The period I am thinking of is primarily the 1930s. Both von Sternberg and Fleming struggled in the 1940s (Fleming died in 1949), and while Garnett made his most famous film in 1946, The Postman Always Rings Twice, the kind of films he was making then were different. Of the directors, only Hawks continued to blossom, and stay true to his style. Furthman wrote fewer scripts, and the best ones were with Hawks. John Lee Mahin, like Hawks, showed no sign of slowing down though. But in the 1930s there were a lot of things that connected these people. Styles, themes, ideas and personal history. Hawks and Fleming were best friends, both Garnett and Lee Mahin were married to the actress Patsy Ruth Miller (not at the same time...) and Furthman and Lee Mahin co-wrote many of these directors' best films, except for Garnett's for whom Furthman wrote only one.
Fleming, Hawks and Garnett, together with King Vidor, were at one point thinking of starting a company to produce their films together but nothing came of it. According to Michael Sragow in his fine book Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master (2008) "Hawks thought he could do more movies on his own, and Garnett's story choices flummoxed Vidor." (p. 443)
One thing these men had in common, besides being filmmakers, was that they were adventurers; interested in flying, hunting, travelling and boating, and this was reflected in their films. I am not sure about the two writers, but Hawks, Fleming and Garnett had all been pilots, and this too was reflected in their films, not least with Hawks who made six films about pilots. But even though there are similarities, there are also major differences.
Garnett is the least known of these and that is appropriate as he is not comparable to either Fleming or Hawks in terms of craft or vision, not even close. While there is a big, comprehensive book about Fleming and several about Hawks, there is little to be found about Garnett. But some information is out there. He was born in Los Angeles and went to university there. He was in the Naval Air Corps during World War 1, and was discharged in 1918. A plane crash left him with a life-long limp and he used a walking stick. He had already made a name for himself as a comic writer and he worked on that in the Navy after the crash. He also did flying stunts.
Eventually he began working as a gag writer at Hal Roach studios, and then for Mack Sennett. At Sennett he sometimes wrote with Frank Capra for several famous comedians, such as Harry Langdon. He also directed a couple of short films before he got going as a feature-film director in 1928. (The third feature, The Flying Fool (1929), was about a pilot.) The first of his films that has a claim to fame is Her Man (1930). It was for a long time considered a lost masterpiece, although it has now been found and, well, masterpiece is perhaps not the right word to describe it. But it has three things that are typical of Garnett of the 1930s and early 1940s: an exotic location (Havana), a haphazard narrative based on gag routines, and a highly mobile camera. Unfortunately many of the gag routines in Her Man, particularly those about hats, are to me not funny but intolerable. But otherwise it is a fine film.
Garnett kept himself busy during the 1930s, making several films each year. He was never attached to any studio for a longer time, he moved around, sometimes producing himself, and even abroad. He had his own boat and in 1935/1936 he sailed it across the world, and he used his film camera to capture the Pacific locations he encountered. They would later form the backdrop for Trade Winds (1938), another typical Garnett adventure and my favourite of his films. Other rambunctious films in the Far East are China Seas (1935) and Seven Sinners (1940), the latter with Marlene Dietrich and John Wayne and almost a remake of Her Man. I prefer Seven Sinners. One Way Passage (1932), set on a boat going from Hong Kong to San Francisco, has a more serious tone, and some think it is Garnett's best work (himself included). William Powell and Kay Francis play the leads, as two passengers who fall in love during the cruise. It is quite lovely, and here a running gag turns increasingly poignant until the very end. Garnett is good at capturing moments of love at first sight, and One Way Passage is an example of that. The highlight for me of such a moment is the first meeting between Fredric March and Joan Bennett's characters in Trade Winds. You can almost see that something shifted in March's soul.
March and Bennett
Stand-In (1937) is a comedy with Leslie Howard as a New York accountant or efficiency expert sent to evaluate and improve a rundown Hollywood studio. This suits Garnett's tone. The same year's Slave Ship on the other hand is a mess and shows that Garnett's kind of filmmaking is not at all suitable for a subject such as the slave trade. To call it insensitive would be an understatement.
Garnett's films in the 1940s and later are varied and not necessarily that exiting. (Maybe that is what Raymond Durgnat referred to when he wrote "Often, film auteurs, like novelists and poets, die before their death – like Tay Garnett, Stanley Donen, Edward Dmytryk, Robert Siodmak.") He made a couple of war films that James Agee liked (Bataan (1943) and The Cross of Lorraine (1943)), some sentimental dramas, the aforementioned noir The Postman Only Rings Twice, and the eccentric thriller Cause for Alarm! (1951), with a fine performance by Loretta Young. One Minute to Zero (1952) is a lacklustre war film about the Korean war, with Robert Mitchum. More propaganda than poetry, and too impersonal. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1949) is a lot of fun though. A campy, occasionally hilarious, version of Mark Twain's novel. Mel Brooks might have been a fan when it came out.
Bing Crosby and William Bendix in Camelot.
In the mid-1950s Garnett almost stopped making feature films and instead focused on TV. There he directed episodes for various series, primarily detective shows and Western series including such famous ones as Rawhide and Bonanza. Despite his early work as a comic writer, he did little of that in the second half of his career. But Cause for Alarm! has a comic relief in the form of a small boy who appears several times and is almost the best thing about the film.
Garnett never made much of a splash, and few mentions him now, although Andrew Sarris put him in the category "Expressive Esoterica" (in some ways the most interesting category). In American Directors, Jean-Pierre Coursodon says that Garnett was perhaps "an auteur of sorts, albeit a very minor one." and adds that "Garnett's speciality was exotic adventures generously spiced with comedy, a seasoning so rich that it often overpowered the straight action. /.../ Running gags are his trademark; it apparently doesn't matter to him how lame they are so long as they keep running." (p. 139)
I feel no need to track down and watch all of Garnett's films, but I have a weakness for his idiosyncratic comedies in exotic locations, some of which are photographed by masters and are therefore also pleasing to look at. He is interesting to study in order to highlight the various ways in which filmmakers functioned in Hollywood, in particular the lesser known or unknown, those whose weaknesses are perhaps more pronounced than their strengths yet who managed to carve out a niche and a career on their own terms.
Maybe Garnett's most important contribution to film history was a book. In the 1960s Garnett sent out questionnaires to filmmakers, young and old, all over the world and then collected their answers. It was published in French in 1981 (I believe) with the title Un siècle de cinéma and then in English in 1996 with the title Directing: Learn from the Masters. François Truffaut wrote the foreword: "He was thin, laughing, rugged-featured. /.../ As nearly all his colleagues of the Silents, he was athletic, a flyer, an adventurer; like them, he was an intellectual without wanting to be. /.../ Tay Garnett was the only filmmaker who was poor - he spent his money on friends and women."
One Way Passage
James Agee's reviews are to be found in any of the collections of his film criticism.
Raymond Durgnat, "Who Really Makes the Movies" in Films and Filming April 1965
Jean-Pierre Coursodon with Pierre Sauvage, American directors - Volume 1 (1983)
World Film Directors: Volume One 1890-1945, editor John Wakeman (1987)
Directing: Learn from the Masters, editor Tay Garnett (1996)
Michael Sragow, Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master (2008)
You may like Farran Smith Nehme's article in Film Comment (2016) about Her Man.
Another filmmaker that one could include in this group of men from a certain generation, with a taste for adventure and influenced by Victor Fleming, is Henry Hathaway. But he feels different. For one thing he was more serious, and hardly made any comedies. While Garnett's Slave Ship is embarrassing, Hathaway's Souls at Sea (1937), which is also about the slave trade, is a great film. (I wrote about it here.)