The Star Creators of Hollywood — W. S. Van Dyke (1936) 🇺🇸
The third in a series of brilliant articles about the men responsible for the success or failure of a picture. This month — W. S. Van Dyke
This is a story of a paradox personified; of a man named Woodward Strong Van Dyke who is one of Metro’s most prized directors and doesn’t care; who made the greatest location pictures ever filmed (Trader Horn, “Eskimo,” “White Shadows of the South Seas”) and hates locations and travel of all kinds; who, with a Class B budget and a Class B schedule turns out — somehow — productions that are invariably Class A.
This is the story of a man who loses his script and who doesn’t discover it’s lost until he has been shooting for two weeks, who can stand before a charging Rhino unmoved until it is time to pull the trigger, and who nearly faints from sheer fright when an elevator carries him as high as the third floor of an office building.
When I talked with John Ford for the first article of this series, I found a pleasant-faced rather mild Irishman whose work to him was art, religion, profession, hobby — almost life itself. Wherefore “The Informer” was what it was. In Frank Lloyd, producer as well as director, I found the antithesis of this attitude. He was a business man turning out a product for sale. The worth of any picture he counted in values of box-office draw and bank-balance profit.
But for Woody Van Dyke there is no classification. He has no thought of ever making a picture of which the critics might shout, “This is a painting given movement, this is life on celluloid, this is ART!” And if the hour and a half of entertainment he directs lays a wooden egg in America’s theaters, then that is too bad, feels Van, but after all it’s the studio’s fault — not his. They gave him the story to do, and he did it, and if no one likes it then it must of necessity be a bad story. He takes no responsibility.
It was easy enough to tell you how John Ford and Frank Lloyd direct their motion pictures, because they knew; Van Dyke doesn’t. He can recount to you a thousand things he doesn’t do, two or three simple rules that he follows always and inexorably, and he can talk — and did — for two hours about his attitude toward stars and studios and the general business of production.
But understand, if any other director in Hollywood were as completely slap-happy about his work (at least to all intents and purposes) as W. S. Van Dyke, he could not hold down a job as prop boy in any studio. Yet, during the time Van is on the set, a driving concentration is his, a mood and feeling imparted to every member of the cast and every technician present. And last month “His Brother’s Wife” — meant originally as a Class B picture — soared into what is known as box-office championship and brought to Woody this signal recognition for the ninth consecutive time.
I found him, for this interview, on the set of “Love On The Run,” a rollicking little thing done up especially for Joan Crawford and Clark Gable. Joan was in a hurry to get away for her vacation so they had called in Van Dyke, as they always do when anything has to be done well at terrific speed. They had been shooting only fourteen days, and this was one of the last scenes.
The most important impression you carry away from any company working under this man is laughter and high good humor, and it was roaring laughter I heard first when I pushed open the heavy sound stage door and went in. The scene was one of burlesque between Joan and Clark, who were both in costume. Joan lay weakly drying her eyes on a great canopied bed. Gable sat chuckling on a nearby chair. The entire staff was grinning, and Van Dyke was leaning against the prop wall bellowing.
“Tell me,” I said to an assistant cameraman. “What’s so darned funny?’’
But he didn’t know. None of them did. The source of amusement here was as inexplicable as the thing that makes school girls giggle, except that possibly it was on a more ribald plane.
“ll right, all right, all right,” Van said finally in smiling sternness to cameramen and technicians. To Gable: “Now listen no more of that for five minutes, while we shoot the next scene. You both know what you’re to do?”
They nodded. “Roll ‘em,” he said vaguely into space, and the cameras started.
“How many times have they rehearsed this?” I whispered to a script girl. She looked up, astonished.
“You’re on a Van Dyke set,” she rasped. “This is the rehearsal. If it turns out well he won’t have to do another take.”
Joan and Clark were meeting by the bed, sitting on it, talking in artificial voices for the requisite whimsy. On the cue a door opened and a mustachioed man came in quietly. “As you desire, your highness,” he said in a sepulchral voice —
Joan gave a little high-pitched scream of delight and collapsed; Clark guffawed happily and the entire company dissolved. “Now look — “ Woody began, and then laughed himself.
“I’m so sorry,” Joan gasped, “but, oh, my gosh, that was funny.”
“Well, it was only one lost,” Van Dyke consoled her. “Try it again.” He motioned for silence, gestured at the cameras, and sat back. And this time the entire scene carried through beautifully.
“I’m not quite sure about than one line,” Gable said at the end.
Van Dyke rang the sound booth. “How about it?” he asked, and listened. “It was okay,” he told Gable. To the cameraman: “You got it, didn’t you?”
“It was good enough,” Woody said to Clark. “All right, lunch!”
The salient points from W. S. Van Dyke’s biography are fascinating enough to deserve a portion of this page, since in themselves they explain much of the man’s personality. He was born in San Diego, California, into an amazing family. His father was a Superior Court Judge, his mother a famous actress (Laura Winston). His first cousin is well-known Henry Van Dyke, writer and former United States Ambassador to the Hague, and John C, his second cousin, is an art critic and professor. So that at an early age young Woody understood that he would have to make his mark — and a large one too, amidst so much fame — or be known as one of the unimportant relatives, a sort of disgrace in that family.
Wherefore, at seven, he went on the stage in San Francisco. When he had finished school he became a miner in preparation for the lumber business, which led, in turn, to newspaper reporting! After that it was simple, for one of his calibre, to write a couple of movies, to become a screen actor and to accept, eventually, D. W. Griffith’s offer to be that great director’s assistant.
He made quickies and roaring, hard-riding Western serials for the old Essanay company — things like “Men of the Desert,” “Barriers Burned Away,” “Secret Service” and “Raw Country.” Finally Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bought his contract so that he might direct for them, in his inimitable fashion, a melodramatic little epic — full of whooping and love-under-the-stars and gore — called “War Paint,” with Tim McCoy.
America loved it.
The very notable location pictures he has turned out have never once been of his own choosing. Metro producers thought it might be a good thing to film an exploring story in a natural setting, and Woody matter-of-factly accepted the assignment because the studio was paying him a salary. He sailed off to Africa with a host of scared but expectant Hollywood people, tore into the darkest jungle, made his picture, and emerged triumphantly carrying the cans of finished film, later to be titled “Trader Horn.”
He boarded ship for the South Seas in order to do “The Pagan” and “White Shadows,” and then flew casually up into the Polar Circle when Metro wanted “Eskimo” finished in real snow.
So the International Adventurer’s Club and the Explorer’s Club of New York elected him to membership. Kentucky made him a Colonel and the Marines commissioned him as Major. In the midst of all the to-do he found time quietly to turn out such best-sellers as Tarzan the Ape Man, “Penthouse,” “The Prize-Fighter and the Lady,” “Laughing Boy,” “Manhattan Melodrama,” “The Thin Man,” “Hide-Out,” “Forsaking All Others,” Naughty Marietta and Rose Marie.
The trouble is he won’t take any credit for them. “Why should I?” he asked me when we sat talking, after lunch, in his wood-panelled office. “After all — I did a job for which I was paid. I took excellent stories and great box-office names and put them together. The result was inevitable. I would have had to be a pretty punk director to make flops out of sure-fire material like that.”
It isn’t modesty. He’s just being honest.
“But the thing is,” I pointed out, “you aren’t a punk director. You’re one of the best in Hollywood. And I want to know why. Maybe the studio does select your stories for you, maybe it does assign big stars to the roles, maybe you do have, from the very beginning, the component parts of a good motion picture. But the stories have to be developed and the stars directed and all the pieces put together correctly. There can’t be portions that drag, there can’t be any scenes done with such melodrama that the audiences will laugh, there can’t be any stilted acting. The gags have to get a laugh and the love scenes a sigh and the dramatics a tear. All of which is your job.”
He leaned back in his leather chair — very tall and very tanned, with that impression of lean strength which always sits about him. “Well, first,” he began, “the producer assigns a story —”
“After you’ve passed on it?” I interrupted.
“Nothing of the sort. I never have the slightest inkling of what my next picture will be until the studio calls me in and hands it over. Then I start work the next day.”
“Even if you think it’s lousy?”
“Even if I think that,” he agreed gravely. “It’s their funeral, not mine. I’ll do the best I can with it and they can take either profits or losses — I’m satisfied with the salary they give me. Naturally I hope the pictures I make will be popular ones, because too many flops, no matter whose fault they are, will hurt me and my reputation.
“I’ve only suggested one story in my entire career, and that with misgivings. But ‘The Thin Man,’ to me, was such a natural I couldn’t resist.” He paused. “Still, I think I was justified,” he added seriously; “It made an awful lot of money.”
He lit a cigarette. “I refuse even to read anything until it’s ready for the story department,” he said. “Then, of course, I sit in on the murder — and I’m no silent observer, either, as the writing boys will tell you.”
They did, later. Woody Van Dyke, they admitted, is no easy guy to put anything over on. He comes into the conference rooms, it seems, grinning and full of jovial humor. And the humor is there, and the grin, until the first sequence is read to him. “That sounds swell,” he says amiably. “ Marvelous. Only there isn’t an actor in Hollywood who could read the last few lines without looking like a fool. I can’t film such a scene. Can you see Gable with a black eye, and all sweaty from fighting, declaiming a speech like that? It may have nice alliteration but —”
Later he adds, “I think if you’ll just have him say, ‘Oh nuts’ — why that’ll do the trick just as well.” Mildly he will explain that no human being on earth could leap an eighty-foot chasm, a feat called for in the present script. If anyone argues, a circumstance which happens often, he will drop the smile and rise towering over the table and roar his side of the question until he, and everybody else, is out of breath.
It is a legend among the boys that he enjoys it; that after they have staggered, wilted and invariably defeated, from the room he sits back in his chair and laughs and laughs.
“After you’ve got the story finished,” I said to him, “I suppose you sit in with all the other departments. At least most directors do. They follow the set designers around and change backgrounds, and fuss with the wardrobe people about costumes —”
“I don’t do any of that. My premise is that it takes more than one man to make a movie — each has his own job, and he’s supposed to be an expert in it. Naturally he doesn’t thank anybody who comes around trying to” tell him how to work. I’m a director and that’s enough of a task in itself. I’m not going to waste my time or anyone else’s butting into something I don’t know anything about.” He crushed out his cigarette, lighted another. “The trouble with most movie people,” he told me through the smoke, “is that they take the whole thing too seriously. It’s no great matter of life and death about a picture. The public isn’t going to stop buying theater tickets if the length of an extra’s dress isn’t just right or a set has a little too much shadow in it. Making a motion picture consists merely of going onto a set, training a camera on competent players, and letting them act. Why turn it into a problem?”
So, when he has had his vehement say about the script, he goes quietly home to the Brentwood estate which he adores, and there he floats in his pool and reads in his lawn chairs and plays tennis on his courts until the supervisor phones to say that all at last is ready. Then at nine o’clock the next morning, neither early nor late by so much as a minute, he appears at the designated stage for work. The rest of his company, including the stars, are there and waiting if they know what is good for them.
And from that time on until the complete film begins its journey to sundry theater projection rooms throughout America and the world, he works like a dog, usually a little ahead of schedule, always impatient, incessantly amused and amusing.
Lunch is from twelve until one, which means exactly an hour and no longer, and at six each evening — on the stroke — he gestures to technicians and players, and reaches for his hat. His employers have his word that he will accept no summons to any conference whatsoever during his working day. It would delay the schedule and anyway, ultimatums Van, all that sort of thing should have been finished before the picture started.
An average production takes him about three weeks. Other directors, working until nine o’clock at night, are lucky if they’re through in three months.
So far as the actual shooting itself is concerned,” he told me, “I have a few rules that I follow, yes. The main one is speed — keeping ahead of the audience. The reckless pace at which I work has a little more behind it than mere desire to get through and save money. The heightened tension and lack of dreary rehearsals necessarily has its effect not only on the staff but on the players as well.
“The atmosphere of the entire set is one of hurry, and the stars naturally snap into everything they do with an alertness you don’t find on other stages. It gives a crisp, vital quality to the final production, and since they haven’t worn themselves out going over and over a scene until they’re stilted in it, the performance has spontaneity — which anyway is the most important thing in acting.
“After spending all those years at directing, I’ve finally learned that the first rehearsal — always the first take — is the best. There may be a few imperfections but the general effect is better; and that’s the most important discovery I ever made.”
Tempo, then, is the secret of his pictures’ invariable success. Perfection of detail, word-for-word regard for the script sacrificed to speed and spontaneity — equals good pictures. W. S. Van Dyke may and will receive fifty different arguments to that formula from as many directors in Hollywood, but he’ll stand on it. The public, he’s found out, agrees with him.
Cues must be picked up quickly by every member of the cast. “When you and I talk together,” Van explained, “there’s no hesitation between the end of my speech and the beginning of yours. You’ve begun to talk before the last syllable has left my lips, and I interrupt your final word to start my next sentence. So I try to get that from the people I direct. Clark Gable is an adept at it — in fact I like to work with him as well as anyone I know.”
“What sort of people, generally, do you like to have assigned to your pictures?” I asked.
Surprisingly, he wasn’t coy about it. “Aside from Gable,” he said at once, “I like Spencer Tracy and Robert Taylor — Nelson Eddy — Joan Crawford and Jeanette MacDonald — they’re fine performers and good scouts, all of them. There’s not a dullard in the lot. They do what I tell them to do, they follow my discipline, and when I make a smart crack they’ve got an answer every time.”
He enjoys his work, does Woody. And he wants the others to enjoy it with him.
Second, he inculcates movement into every scene he takes. People, you will notice in a Van Dyke picture, do not stand about for minutes at a time and talk quietly. They go places, they handle things, they run and trot and fight and embrace and fall out of bed and climb telephone poles — anything but static inactivity. The cameraman is his own boss but he has one basic instruction: “Keep moving!” So that no matter what the scene is, you, the audience, view it from as many angles as possible. When Gable walks across a room with Joan you follow along; when Nelson Eddy rides up a mountain trail with Jeanette MacDonald you ride also, first on one side, then on the other, in front and above.
In the cutting Van keeps hands off again — but again an ironclad rule stands. The scenes are to be broken up as much as possible with big close-ups. Shots that lag are to be sacrificed at all costs to tempo and pace, and dialogue is to race as merrily and naturally as possible.
“You see, three-fourths of any picture is utterly unimportant anyway,” Van told me. “Out of the entire thing only a few scenes are so necessary to the effect or plot or characterization that you have to worry about them. The shots that I consider as merely builderuppers can be finished as hurriedly as possible, and got out of the way; but love scenes must be slower and more carefully done. I pick out the best sequences of every story and spend most of my time working them up and elaborating them.”
I remembered, months before, watching him do the scene in “Hideout” when Bob Montgomery and Maureen O’Sullivan, trapped suddenly in an abandoned house by rain, were to discover that they loved each other after all. As usual, everyone on the set was in high good humor, gags about the rain machine, which was working overtime, were being snapped back and forth — the mood of the entire company had that tense, whipped-up quality of enforced speed prevalent wherever and whenever Woody is on the job.
“Have at it, you two,” Van said — and Bob and Maureen had at it. I’ve forgotten what the dialogue was, in detail, but the effect was very comic. Montgomery would snap something like, “After all this time — to find you at last!” and breaking in on his final word Maureen would fling out:
“Oh for the love of Pete,” I heard Van Dyke interpolate, huskily. When the scene was finished he said, “Bob, that was fine. We’ve some time just now — how about a game of checkers?”
A little bewildered, Montgomery came over and sat down. “Sure,” he said.
It wasn’t a fast game. Woody went into prayer before each move — and gradually the aura of swift flight hanging over the set began to disappear. You could see relaxation set into the group of players who clustered around the board, even the technicians lounging in the background.
Finally Van jumped four of Bob’s men and stood up. “Want to try that love scene again now?” he asked.
Realistically moderate in pace, tender without lagging for an instant, the sequence they shot then has become known as one of the finest Van Dyke has ever directed.
This on the home lot; but during the location trips his tactics are different. He turns into a ruthless general, a disciplinarian to whom there can be no excuses for disobedience. “You can’t be gentle with them when you’re astraddle the Equator or the North Pole,” he told me, frowning. “I hate locations of course — nothing but grief and hard work. No communication, sanitation difficulties, transportation difficulties... But there’s one advantage. If people won’t do what they’re told you can knock ‘em out and put them on a stretcher and carry them away.”
Shrewd, hard, uncompromising, he keeps consistent watch over his gang. “There’s the morale to keep up,” he told me; “after awhile they begin to hate themselves and me and everybody else. In the South Seas I have to go around and see that they take their quinine so the fever won’t get them, and keep the men from taking the weather and the native women seriously — and make sure they don’t cut themselves swimming over coral reefs.”
In the North wastelands his worry is, not the cold because they have dressed for that, but making sure his people are not too active. Since if they exercise and get sweaty there can be no means of drying themselves; and that means freezing later.
“Also the so-called ‘Old-timers,’” added Van bitterly. “The main difficulty I had making ‘Eskimo’ was from the veterans who gave my lads permission to do things that I had forbidden —”
The afternoon, for instance, when he came casually forth from his cabin on the ship to find one of the Eskimos and two girls just getting ready to set out by dog-sled for a joy ride on the ice.
“Get away from that sled,” barked Woody furiously. “Who told you to leave the ship?”
The two old sailors for’ard, they replied, had said it would be all right.
“Come aboard,” Van commanded.
Four minutes later there was an eighty-foot lead of sheer water between the vessel and the moving ice. It would have been impossible to rescue any of the trio if they had gone.
A few nights after that the company was mushing slowly back toward camp when a blizzard shot down from the low-hanging sky. “Stay with the sleds!” Van shouted desperately, knowing they were close enough in for the dogs to lead them.
But one enterprising assistant cameraman began to run ahead.
In an instant the storm had settled down around them, with such terrific force that it must have made the boy swerve a little; anyway the sleds passed within a foot of him in the sudden swirling blackness.
Woody was frantic when the company got in, finally, and he had counted noses. He sent out some Eskimos, refused a group of eager white volunteers (“It’s bad enough to have one of you lost at a time!”) sent up rockets and flares.
The cameraman, finally and by the will of God, walked accidentally into their ship, six miles from the place where he had first lost himself; and after five minutes with Van Dyke he wished he had stayed in the comparatively friendly blizzard.
“That was just crazy recklessness,” Van exploded to me. “Courage is another thing —”
He remembered, smiling, the time in Africa, when, in grass to their waists and mud to their knees, he and his company were confronted suddenly by a charge of water buffalo. They’d no idea which way the stampede would go; there was no recourse but to stand, while a cataract of sound filled the still air, and wait on the will of the leader bull.
Bob Robers, head cameraman, stood — his face the color of paper — quietly cranking. Suddenly he turned to Van.
“Want to buy a camera cheap?” he grinned.
This Woodward Strong Van Dyke, then, is the man who in 1917 drew first fame by making five feature pictures for a total sum of $20,000, and four years later, after their box-office value was spent, his studio sold the negatives for $65,000.
Who, on his way one afternoon to begin a Western serial in the desert, opened his stateroom window for a moment and watched the only script in existence blow out and scatter over the sagebrush; and shot the picture anyway.
Who, after Africa and the Arctic Circle, remembers as the most harrowing experience of his life a walk across the yet uncompleted San Francisco bridge to make a shot for “Love on the Run.” (“Altaphobia or no altaphobia, my pride made me do it,” he told me.) And who fears neither mad elephant nor irritated tiger but who will leave a room in absolute terror if he sees a moth.
This is the man who swears he doesn’t care what happens to motion pictures, nor what color and television will do; but who has broken more precedents than any other director in the world and who was one of the first to make sound an advantage to the movie industry.
“I don’t try for Art,” he shouts. “I don’t try to make epics.”
Yet his productions, somehow, are both artistic and epochal.
“He’s a speed-demon and an economist,” said Clark Gable to me. “But I’ll trust my popularity and my sense of humor in Woody Van Dyke’s hands any day of the year.”
Jeanette MacDonald and the director on the set of Naughty Marietta.
Below, Johnny Weissmuller, Maureen O’Sullivan and Van greet the natives used in “Eskimo”.
Bob Montgomery and Maureen in “Hideout,” above.
Below, a scene from “Love on the Run.” Woody had the most harrowing experience of his life making this picture.
Source: Photoplay, December 1936