I told Mr. Griffith I had come to talk to him about Woody Van Dyke. "Van Dyke?" he said. "He was an adventurer: everything that man did he made into an adventure. Why, just to know him was an adventure in itself."
Some weeks ago I happened to read "Filmens frågetecken," an article from 1942 by Artur Lundkvist, a prominent Swedish writer and critic, about the then current state of international cinema. The article is also a discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of cinema as an art form, given its expensive and collaborative nature, and Lundkvist emphasises that the best films are those where the director is able to push through his artistic vision. He writes about Soviet montage, he misses Weimar cinema, celebrates Poetic Realism, and names these Hollywood directors as the best, the artists: Ford, Vidor, Capra, Dieterle, Mamoulian, Van Dyke, von Sternberg, Lang. He is also excited about Citizen Kane (Orson Welles 1941), which had just been released in Sweden.
In short, what Lundkvist had to say is not different from how most film history books and film history courses today are discussing the cinema leading up to 1942. It is the same countries, movements, films and directors. But three names stand out, two names for not being mentioned, and one for being mentioned. Those that are missing are Alfred Hitchcock and Ernst Lubitsch, who were then, and are today, considered among the most important of filmmakers of that time. But considering how many Lundkvist did mention, he might have forgotten them in the spur of the moment. What is more interesting is the inclusion of W.S. Van Dyke as one of the masters, as he is somebody who has been almost completely forgotten and is usually not mentioned more than in a footnote at best. But in the 1930s he was a star director, one of the most successful, and one of the most highly paid in Hollywood. He was twice nominated for an Oscar for best director, and several of his films from the 1930s were among the five biggest box office hits of their years of release. When I did my survey of 1930s cinema last year, Van Dyke was one of those that I did not have time to explore at depth, but being reminded of him by Lundkvist's article, I finally went through with it now. I was helped by several books, listed at the end, and in particular a breezy book about Van Dyke's life and career published already in 1948, Van Dyke and the Mythical City by Robert C. Cannom. The page references below is from that book, as is the quote on top. (p. 24-25)
His full name is striking: Woodbridge Strong Van Dyke II. It sounds like a character from a P.G. Wodehouse novel. It is usually shortened to W.S. Van Dyke, but he was called Woody, and in the film business he was also known as One-Take Woody, because of his way of filmmaking. He was born in 1889, and had different sorts of adventurous jobs before he settled on the movie business, working in various capacities on the set with D.W. Griffith on both The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). (On his first day, Van Dyke walked up to a man on a bench outside the studio and said: "Van Dyke's my name." The other man replied "Mine's Erich von Stroheim. Have a seat." (p. 51))
The following year he began directing himself. For ten years he made serials and cheap westerns, often working under the supervision of David O. Selznick, before Selznick became the mythological producer of the late 1930s. But Van Dyke craved to become a big, respected director, one of the "inner circle" instead of a maker of lowbrow fare. His chance came with the production of White Shadows in the South Seas (1928). It was initially a project for Robert Flaherty, produced by MGM, but it turned into a series of battles between Selznick (who wanted to do it with Van Dyke) and Hunt Stromberg (who was producing it for Flaherty) and their boss Irving Thalberg, who first supported Flaherty, then fired him, then brought him back, then fired him again. The office politics behind the film is a thesis in its own right, and I am not sure I have got the facts right. To add to the confusion, William Randolph Hearst's film company Cosmopolitan Productions was also involved. But eventually Van Dyke took over and made it his film, while incorporating footage filmed by Flaherty.
White Shadows in the South Seas was a great success and it elevated Van Dyke to the position he aspired too. It also fitted in with his taste for adventure, and desire for independence. He knew what he wanted, and he did not want people to interfere with him. For several years he made films across the world, including The Pagan (1929) in Tahiti, Eskimo (1933) in northern Canada, and the biggest success of them all, Trader Horn (1931), in eastern and central Africa. These were films shot on location, with documentary aspirations, and using the people who actually lived there in the cast, and he wanted them to speak their own language. Some of them, like White Shadows in the South Seas, were films about an unspoiled world where child-like "natives" live in harmony with nature, and beautiful girls swim around naked. They were inevitably a white man's films, paternalistic, even if they treated the people with love and tenderness. Trader Horn was different, more of an adventure story about hidden secrets and finding "the White Goddess of Paganism" in the jungle. Van Dyke also did a lot of hunting, especially in Africa, filling his home in California with trophies.
These films gave him prestige, were successful at the box office, and Trader Horn became a milestone. They were also exhausting, massive productions with huge responsibilities. Allegedly Van Dyke was the inspiration for Carl Denham, the filmmaker played by Robert Armstrong, who wants to make a film about the big gorilla in King Kong (Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack 1933). But the material Van Dyke shot, especially for Trader Horn, was so rich that he, and MGM, could make use of it in later films as well, such as Tarzan the Ape Man (1932).
The special effects, matte paintings, and back projections in Tarzan the Ape Man are outstanding, together with the central African location footage. The sequence that the image above comes from looks so authentic it is enough to pinch yourself. (I think the technique used is the Dunning Process.) Tarzan is not a particularly good film however, neither dialogue nor acting runs smoothly, and it is cringeworthy in many ways. Like Trader Horn, its depiction of black Africans is demeaning, and its use of animals exploitative. But it has a certain kind of primitive purity. It is a mad film, of getting lost in the wilderness and discarding the modern world and all its evils, of re-entering a lost world. The film also introduced Johnny Weissmuller to cinema, and a long line of sequels followed, none directed by Van Dyke. But however successful and influential his "African" films were, they are not films I would recommend now.
What happened next was that Van Dyke began a close collaboration with Myrna Loy. She had been acting for many years and had gotten good reviews for her performances in, for example, Transatlantic (William K. Howard 1931) and The Animal Kingdom (Edward H. Griffith 1932), and praise from the cinematographer James Wong Howe, one of the greatest of camera artists, for her technical awareness. But although she played Becky Sharp in the low-budget Vanity Fair (Chester M. Franklin 1932), she rarely played any leading parts, was frequently cast as a seductive or tragic "Oriental" woman, and she hardly ever did comedy. Van Dyke felt that she had not been given the roles and the direction she deserved, and he took it upon himself to change that. He was perhaps the person who made Loy the towering star that she became, which she often credited him for. In her first audition for him, she began her performance but after a few minutes, he stopped her and said: "Ah, that's a lot of nonsense, Myrna. You don't have to act!" (p. 278) He wanted her to be herself, and that was the key to her success. It was also how he worked as a director, favouring spontaneity, immediacy, personality. He was one of those who cut in camera, shooting only exactly what he needed, and often using the first take to capture that spontaneity and immediacy; the reason why he was called One-Take Woody. He even had his own camera equipment created to be able to be fast and flexible, nimble, and do a shot in one take.
The first film he made with Loy is Penthouse
(1933). She plays a night club singer/call girl and Warner Baxter plays a lawyer/detective, in this sexy, snappy film. It is of no particular genre, being part gangster movie, part screwball movie, part detective movie, part musical. It is delightful, and Loy is radiant. Here is a funny scene
, which feels as Wodehouse-esque as Van Dyke's full name. In its timing it is magnificent, the way the dialogue moves with their body movements, how the absurdities steadily escalate, beat for beat, and how the butler turns towards the mirror when he says he went home with the big blonde, and as the camera captures the mirror, Baxter's hangover lawyer gags on his coffee, which we see in the reflection that just appeared.
Loy and Van Dyke then made The Prizefighter and the Lady. It was to be made by Howard Hawks, for MGM, but neither Hawks nor MGM was satisfied with it. It seems the head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer, called Van Dyke, who was Mayer's favourite director, and asked if he could help. Van Dyke said yes, took the roll of films Hawks had shot, threw them in the trash, and said: "I told you I'd fix it!" Then he re-shot the whole film himself. (p. 279) The result is a good, lively, but traditional boxing film in which plenty of famous boxers appear as themselves. It ends with a long, impressive fight sequence at Madison Square Garden, for the title of heavyweight championship. Max Baer, the actual heavyweight champion of 1934, plays the lead, and Loy plays his girlfriend. They meet by chance and he invites her to a fight, which she somewhat reluctantly goes to. But when she seems him in the ring, appreciating his body and his movements (the female gaze is alive and well in this film) she leaves her nightclub owner boyfriend for him. That boyfriend is played by Otto Kruger, and as he is a gangster of sorts, you always expect him to become violent and threatening, but he does not. He remains loyal and kind, despite being hurt and sad when she breaks up with him, and this is one of the strengths of the film. It also stars Walter Huston as the manager, and he and Loy have several sweet scenes together. There is one fine scene in particular where they have an argument, and she suddenly and spontaneously starts to mimic his behaviour.
After Van Dyke made Manhattan Melodrama (1933), with Loy and William Powell, he became so enthusiastic about the pairing of Loy and Powell that he wanted to do something fun about married life with the two of them. He settled for Dashiell Hammett's novel The Thin Man, and after some persistent arguments, MGM agreed to let him do it. It was the quintessential Van Dyke film, more or less made up as they went along, with Van Dyke sometimes not even telling the cast he was filming them when he asked them to act out a scene, and many scenes were improvised on the spot. (There are similarities between Van Dyke and Leo McCarey.) It was a tremendous hit, earned Van Dyke his first Oscar nomination for best director, lead to several sequels, some directed by Van Dyke, and has remained a classic, and Van Dyke's most famous film, even though many probably do not know who directed it.
From 1934, Van Dyke was working with Hunt Stromberg as producer instead of Selznick, and by now he was exceptionally productive, some years he directed up to five films, which is possible when you are the fastest working director in Hollywood. He primarily worked for MGM, where he was popular and had a level of independence. It may have helped that he was married to Ruth Mannix, the niece of Eddie Mannix, one of MGM's most powerful executives. He continued to make huge hits, including San Francisco (1936), which has spectacular special effects, about the devastating earthquake of 1906, and Marie Antoinette (1938), co-directed with Julien Duvivier. The latter, 150 minutes of French court intrigues, is not Van Dyke's natural habitat, and it is somewhat dull. He tries to inject some mischief and banter here and there, but its real quality is the way it looks; a triumph of MGM's art director Cedric Gibbons and his teams, and the cinematographer William H. Daniels (Garbo's favourite). Decor and design-wise, it is among Hollywood's greatest achievement of the 1930s. But I prefer the war film/gangster film They Gave Him a Gun (1937), which looks more like a Warner Bros. film than an MGM production, and is so strikingly shot and edited at times that it might have impressed Eisenstein. (MGM and Eisenstein is not an obvious fit, but such is the complexities of the real world, as opposed to the taught world.)
Spencer Tracy in They Gave Him a Gun
But mainly Van Dyke made comedies and musicals (several with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy). Unfortunately, by now it seems as if Van Dyke had lost something. In films like Hide-Out (1934), Love on the Run (1936), It's a Wonderful World (1939) despite having both Mankiewiczs (Herman and Joseph) involved, and Ben Hecht, and despite the latter films starring Crawford/Gable and Colbert/Stewart, and despite Van Dyke's presence being felt, something is missing. They do not just lack Myrna Loy; they lack something else too. The comedy feels laboured and awkward, the earlier energy and quick wit are missing. It is possible that Van Dyke could not get his own style across when the censorship and the Hays code tightened, or maybe he got worn down by the MGM machinery. At the beginning of the 1930s he had been a trendsetter; towards the end of it he instead directed late instalments in long-running film series such as Andy Hardy and Dr. Kildare.
I do not think Van Dyke can be regarded as one of the best filmmakers in Hollywood of the 1930s. He is far below the level of Lubitsch, or Ford, or Hawks, or Cukor, or Hathaway, or Lang, or Borzage, or von Sternberg, and others. Maybe Van Dyke's greatest gift to film history is that he saw something in Myrna Loy, and together they made the best of that. She is effortlessly irresistible in their films together, which are his best. However, they are not necessarily her best.
In the early 1940s, Van Dyke got sick with cancer. When he made his last film, the stiff but decent Journey with Margaret (1942), with Margaret O'Brien as a traumatised orphan in England, he was ill and the next year it seems he killed himself (this has been disputed), probably because he was being overwhelmed by the cancer. It was a tragic, premature end to an intense life. I shall leave it to him to finish this article, with the words from a poem he once wrote:
So carry on, and when you're dead,
For epitaph may this be said:
'He had his boots on when he fell,
And made adventure out of Hell.'
I had initially written that Cosmopolitan Production was Howard Hughes's company, but it was William Randolph Hearst's. I made some other clarifications too. Apologies. (2020-10-31)
Van Dyke was not alone in making films set and shot in the South Seas at that time. Other prominent examples include Moana (Robert Flaherty 1926), Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (F.W. Murnau, Flaherty 1931) and Bird of Paradise (King Vidor 1932). They share many images, themes and ideas. I suspect the writings of anthropologist Margaret Mead was partly responsible for this. Her famous book Coming of Age in Samoa was published in 1928, and she had been working in the area since 1925.
Van Dyke and the Mythical City (1948) by Robert C. Cannom
The Genius of the System (1989) by Thomas Schatz
Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer (2005) by Scott Eyman
Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood (2011) by Emily W. Leider