Men Behind the Stars — Victor Fleming (1937) 🇺🇸

Victor Fleming |

January 17, 2022

Victor Fleming became a director the “hard way.” Today, with twenty-seven years in the film industry behind him, he looms as a result of his long training period and keen powers of penetration, as one of the most versatile megaphone wielders in Hollywood.

Director of “Captains Courageous”

A brief glance at the lengthy list of productions credits him the last few years with such diverse pictures as “Blonde Bombshell “ (comedy), “The Wet Parade” (social drama) and Reckless (comedy-drama with music).

It is not surprising, therefore, to find that his newest contribution to film annals is an adventure story of the sea — the picturization of Rudyard Kipling’s modern classic, Captains Courageous, with Freddie Bartholomew, Spencer Tracy and Lionel Barrymore portraying the central characters.

It was as a cameraman that Fleming served a thorough and useful apprenticeship, beginning in 1910, when the cinema was starting to blossom into the nation’s fifth industry it now is, through the beginning of this country’s participation in the World War.

Fleming was a Los Angeles-educated schoolboy whose burning ambition was to become an automobile racing-driver. Fortunately, fate, in the form of photography, stepped in to engross the young dare-devil in this comparatively unplumbed, unpolished field, and Fleming took himself off from his native Pasadena and made the trip to Santa Barbara, where were located the old American studios. He applied for a job as a photographer and was quickly put to work.

Subsequently, Kalem, Griffith, Fine Arts, Douglas Fairbanks — many pioneer companies offered him work. Fleming kept his eye not only on his end of the business, but studied production from every angle. And all the time he was driving toward the birth he had picked out for himself— that of director.

It was only the overseas struggle that was able to turn him from steady pursuance of his career. He promptly enlisted and became a first lieutenant of the U. S. Army Signal Corps. He did meritorious work for the Intelligence service, and after the war returned to Europe as chief photographer for President Woodrow Wilson and the peace mission.

At long last, in 1919, he was back in  Hollywood, and this time he was ready for the jump into a directorial capacity. It seems that Fleming was not alone confident in his own ability, for Allan Dwan, for years a friend and associate of Fleming, put in a good word with Doug Fairbanks, who remembered Fleming’s ability and signed him to direct one of his pictures. His success in his initial venture solidly entrenched him in the new field. From that time on, Fleming was in great demand.

He made such films as “Woman’s Place,” “Red Hot Romance,” “The Lane That Had No Turning,” “Dark Secrets,” and many others. Just before the industry found voice he produced Rough Riders, “The Way of All Flesh” and “Abie’s Irish Rose.” With the entrance of sound he produced “The Virginian,” Common ClayAround the World in 80 Minutes (another Fairbanks film), The White Sister and Treasure Island.

The camera is, naturally, an important factor to Fleming. Still, he feels, it is the story that comes first. Camera angles, no matter how ingenious, he asserts, should never be permitted to thwart the story itself. Camera possibilities are like laboratory experiment to the director. He will study his story, his players, his sets, and evolve a new formula for each picture. A sagacious mixture follows, and Fleming’s photographers invariably find they have themselves benefited from association on a film with him.

Fleming spends most of his leisure time, when he is not on his ranch, flying airplanes. He shoots a fair game of golf, likes riding, plays a fast brand of tennis, and attends the legitimate theatre at every opportunity. Well over six feet tall, with brown hair and dark gray eyes, Fleming is a forceful character. And that force is ever evident in his work.

His “Captains Courageous” is one of the best pictures ever made. It stands as a triumph to Fleming’s genius.

Vic Fleming tells Spencer Tracy how he wants a certain sequence played for Captains Courageous.

Source: Motion Picture Magazine, September 1937