W S Van Dyke (1889-1943)

W S Van Dyke
W S Van Dyke

W S Van Dyke was an American movie director who, before his suicide in 1943, directed some of the most successful early Hollywood Talkies including 'The Thin Man' in 1934, 'San Francisco' in 1936 and six of the highly popular Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald musicals. He was twice nominated for the Best Director Academy Award, for 'The Thin Man' and 'San Francisco' and he directed four actors to Oscar nominations: William Powell (Best Actor, The Thin Man), Spencer Tracy (Best Actor, San Francisco), Norma Shearer (Best Actress, Marie Antoinette in 1938), and Robert Morley (Best Supporting Actor, Marie Antoinette).

He was renowned for finishing movies on time and within budget, and he became known by the nickname of "One Take Woody". He was a devout Christian Scientist and when he became seriously ill after directing 'Journey with Margaret' in 1942, he refused medical treatment, and committed suicide.

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He was born Woodbridge Strong Van Dyke on March 21, 1889 in San Diego, California. His father was a Superior Court judge who died on the day he was born. Dyke's mother, Laura Winston returned to her original calling, the stage, and Van Dyke toured and appeared with her as a child actor in a variety of roles in vaudeville and travelling stock companies. At 14 he moved to Seattle to stay with his grandmother, and took a variety of part time jobs including janitor, waiter, salesman, and railroad attendant whilst attending business school.

A restless young man, he left home and took a variety of outdoor jobs including gold prospector and lumberjack before returning to Seattle to take up acting once again. He got married for the first time in his late teens and he and his actress wife, Zelda, joined various touring theater companies, finally arriving in Hollywood in 1915. Through a chance meeting he got a job as an assistant to D.W.Griffith on the director's movie 'Intolerance' in 1916. In the same year he worked again as assistant director and also acted in 'Oliver Twist'.


His organisational talent was obvious and he was a fast learner. He rose through the studio to become a full director and in 1917 he both wrote and directed 'The Land of Long Shadows' and he continued his movie making apprenticeship by making dozens of 'B' movies over the next eight years. Many were westerns such as 'The Avenging Arrow' in 1921 and 'Trail Rider' in 1925 and he also directed thrillers such as 'The Hawk's Trail' in 1919 and 'Gold Heels' in 1924. He also directed the boxer, Jack Dempsey in 'Daredevil Jack' in 1920. After fully learning his new profession with these low budget silents Van Dyke was signed by Irving Thalberg of MGM in 1926 already with a reputation for ruthlessness and efficiency.

For MGM Van Dyke continued making cheap 'B' movies such as 'The Eyes of the Totem' in 1927 and 'Under the Black Eagle' the following year, until 1928 when he was sent to Tahiti to salvage the faltering production of 'White Shadows of the South Seas' from director Robert Flaherty. Flaherty had been shooting the film at an impractically slow pace. After clashes with Van Dyke, Flaherty left the production, leaving Van Dyke as sole director. Van Dyke then finished the movie on schedule, his reputation for speed and efficiency enhanced. He was a no-nonsense taskmaster and it was to be the first of several occasions when he would be asked to save a movie from disaster.

He was legendarily hard on casts and crews, pushing them to their limits to get his films in on time and under budget, much to the delight of his bosses. With 'White Shadows' salvaged, MGM handed Van Dyke the task of directing 'Trader Horn' in 1931, the first sync-sound film ever shot in Africa. A rousing adventure tale, it was a box-office hit.

Returning from Africa after a bruising expedition, the prolific Van Dyke directed a number of genre classics, including the first pairing of Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O'Sullivan in 'Tarzan the Ape Man' in 1932, before making a lasting name for himself with 'The Thin Man' in 1934. Based on a crime novel by Dashiell Hammett, 'The Thin Man' was shot in just 12 days. Starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as a happily drinking husband and wife detective team, the film was an enormous hit, and Van Dyke's fortune was assured. He also directed three of the 'Thin Man' sequels ensuring that Powell and Loy became one of Hollywood's most successful film partnerships.

For the rest of his career Van Dyke was regarded as one of MGM's most versatile and dependable directors, working feverishly and successfully on a variety of genres, equally at home directing costume dramas, such as 'Marie Antoinette' in 1938, starring Norma Shearer, crime melodramas such as 'Manhattan Melodrama' in 1934 or the wonderful Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy musicals which he directed between 1935 and 1942. He showed himself to be equally capable with family movies such as 'Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever' with Mickey Rooney in 1939, and 'Doctor Kildare's Victory'. with Lew Ayres as the good doctor, in 1942.

Van Dyke set himself and his actors very high standards and it paid off. Many of his films were huge box office hits. He was the consummate studio craftsman, willing to take on any project, utterly lacking in personal vanity, and always conscious of the bottom line. He was also a remarkable stylist. During a period of 25 years, he economically directed over 90 diverse entertainments, which not only saved the studios vast amounts of money, but also turned out to be some of the most interesting motion pictures created during this period.


Van Dyke was married twice, firstly to an actress, Zelda around 1907, the marriage ending in divorce in 1935. His second wife whom he married in February, 1935, was Ruth Mannix, niece of MGM executive E.J. Mannix. He and Ruth had three children and remained married until Van Dyke's death. They had homes in Brentwood and Malibu, which became the locations for numerous legendary Hollywood parties.

Van Dyke was a strong character and was extremely popular within Hollywood. On every picture he insisted on employing actors and technicians who had fallen on hard times and who needed the work. He was known and admired for his encouragement of natural, spontaneous performances from his actors, often including ad libs in the final film. Numerous actors owed their elevation to movie stardom to Van Dyke, particularly Myrna Loy, Johnny Weissmuller, Maureen O'Sullivan, Eleanor Powell, and Margaret O'Brien.

At the outbreak of World War II, Van Dyke was commissioned as major in the US Marines and he established a recruitment center at MGM, encouraging his colleagues to join up and help the war effort.

In the early 1940's Van Dyke was diagnosed with cancer and a serious heart condition. By 1943 he was gravely ill but he finished working on his last film 'Journey for Margaret', all the time refusing medical treatment as it conflicted with his staunch Christian Scientist beliefs. He made the decision to end his life and his suffering and, after saying his goodbyes to his wife and family he committed suicide on February 5, 1943 at his home in Brentwood, California. He was aged 53 years. The method of suicide was never divulged.

At his request, his friends Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald sang at his funeral and he was buried at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, Los Angeles. Funeral expenses in Los Angeles can cost several thousand dollars more than other large cities. Considering burial insurance and knowing all the charges involved in funeral costs takes the burden off surviving family members.

W S Van Dyke Academy Awards

No Wins:

Two Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Director ... The Thin Man (1934)
Best Director ... San Francisco (1936)

W S Van Dyke Filmography

The Land of Long Shadows
The Range Boss
Open Places
Men of the Desert
Gift o' Gab
Sadie Goes to Heaven
The Lady of the Dugout
Fate's Frame-Up (short)
The Hawk's Trail
Daredevil Jack
Double Adventure
The Avenging Arrow
White Eagle
The Milky Way
According to Hoyle
Forget Me Not
The Boss of Camp Four
The Little Girl Next Door
Destroying Angel
The Miracle Makers
Ruth of the Range ( - uncredited; replaced by Frank Smith)
Half-a-Dollar Bill
Loving Lies
The Battling Fool
The Beautiful Sinner
Winner Take All
Gold Heels
The Chicago Fire
The Trail Rider
Hearts and Spurs
Ranger of the Big Pines (as William S. Van Dyke)
Timber Wolf
The Desert's Price
War Paint
The Gentle Cyclone
Winners of the Wilderness
The Eyes of the Totem
The Heart of the Yukon
Foreign Devils
Spoilers of the West
Under the Black Eagle
The Adventurer (uncredited)
White Shadows in the South Seas
The Pagan