AFI Silver presents 'Directed by Victor Fleming'

Underappreciated star-maker gets his own close-up

  • "Bombshell" starring Franchot Tone and Jean Harlow, is part of the AFI Silver's celebration of director Victor Fleming.
"Bombshell" starring Franchot Tone and Jean Harlow,… (Handout photo )
December 02, 2010

Victor Fleming would top everyone's list of all-time greats if historians rated moviemakers for the star power they ignited instead of directorial mystique. Don't get me wrong: I think Fleming should score high in every way, mystique included. The longer I worked on my biography, "Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master," the more convinced I became of Fleming's unique gift for visual storytelling.

But even if you don't see how the same robust talent powered accomplishments as different as "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone With the Wind," you should be able to gauge the impact Fleming had on Hollywood by the performers he brought to peak stardom. Some of the best grace "Directed by Victor Fleming" this weekend at AFI Silver, including Clark Gable in his breakthrough film, "Red Dust" (1932).

Fleming saw something in Gable that went beyond machismo. Fleming knew that with his unadorned fervor and no-bull attitude, Gable could bring a potent new immediacy to male sexuality on-screen. It was natural to pair him up with Jean Harlow, who was equally earthy and wised-up.

Set on an Indochinese rubber plantation (Gable plays the manager) and co-starring Harlow as a prostitute and Mary Astor as a cultured wife ready to be swept off her feet, "Red Dust" remains the best Hollywood picture about love and adultery. It's raffish, vivid and emotionally complex.

Harlow took amazing growth leaps here and in Fleming's "Bombshell" (1933), a bold, timeless farce about a Hollywood star stuck in a tinseled cage. She became an extraordinarily sure and original comedian.

And Fleming unleashed Ingrid Bergman's full sexuality in "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1941). She plays an amoral innocent to Spencer Tracy's moving and scary Jekyll/Hyde — a frustrated scientist/sadistic monster. In all three films, Fleming's camera captures every shading of his characters. And he anchors his heroes and heroines so securely in his dense, lively narratives, he takes them without fear to dramatic, comic and erotic extremes.

"Red Dust" and "Bombshell" screen Friday and Saturday, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" Friday and Sunday; Michael Sragow will speak at 'Bombshell,' at 7 p.m. Friday and 2:45 p.m. Saturday; at 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,' Friday at 9:15 p.m.; and 'Red Dust,' Saturday at 12:45 p.m. For additional screenings, go to AFI.com/Silver.

—Michael Sragow

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