Hollywood film director Victor Fleming was born in La Cañada Flintridge, California in 1889. He started out as a photographer for the U.S. Army during World War I and he was good enough that he would later get hired to be Woodrow Wilson’s chief photographer.
Motion picture director Allan Dwan would take Fleming on as a camera assistant, and Fleming eventually rose to the rank of cinematographer. He would do cinematography work for Dwan as well as D.W. Griffith.
He started directing his own films in the silent era, beginning with the Douglas Fairbanks comedy When the Clouds Roll By (1919), and he directed Hollywood films non-stop until the late 1940s.
Fleming’s filmography is largely full of Westerns, comedies and sweeping dramas. He made a lot of films for Paramount in the 1920s. Some interesting highlights include his early work with a young Gary Cooper in films like the pre-code silent Western Wolf Song (1929) and The Virginian (1929), which was one of the first Hollywood-produced dialogue-driven talkie Westerns and a significant milestone in Gary Cooper’s career.
In the 1930s, Fleming began working for MGM. Films directed by Fleming in this period include Red Dust (1932), a romantic drama starring Clark Gable, Jean Harlow and Mary Astor based on the 1928 Wilson Collison play set in a French Indochina rubber plantation which tells the story of a love triangle between a plantation owner (Gable), a prostitute (Harlow) and an engineer’s wife (Astor). The chemistry between Gable and Harlow in this film was electric and they would be paired together in later films in many attempts to recapture this on-screen magic.
Fleming had success at MGM with Clark Gable again directing The White Sister (1933) and with Jean Harlow again directing Bombshell (1933), a screwball comedy that satirized the life of 1920s sex symbol Clara Bow (who, by the way, Fleming was romantically involved with at one point) and was the movie that’s success led to Harlow receiving the nickname “Blonde Bombshell.”
Fleming followed these films up with a 1934 screen adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel Treasure Island, the 1935 musical Reckless from the mind of David O. Selznick, the 1935 Fox comedy The Farmer Takes a Wife featuring Henry Fonda in his screen debut, the 1937 adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling adventure novel Captains Courageous and the 1938 Oscar-nominated Test Pilot starring Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy which tells the story of a daredevil pilot, his wife and his mechanic friend.
By far the two most famous films Fleming directed, both of which came out in 1939, are The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind.
The Wizard of Oz, a fantasy musical based on the children’s book by L. Frank Baum which tells the story of a Kansas farm girl (Judy Garland) who is whisked away to a magical land by a tornado, went through a few directors in its whirlwind production cycle. But if anyone was up to the task of directing an elaborate fantasy musical it was Victor Fleming, who was a perfectionist, a master of camerawork and a tough taskmaster. The hard work clearly paid off. The Wizard of Oz still stands as an amazing cinematic feat.
Most highly-regarded of all his films is his adaptation of the novel Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. The epic romance drama set in the American South during the Civil War tells the story of Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) the daughter of a Georgia plantation owner who romantically pursues Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) but instead captures the eye of Rhett Butler (Clark Gable).
Fleming was brought in to save the troubled production after producer David O. Selznick found director George Cukor unsatisfying. Fleming was working on The Wizard of Oz at the time so when Fleming was hired to replace Cukor on Gone with the Wind, director King Vidor was hired to take over Oz from Fleming.
Very likely due to the exhaustion of helming both a musical fantasy and an epic 3 1/2 hour period drama (two films that would demand a lot from a director each on their own), Fleming took a break from directing for a year after this. But Fleming was something of a wizard himself because Gone with the Wind ended up receiving positive reviews, winning the most Oscars in a single night and becoming the highest-grossing film in history (when adjusted for inflation).
Gone with the Wind’s immense popularity became a Hollywood standard-bearer and it is not difficult to see why it is so beloved given the compelling and well-written characters at the center of its story. Even at 221 minutes, it flies by and is never boring.
Following Gone with the Wind, Fleming directed Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), Tortilla Flat (1942) a romantic comedy based on the John Steinbeck novel, A Guy Named Joe (1943) starring Spencer Tracy as a reckless World War II pilot and Irene Dunne as the air transport auxiliary pilot he loves, Adventure (1945) starring Clark Gable and Greer Garson and based on the novel by Clyde Brion Davis about a sailor who falls in love with a librarian, and his final film Joan of Arc (1948) starring Ingrid Bergman.
Shortly after the completion of Joan of Arc, Fleming had a heart attack and died while en route to the hospital in 1949, thus cutting the career of one of the best Hollywood filmmakers short but with a filmography like his he did more than plenty while he was alive to establish himself as a hard-working world-class visual storyteller.