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Sam Wood (1883-1949)

Sam Wood
Sam Wood



Sam Wood was a film director, and producer, with a reputation for reliability, a no-nonsense approach and with an ability to finish a project on time and under budget. His is not the first name that comes to mind when discussing top directors of Hollywood's Golden Age, but, in fact he directed many fine movies in different genres during the 1930's and 40's, including classics such as 'A Night at the Opera', 'Goodbye, Mr Chips' and 'The Pride of the Yankees', and he directed a string of actors to Oscar-winning performances. He, himself in the space of three years, received three Academy Award nominations for Best Director, for 'Goodbye, Mr. Chips' in 1939, 'Kitty Foyle' in 1940 and 'Kings Row' in 1942.

In addition, six of his movies received Academy Award nominations in the Best Picture category, starting in 1939 with 'Goodbye Mr. Chips', then 'Kitty Foyle' and 'Our Town' in 1940, 'Kings Row' and 'Pride of the Yankees' in 1942, and 'For Whom The Bell Tolls' in 1943.

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Biography

He was born Samuel Grosvenor Wood on July 10, 1883, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He had a variety of jobs as a young man, including selling real estate and working as an oil pipeline rigger. He began his acting life in 1908, appearing in early silent two reelers and using the name Chad Applegate.

After several years learning the ropes of movie making, he joined the staff of Cecil B. DeMille in 1915 and when, through a series of mergers involving de Mille's company, Paramount Pictures was created, he joined the new company. He worked, uncredited, as assistant director on de Mille's second 'The Squaw Man' movie in 1918 and on 'For Better, for Worse' and 'Why Change Your Wife?' in the following two years. His movie education continued and accelerated and he signed a contract as a solo director with the newly formed Paramount Pictures in 1920.

Paramount

For the next seven years Wood benefited from Paramount's policy of using star names to sell pictures. He began by working with heartthrob Wallace Reid on car chase thrillers such as 'Double Speed' and 'Excuse My Dust' in 1920 and continued by directing Paramount's major female star, Gloria Swanson, in nine films in succession, including 'Under the Lash' and 'The Great Moment' in 1921, and, with Rudolph Valentino as her co-star, 'Her Husband's Trademark', and 'Beyond the Rocks' in 1922.

For the next few years Wood continued to direct Paramount's top stars such as Bebe Daniels in 'His Children's Children' in 1923, Lon Chaney in 'The Next Corner' the following year, and Thelma Todd and Clara Bow in ' Fascinating Youth' in 1926.

MGM

When his contract with Paramount ended in 1927, Wood had a solid body of work behind him and had established a reputation for efficiency although not for flair and brilliance. He joined MGM with whom he would stay for the next 12 years, and he was able to hit his stride immediately. In the new era of Talkies he was able to utilise the top stars of the studio, such as Anita Page, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Marie Dressler and Jimmy Durante.

He worked on 2 or 3 movies a year, mostly of a routine, uninspired kind, but occasionally came up with a real gem. For instance in 1930 he directed the young Joan Crawford in 'Paid' (also known as 'Within the Law') a dramatic movie which took full advantage of the pre-Code freedom and in the same year he directed a full blown musical about baseball, called 'They Learned About Women'.

Some of his better films of this early sound era include 'The Man In Possession' in 1931 with Robert Montgomery, 'Prosperity' the following year, a well received Marie Dressler comedy, and 'Hold Your Man' in 1933, with the sensational combination of two of Hollywood's biggest stars, Clark Gable and Jean Harlow.

Wood was able to move effortlessly between genres, directing brilliant Marx Brothers comedies such as 'A Night at the Opera' in 1935 and 'A Day at the Races' in 1937, as well as classic melodramas such as 'Goodbye Mr. Chips' in 1939, and he found time to direct some scenes, uncredited, on 'Gone with the Wind' in 1939 when George Cukor was forced to leave by producer David Selznick.

Freelance

He reached his creative peak in the 1940's after leaving MGM to become a freelance, directing with great skill several films which stand comparison with anything else produced at that time. These include 'Our Town' in 1940, 'The Pride of the Yankees' in 1942, and 'Kings Row', also in 1942, in which Wood brings out one of the best performances of Ronald Reagan's career.

Wood seemingly had the invaluable ability to bring out the best in his performers. As well as Ronald Reagan in 'Kings Row' he got magnificent, career-defining performances from two actresses: Ginger Rogers in 'Kitty Foyle' in 1940 for which she received the Best Actress Academy Award, and Jean Arthur in 'The Devil and Miss Jones' in 1941.

Wood also had an affinity with the laconic Gary Cooper, producing great acting from him portraying the legendary Lou Gehrig in 'Pride of the Yankees' in 1942 and following with 'For Whom the Bell Tolls' in 1943, 'Casanova Brown' in 1944 and 'Saratoga Trunk' the following year.

Wood's later films were mainly successes with Joan Fontaine at her best in 'Ivy' in 1947 and Clark Gable working perfectly with Van Johnson and Walter Pidgeon in the war film 'Command Decision' in 1948.

Personal

Wood married once, in 1908 to Clara L. Roush and they remained married for 41 years until his death. They had two daughters, who both became actresses.

Sam Wood died from a heart attack on September 22nd, 1949, in Hollywood. He was buried at the Forest Lawn cemetery in Glendale, California.

Summary

Wood was an old fashioned director in that he achieved results from repeating the same shot time and again. Although this did not endear him to many actors, particularly the Marx Brothers, it undoubtedly got results as it caused his performers to constantly rethink their parts until they found subtleties which would have been unimaginable on the first few takes. It made Wood a very effective director and was one reason why so many actors such as Ronald Reagan, Ann Sheridan and Jean Arthur achieved their best performances under his guidance.

History has not treated Sam Wood kindly. Most movie historians tend to gloss over him, but this is harsh as his record of movie successes can be compared to most of the major directors. The reason for his being overlooked seems to be his reactionary politics and his actions during the anti-Communist witch hunt which took place in Hollywood during the late 1940's.

Wood was unashamedly right wing in his politics and when the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA) was formed in 1944 by a group of conservative thinkers, he joined, and in 1947 became its president. Its aim was to find and denounce "subversives", which meant Communists, in Hollywood. Sam Wood testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 which increased fears of undue Communist influence in the U.S. film industry and it was an action which won him very few friends and very little respect. His image was marred as a result and he has been discredited ever since. It is a pity because his movie record deserves better.


Sam Wood Academy Awards

No Wins:
Three Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Director ... Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
Best Director ... Kitty Foyle (1940)
Best Director ... Kings Row (1942)

Sam Wood Filmography

1920
Double Speed
Excuse My Dust
The Dancin' Fool
Sick Abed
What's Your Hurry?
A City Sparrow
Her Beloved Villain
Her First Elopement
1921
The Snob
Peck's Bad Boy
The Great Moment
Under the Lash
Don't Tell Everything
1922
Her Husband's Trademark
Her Gilded Cage
Beyond the Rocks
The Impossible Mrs. Bellew
My American Wife
1923
Prodigal Daughters
Bluebeard's Eighth Wife
His Children's Children
1924
The Next Corner
Bluff
The Female
The Mine with the Iron Door
1925
The Re-Creation of Brian Kent
1926
Fascinating Youth
One Minute to Play
1927
Rookies

A Racing Romeo
The Fair Co-Ed
1928
The Latest from Paris
Telling the World
1929
Queen Kelly (uncredited)

So This Is College
It's a Great Life
1930
They Learned About Women
The Girl Said No
The Sins of the Children (uncredited)
Way for a Sailor (uncredited)
Paid (aka Within the Law
1931
A Tailor Made Man
The Man in Possession (uncredited)
New Adventures of Get Rich Quick Wallingford
1932
The Impossible Lover (uncredited)
Prosperity (uncredited)
1933
A Night in Cairo
Hold Your Man (uncredited)
The Late Christopher Bean
1934
The Cat and the Fiddle (uncredited)
Hollywood Party (uncredited)
Stamboul Quest
100 Per Cent Pure (uncredited)