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The Fixer: Victor Fleming (aka, the guy who directed Gone with the Wind AND The Wizard of Oz)

April 28, 2011

Victor Fleming may be the most influential film director you’ve never heard of.

Unlike Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder or Stanley Kubrick, Fleming isn’t exactly a household name…despite the fact that he directed two of the most popular movies of all time: The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. And what’s even crazier to fathom is that both those movies came out in the same year!

A former car mechanic and presidential photographer, Fleming got his start in the movies as a camera assistant. He eventually worked his way up the latter, first becoming a cinematographer, then a director, helming his first feature film in 1919. For the next 30 years he directed a slew of films, primarily for MGM, including Captains Courageous (the movie which won Spencer Tracy his first of two Academy Awards). However, Fleming’s two biggest directing gigs came in the late 1930s, one right after the other. And in both cases, he wasn’t the only director who’d worked on the film. But he was the one who got the credit.

In 1938, Fleming assumed command of The Wizard of Oz, after three other directors had already worked on the troubled production. The last of these directors was George Cukor, who had to leave The Wizard of Oz to direct another picture he’d already committed to directing: Gone with the Wind. Fleming oversaw the bulk of production on The Wizard of Oz, but was compelled to leave the film near the end of shooting to direct yet another troubled MGM production: Gone with the Wind. In so doing, Fleming replaced fellow director George Cukor for the second time in less than a year. (Talk about a blow to George’s ego. Don’t feel bad for him, though. Cukor went on to direct Adam’s Rib, A Star is Born and My Fair Lady. )

Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz both came out in 1939. Gone with the Wind went on to win ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Fleming. Although The Wizard of Oz lost the big prize to Fleming’s other movie, it won two Oscars, including Best Song for “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

Most critics agree that Fleming was more of a great craftsman than an auteur with a distinctive style. Indeed, it’s fitting that he started out as a car mechanic, since he eventually became the studio’s go-to guy when they needed a director to “fix” a picture and put it back on track. And nobody can deny that with The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, he did just that…and then some. (In a recent ABC poll, both films were listed among the Top Five Movies of All Time, making Fleming the only director to have two films on that list.)

So while you may not have heard of Fleming, it’s arguable whether any other director, before or since, has had such a powerful impact on movie history. Not to mention your childhood. 

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