Memoir, Sort of
W.S. Van Dyke's Journal: White Shadows in the South Seas (1927-1928)
By Rudy Behlmer
Scarecrow Press, 1996
Breadth, Depth, and Economy
Years ago, my friends and I used to play Hearts (er, at least we thought it was Hearts) and darts (we did know it was darts) at The Edinburgh Castle on Geary Street in San Francisco. The pub was a favorite because of the beer, the big wooden booths and the fact that you could select Jeanette MacDonald singing "San Francisco" off the jukebox. And anyone who has been to an evening show at the Castro Theatre knows that when the organist plays "San Francisco" on the Mighty Wurlitzer, it means you should take your seat, shut up, and get ready for the picture.
In other words, that song and the movie it is from have been close to my heart for a very, very long time. And the person responsible for that is W.S. "One-Take Woody" Van Dyke, a man whose directorial filmography reads like the history of the art form: silent epics, westerns, documentaries, romantic comedy, historical drama, musicals, and yes, Tarzan pictures. I mean everything, including the greatest contribution to Hollywood romantic idealism ever: the pairing up of William Powell and Myrna Loy. For which I am also eternally thankful.
And for those of you who like romantic couples who sing at each other instead of drink, Van Dyke is also the engine behind the success of the team Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.
Van Dyke was born on March 21, 1889 in San Diego, the son of an aspiring actress and a Superior Court judge, who died within a few days of his birth. To make ends meet, "Woody's" mother and he performed in vaudeville and traveling shows in and around Seattle. While still a teenager, Van Dyke worked a number of jobs, including as a lumberjack, prospector, railroad attendant, waiter, and salesman.
His first foray into the movie business was as an assistant director to D.W. Griffith on the epic Intolerance (1916). Van Dyke quickly moved on to direct westerns and serials for Essanay and MGM, taking a quick break to fight in the Great War. By the 1930s, he had developed a reputation for bringing in films on time and under budget, without sacrificing quality or performance. Case in point: The Thin Man (1934), one of the finest romantic detective pictures of all time, was shot in 12 days for just under $250,000. He earned the nickname "One-Take Woody" on the film Daredevil Jack, by being at the ready to capture Jack Dempsey knocking out an opponent, which he was known to do with one punch, without having to reshoot.
Van Dyke was one of the few directors admired by both actors and studio executives alike. The former for his ability to draw out natural performances from his stars and to hire technicians and actors who were down on their luck; the latter for reliability and efficiency of production.
Sadly, at the age of 50 W.S. Van Dyke was diagnosed with cancer and heart disease. As a practicing Christian Scientist, he refused medical medical care for the last several years of his life and committed suicide in 1943 at the age of 53.