Oscar Directors: Van Dyke, W (1889-1943)

Born in San Diego, California, on March 21, 1889, Woodbridge Strong “Woody” Van Dyke, Jr. was a child actor on the vaudeville circuit.

His early adult years were unsettled, and he moved from job to job in Hollywood. His first job was as an assistant director on the D. W. Griffith feature, Intolerance (1916). That same year he was cast as Charles Dickens in the now lost 1916 film Oliver Twist. During the silent era, he learned his craft and by the advent of the talkies was one of MGM’s most reliable directors.

He came to be known as “One-Take Woody” or “One-Take Van Dyke”, for the speed with which he would complete his assignments, and although not regarded as one of the screen’s most talented directors, MGM regarded him as one of the most versatile, equally at home directing costume dramas, westerns, comedies, crime melodramas and musicals. Many of his films were huge hits and top box office in any given year. He received Best Director Oscar nominations for The Thin Man (1934) and San Francisco (1936). He also directed the Oscar-winning “Eskimo-Mala the Magnificent”, in which he also has a featured acting role.

His other films include the island adventure White Shadows in the South Seas (1928), its follow up The Pagan (1929), Trader Horn (1931) filmed almost entirely in Africa, Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), Manhattan Melodrama (1934), and Marie Antoinette (1938).

He is best known for directing Myrna Loy and William Powell in 4 Thin Man films: The Thin Man (1934), After the Thin Man (1936), Another Thin Man (1939) and Shadow of the Thin Man (1941).

He directed Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in 6 of their greatest hits, Naughty Marietta (1935), Rose Marie (1936), Sweethearts(1938), New Moon (1940) (uncredited because halfway through filming Robert Z. Leonard took over), Bitter Sweet (1940) and I Married an Angel (1942).

The earthquake sequence in San Francisco is consideredone of the best special-effects sequences ever filmed. To help direct, Van Dyke called upon his early mentor, D.W. Griffith, who had fallen on hard times.

Van Dyke was known for allowing ad-libbing and for coaxing natural performances from his actors. He made stars of Nelson Eddy, James Stewart, Myrna Loy, Johnny Weissmuller, Maureen O’Sullivan, Eleanor Powell, and Margaret O’Brien. He was often called in to work uncredited on films that were in trouble or had gone over production schedule.

Promoted to Major prior to World War II, the patriotic Van Dyke set up a Marine Corps recruiting center in his MGM office. He was one of the first Hollywood bigwigs to advocate early U.S. involvement, and he convinced stars like Clark Gable, James Stewart, Robert Taylor, and Nelson Eddy to become involved in the war effort.

Ill with cancer and a bad heart, he directed one last film: Journey for Margaret, a sentimental melodrama that made five-year old Margaret O’Brien a star.

A devout Christian Scientist, Van Dyke refused most medical care during his last years. After finishing his last film he said his goodbyes to his wife, children and studio boss Louis B. Mayer, and committed suicide on February 5, 1943.  At his request, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy sang and officiated at his funeral.

Woody Van Dyke has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6141 Hollywood Boulevard.