W. S. Van Dyke — Hollywood’s Most Versatile Director (1935) 🇺🇸

January 11, 2022

You’ll realize why Hollywood gave W. S. Van Dyke that title when you read this unusual story.

by Whitney Williams

Picture-goers are expressing a keen and growing interest in that most vital force in the making of screen entertainment — the director. And here Screenland, quick to respond to the desires of its readers, inaugurates a new and exceptional series of articles telling the-behind-the-screen realities about outstanding directors — as artists and individualists.

Two men stood conversing in low tones, at a Hollywood party. The hostess approached, heading a number of newcomers, and with a note of pride in her voice, announced impressively to her little brood, “May I have the honor of presenting His Majesty, the Sultan of Jahore — and Col. W. S. Van Dyke.”

“Oh,” chorused three of the ladies, while several more peered intently at the tall, rangy figure, The Thin Man. We just loved it, Colonel Van Dyke!”

The director of that production, while the Sultan looked on in amusement, flushed a dull maroon. In all his adventurous life this moment was his most embarrassing. Not because his work had found praise, or because he was the center of attraction — an old story, these, for him — but because, in the presence of this visiting monarch, he had been singled out by the group on which to lavish their attentions, while the ruler whose word in his particular corner of Asia is law was completely ignored.

This little anecdote may give you an insight into the true character of Col. W. S. Van Dyke, who considers his achievements on the screen, and safaris into the unknown, in the light of every-day toil. Self-effacing in regard to the pictures he makes and the results scored, you can readily understand his uncomfortable feelings as he listened to the remarks directed to him — while beside him passed unnoticed one of the best-known figures of the Orient, to whom a state reception would be extended in any court in the world.

A man of accomplishment, who has been everywhere and seen everything in all climes, whose list of honors (accorded him all over the world) can scarcely be printed in fine type on a single sheet of paper, Van Dyke is known in Hollywood as the most versatile director in motion pictures.

With his fine hand at the directorial helm, small chance exists that the production will fail to score a bull’s-eye at the box-office. Melodrama, adventure, comedy, drama and ultra-smartness are all one to this man who can head an expedition into the icy wastes of the Arctic, the steaming jungles of the tropics, or turn out so bright and highly sophisticated a piece as the already-mentioned favorite.

Three of the best pictures of the season, “The Prize-fighter and the Lady,” “Manhattan Melodrama” and The Thin Man, stand to his everlasting credit. Each is endowed with movement and charm, and spells Entertainment with capital letters. Indeed, there is always a virile ruggedness in every film Van Dyke directs, a quality that engages audiences regardless of their individual tastes. “Forsaking All Others,” starring Joan Crawford, and yet to be released, touches the more humorous side of life with a brilliance that adds still more to the director’s fame.

Particularly adept in fashioning outdoor drama and melodrama — as witness “White Shadows of the South Seas,” “The Pagan,” Trader Horn, Eskimo and Tarzan the Ape Manto mention but a few of the most outstanding — Van Dyke suddenly has veered from these types of film to sophistication of the most diverting order. World traveller, explorer, a born leader and organizer and diplomat, who knows the seamy side of life as well as its more polite form, he is peculiarly equipped to undertake the production of such stories. Thoroughly a cosmopolitan, at home in any situation (with the solitary exception, as noted at the beginning), he can draw upon his own experience and resources in faithfully patterning life on the screen. Humanness shades all his characters and ramifications of story in prominent relief.

“Let Van Dyke do it!” is now more or less accepted as a slogan at the studio where he is under contract. In the past, the executives depended upon him to such an extent that a long location trip, with its accompanying hazards, was not to be considered, if Van Dyke would not undertake it. He is known as a man who will take chances — but in carefully analyzing his methods it immediately becomes clear that chance does not enter his scheme of things. The plums of the season now are awarded him.

Van Dyke has travelled so extensively on arduous location jaunts to the ends of the earth, that anything in the way of a “home assignment” meets with his wholehearted approval — providing, of course, that the story will make a picture to the director’s taste. That, perhaps, may account somewhat for the rousing spirit that instilled the trio of pictures which audiences this season have hailed from one end of the country to the other.

Possibly, too, his years of globe-girdling now are bearing fruit in these very delightful dramas, so different in quality and tone from the usual studio output. Certainly, nothing could be more delightfully charming and exciting, with its undertone of menace, than the several-times-mentioned feature The Thin Man. (Forgive me if I seem to dwell on this production, but it offers such great strides in motion picture-making that I am using it as a criterion of Van Dyke’s superior technique.)

As one lounges in the director’s den — and I’ll vouch that nowhere in Hollywood will you find a more unusual or interesting room — he unconsciously finds himself drawn to this man, whose career has been marked with brilliance and high adventure. Horns, skins, savage equipment, curiosities bedeck his home, a large, comfortable, man’s dwelling several miles distant from the studio, comprising a portion of the enormous collection he has made during his more than fifty thousand miles’ journeying about the world on location trips. They bear mute testimony to his prowess as a hunter and explorer, to his taking his place as a rightful descendant of a long line of adventurers.

Well over six feet in height and hard as nails, he is the very epitome of how the adventurous director should appear. His eye is clear and his tone commanding. His rank of Colonel was conferred by the Governor of Kentucky, after he had witnessed “Trader Horn.” (The award was made before the rank was passed out in wholesale quantities.) He belongs to the International Adventurers Club and the Explorers Club of New York. Various countries have honored him for his attainments as an accomplished director and traveller. Framed official documents bear evidence of his membership in several geographic societies. In Japanese script is an honorary life membership in that kingdom’s Red Cross.

From extended sojourns, he knows Equatorial Africa, the South Seas, the Arctic, as well as other parts of the earth he has visited. “Trader Horn,” as you doubtless know, was filmed in the Belgian Congo. Two voyages to Tahiti were made to photograph “White Shadows of the South Seas” and “The Pagan” in their actual locale. With a large company, he allowed his ship to be frozen in the Arctic ice an entire winter, in the vicinity of Cape Barrow, northernmost tip of Alaska, for Eskimo.

With such a record of achievement in the distant places of the globe, you naturally would assume that he would be fairly itching to be on the go again, to look forward to further assignments in foreign fields. The lure of the unknown!

But not Van Dyke. Not this chap who would rather fight than eat, who has engaged, after the fashion of his ancestors, in more combats than you have bones in your body. Van, as his friends call him, fights for’ what he gets. Any wonder that he’s so successful in the far corners of the world and that the studio places implicit reliance in him, whether the picture is made thousands of miles away from home or on the lot?

Van Dyke, paradoxically, is a home lover. “I’d be completely satisfied if I never leave Hollywood again,” he asserts, positively. “Those trips are tough. Dozens of times I would no sooner get settled in my house than the studio would tell me to pack up.

“It begins to look now, however, as though I can see a bit of my friends, take advantage of the comfort I have been trying vainly to enjoy for years. I never plan very far ahead, but I honestly believe the studio will keep me busy, for a while, at least, with the type of picture I have • been directing recently.

“Most people think only of the interesting, the romantic side of travelling. In their search for pleasure and excitement they have no cares to worry them, beyond looking out for themselves.

“When I go on an extended location trip, it’s not in the nature of a pleasure excursion but as the head of a company numbering anywhere from thirty^six people upward. Aside from the results expected, I’m responsible for every one of them, for their every act, their safe return, and if you’ve ever led such a crew you know what that means. Believe me, the happiest moment of these months away from Hollywood is the minute I step off the train and deliver every man Jack home safely.”

Equally at home in a tailcoat on a ballroom floor, or rough clothing in the jungle country, Van Dyke makes the most of his opportunities. That spirit that elevated John Honeyman, a direct ancestor, to George Washington’s most trusted and able spy, during the American Revolution, likewise courses through his blood. The studio insisted he make pictures half-way round the world — he always returned with the goods, an epic. Averse to making such films, he nevertheless proved himself the outstanding exponent of such undertakings.

Now that the studio finally has listened to his pleas to remain at home, his new pictures are as delightfully intriguing as his outdoor dramas were stimulating to the imagination. In all truth, he has established himself definitely Hollywood’s most versatile director.

From Equatorial Africa to the Arctic, W. S. Van Dyke has traveled in search of the drama he has brought to the screen.

Right, you see him directing a scene for Eskimo.

Left, W. S. Van Dyke and Raquel Torres in Tahiti, where he filmed “White Shadows of the South Seas.”

Lower left, making the film in which Van Dyke gave new evidence of versatility — The Thin Man.

Collection: Screenland MagazineJanuary 1935