Best known for directing two of the most celebrated films in cinematic history, both in 1939: The Wizard of Oz, and Gone with the Wind. He holds the distinction of being the only film director to have two films listed in the top 10 of the American Film Institute’s 2007 AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies list.
How exactly does one direct two of the most popular and beloved and critically acclaimed films of all time — in the same year — and still work it so that nobody knows your name? Consider the case of Victor Fleming.
He’d probably tell you that when you’re working for producer David O. Selznick, it’s a Selznick picture — particularly when it’s “Gone with the Wind“. Besides, Fleming was brought in as a replacement director because his pal Clark Gable wouldn’t even speak with the director George Cukor.
Ironically, too, he was Cukor’s replacement on “Wizard of Oz“, but didn’t finish that film because he was needed on GWTW. Fleming, though, is the only credited director on either film, and the one who walked away with the Oscar in 1939, when The Wind blew away at least a dozen of the finest films ever made and totaled up ten Academy Awards.
In 1939, directors were not above the title. Victor Fleming was an MGM contract director, a regular Joe, a professional craftsman, the go-to guy when you’re in a fix. A family man (he agreed to take on the troubled production of “Oz” for his kids), Fleming seems to have escaped the volumes of lore still swirling around the two epics he helped bring to the screen.
A professional race-car driver and mechanic, he started in the film business as a stunt driver. He became an assistant for D.W. Griffith and started his directing career with Douglas Fairbanks Sr. on “When the Clouds Roll By” in 1919. Born in Pasadena in 1889, Fleming was a real Westerner. His first big hit was “The Virginian” in 1929, which was also Gary Cooper’s first big hit. During the ’30s, Victor succeeded with several Westerns and Adventures, such as “Red Dust”, (1932) and “Treasure Island” (1934), and got a reputation as a man’s man and a man’s director. (This was a guy who gave Gable and Gary Cooper macho lessons.)
But, Victor Fleming was also a ladies man and a ladies director. The “It Girl”, Clara Bow, was in love with him, as was Norma Shearer and Ingrid Bergman. Vivian Leigh’s Scarlett is still one of the most mesmerizing characters in film. And though her accent is preposterous in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, Bergman is stunningly emotive.
Fleming died in 1949, only ten years after his triumphant Year of the Classics. “Dr. Jekyll” was his only success in his last decade. Though other earlier films are appreciated by cinephiles, they would, of course, pale in comparison to the two “ghost-directed” ones.
He worked for a studio that maintained that its only star was “Leo the Lion”. Victor was a frequent companion of, a lover of, and admired by stars whose immortality would far eclipse his own. Fleming probably realized it at the time, but just shrugged his big shoulders, and got down to the business at hand.
— Nate Lee