my dears, I gave a damn... several damns if you're counting.

<-- Clara Bow on Fleming: "Of all the men I've known, there was a man."

For instance, I knew that Vivien Leigh didn't like Fleming and was angry that George Cukor who worked with her closely on her performance was fired. But I had no idea how complex and influential Fleming's relationships to Hollywood's top actors (Gable prominent among them) and actresses actually were (nor what an actressexual -- ok womanizer but we're splitting hairs here -- Fleming was. He had affairs with Clara Bow, Norma Shearer, Lupe Velez and Ingrid Bergman among others). This is but one of many quotes worth sharing.
"Despite his later reputation as a ‘man’s director,’ ” Sragow says, “Fleming launched or cannily revamped a host of female stars from the 1920s on.” The hot-wired Bow did her sexiest, best work for him, in “Mantrap” (1926), and he got sensationally funny performances out of Jean Harlow in “Red Dust,” “Bombshell” (1933), and “Reckless” (1935). The sacred male companionships of seventy years ago did not have the effect of downgrading women—anything but. Fleming, along with his friend Hawks, created women onscreen who were resourceful, strong-willed, and sexual—the kind of women they wanted to hang out with, partners and equals who gave as good as they got. For a while, they, too, were an American ideal.
Selznick, Fleming, Leigh & Gable on the contentious Gone With the Wind set

Gone With the Wind gets the most time in the article. It's a great read and now I think I'll have to look into Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master as well since this essay references that work frequently.

7 comments:

adelutza said...

I often wonder if any director will ever have the courage to remake Gone With the Wind . Not that it needs a remake, really. But wouldn't it be fun? And more important , what actress would really have the courage to play Scarlett?

Kelsy said...

I don't even think Vivian Leigh pulled off that great of a Scarlett (at least how I read the book), but her performance is classic. My biggest concern would be who would play Rhett? I think Clark Gable was just perfect in that caddish role.

Moviezzz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jose said...

This article made me wonder two things: first who would've played Olivia de Havilland in "The Aviator" and the second was more of a point of view dilemma.
As the author points out the auterists looked for patterns in a director's filmography to call him auteur. And that makes sense.
But I don't remember what movie director, scholar or author (am thinking Eliza Kazan, Orson Welles or Slavoj Zizek...) once said that leitmotifs in a filmography are signs of laziness and don't mean tat the director is any good, just that he can't come up with better or fresher things.
That also makes some sense. So I'm trying to figure out if "style" is a good thing at all.
With that said, it's true and I've found some true masterpieces were done by studio "bulk" directors.
Great piece! Thanks for pointing us to it Nate.

James Hansen said...

Just to toss around my anti-auteur nature here, I think its even harder to make an "auteur" case for films during the studio system as they are manufactured from the ground up by the studios and producers. If anything, it proves that there are constantly other influences that would make the auteur "theory" (although there's actually no strictly theoretical base...its really just based on an idea, not a "theory" really). Auteur theory got popular when vaguely independent cinema started once the French New Wave got rolling (read: Cahier and Sarris writing, etc.) I've got no problem looking at directors as key contributors, and yes the most important influence, bu authorship implies something quite different and much more individual. All the same, it can be useful to look back at the era and apply new theories, so I've said all this to say this is a good article and I like it. And I like directors. Whoo hoo.

Jose- Not sure who said what you're asking about, but pretty sure it wasn't Zizek. He loves manic obsessions returning film after film. Truffaut, however, said directors only ever make one movie. They just do the same movie in different ways. And (voila!) so the auteur theory goes.

Michael said...

"But I don't remember what movie director, scholar or author (am thinking Eliza Kazan, Orson Welles or Slavoj Zizek...) once said that leitmotifs in a filmography are signs of laziness and don't mean tat the director is any good, just that he can't come up with better or fresher things."

It wasn't quite that wording, but I'm pretty sure it pops up in Welles's conversations with Bogdanovich.

Brian said...

The book is terrific. In addition, having just run through the Flicker Alley DVD set of Douglas Fairbanks films, I have to say my favorites are the ones Fleming directed: the Mollycoddle and especially When Clouds Roll By.