Sometime we forget about the men and women behind the scenes. As we do a little behind the scenes work on the website over the next several weeks we will be sharing our “5 Favorites”. We start the series with probably the most important person behind the camera, the director. Here is a little about him and our 5 favorite movies from director W S Van Dyke.
Woodbridge Strong Van Dyke got his start in the motion picture industry in 1916 when the legendary D.W. Griffith hired him as one of a group of “assistants”. A year later he was directing.
For the better part of his career, he lived up to his nickname “One-Take Woody” by adhering to his credo of shooting each scene as quickly and efficiently as possible. Over his 25-year career, he economically directed over 90 diverse entertainments, which not only saved the studios vast amounts of money but turned out to be some of the most interesting motion pictures created during this period.
After enlistment in World War I, Woody returned to Hollywood in the 1920s to direct westerns. Woody was perhaps the first filmmaker to make westerns that strayed from the stereotypical jaundiced pro-white man view in favor of a more sympathetic portrayal of the American Indian on screen.
During the next few years, Woody Van Dyke showed his remarkable flair and versatility. After being Oscar-nominated for The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933), he directed William Powell and Myrna Loy in their first outing together in Manhattan Melodrama (1934) (most famous as the film seen by infamous bank robber and killer John Dillinger just before he was shot to death by the FBl). He followed this with the stylish and witty thriller The Thin Man (1934) (filmed in true Woody-style in less than 16 days) and three of the sequels, teaming Powell and Loy in one of Hollywood’s most successful partnerships.
Unquestionably, one of the highlights of Van Dyke’s career as a director was the first true “disaster movie”, San Francisco (1936), for which he elicited rich, natural characterizations from his cast for 97 minutes. He then re-created the 1906 earthquake in the remaining 20-minute finale, achieving a realism that has rarely been matched and never surpassed. He was nominated for Academy Awards for both “The Thin Man” and “San Francisco“, but lost out on both occasions.
A colorful, larger-than-life character, his “shoot-from-the-hip” camera style was at times criticized by his peers. Conversely, he was much respected by actors, frequently giving breaks to unemployed performers by using them in his films, and appreciated by the studios by consistently coming in on or under budget. In addition, he was known as a “film doctor”, who would be called upon to re-shoot individual scenes with which the studio was dissatisfied (a noted example being for The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)), or, alternatively, to shoot additional scenes that were deemed necessary for continuity.
Like some of his peers, Woody could be an autocrat who rarely brooked arguments and was known to greet the mighty Louis B. Mayer himself with “Hi, kid”. He became ill during the filming of Dragon Seed (1944). Diagnosed with heart disease and cancer, he committed suicide in February 1943.
Our 5 Favorite Movies from director W S Van Dyke:
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