Oscar Directors: Van Dyke, W. S.–Background, Career, Awards, Suicide, Filmography

Van Dyke Career Summary

Occup. Inheritance: Mother actress (he was child actor)

Social Class: Background: upper-middle; father judge (died the day he was born)


Training: Child actor; assistant director to Griffith

First Film: 1917; age 28

Oscar Award: Won Oscar for directing “Eskimo” in 1936; age 47

Oscar Nominations: 2; 1934 and 1936l age 45 and 47 respectively

Career Output:

Career Span: 1917-1943–26 years

Genre: Versatile (all genres)

Collaboration: 6 movies with Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald

Last Film: Journey of Margaret, 1943; age 53



Death: Suicide, 1943; age 53

Woodbridge Strong “W. S.” Van Dyke II (Woody) directed some popular movies in the 1930s, including “Tarzan the Ape Man” in 1932, “The Thin Man” in 1934, and “San Francisco” in 1936.

He made six popular musicals with Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald.

Van Dyke received two Best Director Oscar nominations, for “The Thin Man” and for “San Francisco.”

He directed four actors to Oscar nominations: William Powell, Spencer Tracy, Norma Shearer, and Robert Morley.

Known as a reliable craftsman who made his films on schedule and under budget, he earned the name “One Take Woody” for his quick and efficient style of filming.

Woodbridge Strong Van Dyke II was born on March 21, 1889 in San Diego, California. His father was a Superior Court judge who died the day his son was born. His mother, Laura Winston, returned to her former acting career.

As a child actor, Van Dyke appeared with his mother on the vaudeville circuit with traveling stock companies. They traveled the west coast and into the Middle West. When he was five years old, they appeared at the old San Francisco Grand Opera House in Blind Girl.


He recalled: “I’ve been to school in every state in the Union. Whenever the company stopped off long enough in any city I went back behind a school desk. The rest of the time my mother taught me.”

When Van Dyke was fourteen years old, he moved to Seattle to live with his grandmother. While attending business school, he worked several part-time jobs, including janitor, waiter, salesman, and railroad attendant.

Van Dyke’s early adult years were unsettled, and he moved among jobs. In 1909, he married actress Zelda Ashford, and the two joined various touring theater companies, arriving in Hollywood in 1915.

In 1915, Van Dyke found work as an assistant director to D. W. Griffith on “The Birth of a Nation,” and then on “Intolerance.” That same year he worked as an assistant director to James Young on Unprotected (1916), The Lash (1916), and the lost film Oliver Twist, in which he also played the role of Charles Dickens.

Film Debut:
In 1917, Van Dyke directed his first film, The Land of Long Shadows, for Essanay Studios.  That same year he directed five other films: The Range Boss, Open Places, Men of the Desert, Gift O’ Gab, and Sadie Goes to Heaven. In 1927, he traveled to Tacoma to direct two silent films for the new H.C. Weaver Productions: Eyes of the Totem and The Heart of the Yukon (lost film).

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. MGM regarded him as one of the most versatile, directing costume dramas, westerns, comedies, crime melodramas, and musicals.
Many of his films were huge hits and top box office in any given year.

Oscar Nominations:

He received Academy Award for Best Director nominations for The Thin Man (1934) and San Francisco (1936). He also directed the Oscar-winning classic Eskimo (also known as 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), which was filmed almost entirely in Africa; Tarzan the Ape Man (1932); Manhattan Melodrama (1934); and Marie Antoinette (1938). He is perhaps best remembered, however, for directing Myrna Loy and William Powell in four Thin Man films: The Thin Man (1934), After the Thin Man (1936), Another Thin Man (1939), and Shadow of the Thin Man (1941).


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

The earthquake sequence in San Francisco is considered one of the best special-effects sequences ever filmed. Van Dyke called upon his early mentor, D. W. Griffith, who had fallen on hard times. Van Dyke was also known to hire old-time, out-of-work actors as extras. Because of his loyalty, he was much beloved and admired in the industry.

Actor’s Director

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, Ilona Massey, and Margaret O’Brien.

He was often called in to work a few days, uncredited, on a film that was in trouble or had gone over production schedule.

Promoted to the rank of 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.

Last Film:

In 1942, despite being ill with cancer and a bad heart, Van Dyke managed to direct one last film, “Journey for Margaret,” which premiered in New York City on December 17 that year. It is a heart-rending movie that made 5-year-old Margaret O’Brien an overnight star.

Death: Suicide

Van Dyke, a devout Christian Scientist, had refused most medical treatments and care during his final years. after the release of Journey for Margaret to theaters in January 1943, he bid goodbyes to his wife, children, and studio boss Louis B. Mayer and then committed suicide on February 5 in Brentwood, Los Angeles.