W.S. Van Dyke: One Take Woody

A few words today in remembrance of pioneering screen director W.S. Van Dyke (Woodbridge Strong “Woody” Van Dyke II, 1889-1943). Born in San Diego, Van Dyke was raised in the theatre acting and performing with his mother in vaudeville and stock companies from childhood, his father (a judge) having died when he was an infant. With his mother he toured circuits in the far and middle west primarily. In young adulthood he briefly attended business school and worked odd jobs as a waiter and janitor, gold miner, lumberjack, and the like. At age 20 he married actress Zina Ashford and the performing pair resumed touring the circuits for another half dozen years.

In 1915, Van Dyke broke into films as an assistant director to D.W. Griffith on The Birth of a Nation. He worked in a similar capacity on another half dozen films including Intolerance and Oliver Twist, both 1916. In 1917 he obtained the first of 91 screen credits as director, the Far North adventure The Land of Long Shadows, for Essanay. Later, he went to MGM, where he worked for most of his career. Nicknamed “One Take Woody”, Van Dyke was more appreciated for his efficiency than his artistry, bringing the skills of a B movie director to pictures that were often top of the bill. That said, he often got good performances out his actors, and was often brought in to bail out other director’s films that were getting behind schedule.

While half of his career was during the silent era (most of them westerns), Van Dyke is better remembered pictures are talkies. They include Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), Manhattan Melodrama (1934), The Thin Man (1934) with William Powell and Myrna Loy (and three Thin Man sequels), six Nelson EddyJeanette MacDonald musicals, and 3 films the stars made separately (1935-42); San Francisco (1936, with sequences shot by D.W. Griffith); Marie Antoinette (1938), Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever (1939) and Dr. Kildare’s Victory (1942). He took the rank of Major in the U.S. army just prior to World War II, and was one of leaders in the Hollywood recruitment effort. His final film credits proudly include his rank with his name. His final film was the wartime weepie Journey for Margaret (1942).

Van Dyke suffered from both cancer and heart trouble during his last years. A devout Christian Scientist, he refused medical treatment for these conditions. In early 1943 he took his own life in a manner that remains elusive to researchers.

To learn more about vaudeville, where W.S. Van Dyke got his start, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.