Wednesday, December 07, 2011

The latest Oz reading

I finally got around to reading Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master over the past few weeks. Yes, my non-reading life has been busy, and this is one big book. But that's fitting for a larger-than-life subject like Fleming. Of course I knew he directed Gone with the Wind and some other movie that also came out that same year, but this book really put that in perspective, and 1939 was just a small part of his career. He started off as a cameraman and cinematographer in the very early days of Hollywood, then was drafted into the army during World War I. He pioneered the use of film in gathering intelligence, then was selected to be Woodrow Wilson's cameraman during the Paris peace talks. After returning to civilian life, he returned to Hollywood and became a director, where he worked with some of the biggest stars of the silent era. Transitioning to sound, he continued to crank out all kinds of films, never becoming pigeonholed in one genre like so many others. He inspired Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Gary Cooper in developing their screen images. He was also extremely popular with his leading ladies, having love affairs with Clara Bow, Bessie Love, and Ingrid Bergman, among others. He was also MGM's most successful director in the '30s, having hits with Captains Courageous, Test Pilot, Treasure Island, and Bombshell, among others, and made uncredited contributions to The Great Waltz. Yet in his afterword, author Michael Sragow claims that Fleming is all but forgotten because he died in 1949, before the general public became enthralled with movie nostalgia and celebrated those early film pioneers who were still alive at the time. Surprisingly, this is the first book-length study of Fleming's life and career, whereas two other directors on The Wizard of Oz, George Cukor and King Vidor, have had several books written about them.

In case you haven't already figured out my reaction, I found this a fascinating read, and I'm just sorry that I didn't have more time to devote to it. Having said that, however, I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to Oz fans, just because there's not a lot of Oz content in it, as the making of The Wizard of Oz is only one chapter. And a lot of that material will already be familiar to many Ozmologists. However, if you're interested in how Oz fit into Fleming's career as a whole, or are just interested in Hollywood history, or his pioneering work as a military cameraman and his role in the peace talks, I heartily recommend this book.

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