Sam Wood — But Then He Wouldn’t

Sam Wood, 1922

Sam Wood (1883-1949) was one of a long line of Marx Brothers’ directors that Groucho liked to dis, but the reality doesn’t support that scorn. Not only did Wood direct two of the team’s biggest hits, but he also helmed several still-beloved Hollywood classics of the 1930s and ’40s, and dozens of successful, if now-forgotten silent features during the ’20s. Though he is seldom included in short lists of Hollywood’s great auteurs, neither was he some hack.

Originally from Philadelphia, Wood worked on an oil pipeline, sold real estate, and was employed as a stage actor before serving an apprenticeship under Cecil B. DeMille as an actor and assistant director. He played small roles in The Little American (1917) and Don’t Change Your Husband (1919) and was an A.D. on the first remake of The Squaw Man (1918), as well as For Better For Worse (1919) and Why Change Your Wife (1920). He also had a larger supporting part in a western called Who Knows? (1917), directed by Jack Pratt.

In 1920 Wood was entrusted with the direction of Double Speed starring Wallace Reid, and for the next three decades it was smooth sailing. During the silent era he directed Paramount stars like Reid, Gloria Swanson, and Bebe Daniels in dozens of pictures, and turned out some memorable ones like Peck’s Bad Boy (1921) with Jackie Coogan, and One Minute to Play (1926) with football star Red Grange. In 1927 he moved from Paramount to MGM, where he spent most of the remainder of his career.

In the early talkie era Wood directed It’s a Great Life (1929) with the Duncan Sisters, They Learned About Women (1930) with Van and Schenck, Prosperity (1932) with Marie Dressler and Polly Moran, and numerous other films in all genres, sometimes performing work without receiving screen credit. It was the Marx Brothers’ pictures A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937) that put him over the top, and for the next dozen years Wood was really on his game. His subsequent pictures include the classics Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939), the 1939 Raffles remake with David Niven, Our Town (1940), The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), and Ronald Reagan’s best film King’s Row (1942). He directed Ginger Rogers in her Oscar winning performance in Kitty Foyle (1940) and later in the comedy Heartbeat (1946), and Gary Cooper in The Pride of the Yankees (1942, Best Actor Oscar), and later in the films For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), Casanova Brown (1944) and Saratoga Trunk (1946). His most interesting late film is Ivy (1947), a Hitchcockian thriller starring Joan Fontaine as a scheming murderess. The baseball bio-pic The Stratton Story (1949) was a hit at the time, but hasn’t aged well (Jimmy Stewart plays a Chicago White Sox pitcher who accidentally shoots himself in the leg and has to have it amputated). Wood’s last film was the successful but relatively undistinguished western Ambush (1950).

Like his cohorts DeMille, Cooper and Rogers, Wood was politically conservative, rabidly so, heartily participating in the anti-Communist Hollywood witch hunt of the late 1940s, and serving as the President of the right wing Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. In fact, this is what killed him. He worked himself into a lather arguing with a screenwriter who felt the MPA had slandered him, and succumbed to a heart attack shortly thereafter. That day, it appears that God was on the side of the Godless.

For more on film comedy, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.