If you had to sum up the genius of Victor Fleming you could say that he had a gift for telling sentimental stories in unsentimental ways, a gift for telling melodramatic stories in un-melodrmatic ways.
Because he was himself a hard-nosed, manly man — not the sort of fellow to get carried away by sentiment or melodrama — he knew how to sell a sentimental or melodramatic tale to people like himself. He first disarmed audiences with his cavalier attitude towards the mushier emotions, then crushed them with emotional effects they never saw coming.
The Wizard Of Oz is so funny, is carried along by such breezy wit and good cheer, that the deep emotional impact of Dorothy’s ultimate farewell in Oz to her three comrades-in-arms takes us by surprise. Fleming knows how we’ve felt all along about the friendship between these four friends, but he’s taken care never to milk it with obvious appeals to the heart. When he finally acknowledges, lets us acknowledge, the depth of our feelings, we’re helpless to resist them.
“Now I know I have a heart,” says the Tin Man, “because it’s breaking.” Fleming never appeals to the heart, never tries to break our hearts, until he’d convinced us, by indirect means, that we have one.
Rhett Butler’s cynicism in Gone With the Wind stands in for the attitude of everyone who’s inclined to resist a sappy love story. Scarlett O’Hara’s fiddle-dee-dee silliness reinforces the suspect nature of the enterprise. We root for these two to get together long before we realize we’re rooting for it, how deeply we’re invested in their love story.
We’re unprepared for how happy it makes us when they finally hook up, how devastated we are when they part at the end. We’re undone by the melodramatic power of the tale long before we realize how utterly in its power we are.
Captains Courageous is a story about a spoiled boy learning how to be a man, how to deal with rough knocks, how to deal with loss. The people who teach him these things do so in an almost heartless way — the lessons are too important to sugarcoat. We know what’s at stake long before the film acknowledges what’s at stake.
The process is all about love, real, hard, fierce love, but it can’t ever be presented as such. No one is allowed to say to the boy, “I’m being cruel in order to be kind.” That’s something only the boy can figure out.
Fleming shows us the love in action, but gives only glimpses of the tenderness involved in it. The tenderness of the teachers is not the point — the boy’s coming of age is the point. It’s only when the boy does come of age that we’re allowed to cry, to love his teachers as much as they’ve loved him.
It’s an overwhelming experience, because we’ve understood it all along and been forced to deny it — forced to deny the emotional undertow of it, out of our concern that it might not serve its purpose, that the boy might not get the message.
Fleming was hard-nosed enough, manly enough, to know the value of sentiment, of emotion — a value so high that it admits of no shortcuts, no fudging, no tricks. He specialized in making grown men and women cry over things worthy of their tears.