Today is the birthday of film director Victor Fleming (1889-1949). I tend to think of him as a creature of the studio system, producing rather impersonal but competent work over a diverse range of styles and genres. His two best known works (The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind) happen to have been among the greatest blockbusters of all time, though the use of the modifier “his” in those cases would have to be called a stretch, as they were both such highly collaborative works (with several artists in each case imbuing the films with a more distinctive stamp than did the director himself). Looking down his list of films, if one were to try to find an area of focus, I would say adventure and literary adaptation (usually of fairly solid classics, e.g. Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, etc) lead the way.
His first two films were Douglas Fairbanks pictures, and since I devote sizable section of my new book Chain of Fools to Fairbanks, I thought I’d give these films a shout out today.
When the Clouds Roll By (1919)
Fairbanks plays a young Wall Street worker who is being used without his knowledge as a test subject for an evil scientist’s experiments. The doctor’s hypothesis is that he can ruin a man’s life by weakening his mind. (For this we need science?) Fairbanks’ butler secretly works for the scientist and helps him out by feeding Fairbanks rich food at bedtime so that he has lots of bad dreams. These hallucination sequences are quite surreal, and look downright experimental – rather a fun challenge for someone starting out on their first film. Lots of crazy special effects, double exposures, slow motion. At one point in his dream Fairbanks walks up the wall and across the ceiling — this is decades before Fred Astaire did the same thing in a later MGM film. The sleeplessness caused by the dreams makes Fairbanks jumpy and late for work. He will later be further unhinged by a breakup with the girl he wants to marry, and some corporate scheming by his rival. The climax of the film involves a massive flood scene. One might be tempted to call it excellent preparation for the tornado in The Wizard of Oz, but that had been shot by King Vidor. In the end of the film, the mad scientist who has been playing with Fairbanks’ head turns out to be truly mad, and winds up in an asylum.
The Mollycoddle (1920)
In this one Fairbanks plays a rich young wastrel who is descended from several generations of manly men. His father got rich mining in Arizona, now he lives the life of a playboy in Europe. Wallace Beery plays an evil diamond miner who is exploiting the local Hopi Indians as slave labor and kidnaps the girl that Fairbanks’s loves so he can kill her and steal her inherited Arizona land. Fairbanks, the titular mollycoddle, must find his inner reserve of toughness inherited from his ancestors and defeat Beery in the unforgiving terrain around the Grand Canyon. Which of course he does! In the climax, Fairbanks and Berry tussle with other all the way down a long cliff face. In the end, Beery is beaten down like a dog.
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.