Ray Olson on the Movies: W. S. Van Dyke, Master of Momentum

Of the first generation of top Hollywood directors—Griffith, DeMille, Stroheim, Walsh, Curtiz, Chaplin, Dwan, Fleming, Brown, Lubitsch, Sternberg, Ford, Borzage, Vidor, Keaton, Hawks, Wellman, Capra, McCarey—all born in the nineteenth century—W(oodbridge) S(trong) Van Dyke II (1889-1943) is the most unjustly forgotten and underrated. I’ve seen and commented on 39 of his films during the past 10 years, only two of them silents (like those of most of his peers—but not DeMille, Chaplin, and Keaton—Van Dyke’s silents are largely lost, missing footage, or untransferred to modern media). Those 39 were made over the course of just 14 years. Most of them remain entertaining and watchable, and a few are outstanding.

In my remarks on Van Dyke, the words “speedy”, “breezy”, “fast-paced”, and others referring to propulsive movement crop up again and again. While Warner Brothers was famous for the swiftness of action and dialogue in its films, MGM’s Van Dyke was quite capable of matching WB’s Wellman and Curtiz and the more peripatetic Hawks at breaking necks. Just see The Thin Man again. If you’re bored by any of the movies those four made, it isn’t the director’s fault nor the actors’ or technicians’; it’s the basic materials’—plot and development.

My lists of favorites for the period of Van Dyke’s floruit, 1928-42, includes five of his films. In comparison, I list eight Sternbergs (he was at his acme), five by Borzage, four each by Walsh and Lubitsch, three each by Ford, Hawks, and DeMille, two or fewer by any of the rest of the top-tier listed above. I’ll talk about Van Dyke’s winning hand and list a few ingratiating lesser titles.

White Shadows in the South Seas (1928)

This gorgeous silent deserves to be much better known, not least because it constitutes early testimony that Hollywood was always politically "progressive". Sentimental though its plot may be, it is also rigorously anti-capitalist-imperialist. Van Dyke could claim it as his chef d'oeuvre, next only to The Thin Man. Monte Blue as the Conradian “derelict" Dr. Lloyd, who is saved by the typhoon that washes him ashore on an as-yet-unspoiled island and precipitates its downfall by his inability to resist his instinctual greed as a white man, claims his place in the pantheon of silent actors who must be remembered, and the supporting cast of Polynesians is as spectacularly beautiful as any in the history of film. Second-unit footage by the great documentalist Robert Flaherty, whose Moana (1926) was shot in similar locations, makes a vital contribution to the film’s fascination. White Shadows was the first of a handful of far-flung location shoots Van Dyke undertook. Its successors include The Pagan (1929) in Tahiti, Trader Horn (1931) in east central Africa, and his next classic.

Eskimo (1933)

Unfortunately, the Warner Archive DVD of Eskimo I watched doesn't include any documentary bonuses to illuminate the film’s jaw-dropping hunting and wildlife scenes. That said, anyone who rents or acquires Eskimo should preparatively read the long and informative entry on it in Wikipedia. They should also be prepared to see one of the most well-preserved films of its time, sparkling almost as if it were new. Although its plot resembles those of Van Dyke’s other location features listed above—white men callously exploit native people—Eskimo is an astonishing achievement, one I believe can plead not guilty to the charge of representing the Inuit as childish, for it is explicitly stated that one character, in particular—the hero's second gift-wife (played by a non-Inuit, as are the first wife and the first gift-wife)—is indeed childish. The others don’t behave childishly, unless they're in fact children. Canadian Joseph Sauers, who as Joe Sawyer would become one of the most familiar character actors ever, worthily realizes a sympathetic young Mountie, as  Native American Ray Mala does the Inuit hero. It's amazing to me that Eskimo should now be so obscure. Perhaps, since it flopped on initial release, it was neglected by MGM rather than recirculated later, as Disney, for example, did so profitably with the at-first disappointing Pinocchio and Fantasia. Thank fortune that it was nevertheless well preserved.

The Thin Man (1934)

In 1939, Hollywood's ostensibly greatest year, a miracle occurred. No, not the most successful film ever, Gone with the Wind, or the most perdurably adorable ever, The Wizard of Oz. It was Destry Rides Again, which had big stars, alright, but so energized a middling director, George Marshall, with the script and what he saw in it that he made a masterpiece, the best Hollywood movie of that best of Hollywood years. Lightning was striking again, however.

In 1934, the year that gave us It Happened One Night, the first winner of the all the big-four Oscars—picture, director, actress, actor—Van Dyke put out The Thin Man, another blazingly brilliant jewel in Hollywood's crown and, I'd say, the real best Hollywood picture that year. Briskly paced—that we would expect of Van Dyke—and kinetically edited (ditto), the film is gorgeously shot in a panoply of atmospheric circumstances by the great James Wong Howe and played with the kind of ensemble that makes you weep with joy. Everybody justly bows to William Powell and Myrna Loy's cooperation as Nick and Nora Charles, detective and wealthy socialite, but does any other actor in the flick let the side down? NO!

Bald, roly-poly mug Ed Brophy and quintessential palooka Nat Pendleton you count on to be top-flight doing their schtick, but Maureen O'Sullivan as the exceedingly flighty but beautiful daughter of the corpus delicti—the thin man—couldn't be predicted from her Jane in Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932, another Van Dyke effort), and young William Henry is spot-on as her equally daft brother. Of course, they’re helped immensely by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich’s funny, suave, and deliciously offhand dialogue. Just how much is taken directly from Hammett? It's been a long, long time since I read the novel. Anyway, five stars in anybody's book, I should think.

They Gave Him a Gun (1937)

Give a man a fish, and he's got one meal. Give him fishing tackle, and he's got the means to many a meal. In They Gave Him a Gun, WWI inductee Jimmy Davis (Franchot Tone) is given a gun and faints at bayonet practice. But his new buddy, Fred Willis (Spencer Tracy), bucks him up, and he discovers himself as a sharpshooter (that way, he'll never have to use the bayonet) who picks off an entire German machine-gun crew. A shell sends him to a long hospital recovery immediately afterward, during which he falls for nurse Rose Duffy (Gladys George). So does Fred as he sneaks in to check on Jimmy so often he's almost declared AWOL. As for Rose, she falls for Fred. But, sent back to the front, Fred goes missing, presumed dead, and Rose agrees to marry Jimmy. Although found in time to prevent the wedding, Fred nobly steps aside by convincing Rose he's been leading her on and is actually married already. Some years later, the pals run into each other as Jimmy's tearing out of an office building across the street from where there's just been a murder. Jimmy brushes Fred off with his business card. Disgusted, Fred tears it up, drops it to the sidewalk, but then encounters his and Jimmy's old sergeant, now a police dick entering the building Jimmy just left to case it for the murder weapon. Fred stoops to pick up the pieces.

If the foregoing is a long, complicated set-up to the heart of the picture, which consists of Jimmy's unveiling as a hitman and the reuniting of Fred and Rose and is no less complex, both parts of the film are so richly realized that the whole seems as dense and tangible as a good novel, which its source, They Gave Him a Gun (1936) by William J. Cowen, isn’t quite, though its differences from the film carry different, pacifist implications. The three principals are splendidly played, thanks to a script that gives them credible, individuated dialogue and sufficient depth of characterization. The other speaking roles register believably, as well, especially Mary Treen as Rose's fellow nurse, Saxe, Edgar Dearing as Sergeant Meadowlark, and in a memorable walk-through, Milburn Stone as Jimmy's mob lawyer.

Van Dyke is at his best, primarily relying on medium-close and close-up shots and making the camera dog the actors as they move, not in smooth tracking motions but in a stop-and-start manner resembling how animals (and people) follow others and often stopping at odd, nonconfrontative angles to the objects of their and the camera's regard. Van Dyke does this in many other movies, as well, including The Thin Man, but seldom as consistently. He keeps things coming, seeming to take his pace from the several brilliant montage sequences, most of them showing the war, contributed by Slavko Porkapich, one of the greatest early film technical theorists.

If it weren't so dynamic, I'd call They Gave Him a Gun sublime. Maybe I will, anyway.

I Love You Again (1940)

Although its mainspring is screwy even for screwball comedy and more the kind of thing that drives a Laurel and Hardy scenario (in fact!  See A Chump at Oxford) than a Powell and Loy affair—when William Powell gets conked hard enough, he switches personalities from conventional suburbanite Larry to con man George—I Love You Again lacks the grand eccentrics surrounding the principals in so many classic screwballs, such as My Man Godfrey, Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby and Ball of Fire (in which the principals also are eccentrics), Capra's populist romances, and Preston Sturges's probing war-time comedies. It's softer in effect than a screwball normally is, more willing to fully humanize its protagonists, so that Larry/George (Powell) becomes a more appealing person than either of his personae is when we first meet him. Ditto, Loy as Larry’s confused wife, Kay, ping-ponging between dismay and enamoration. Both characters are more real and sympathetic than Nick and Nora Charles, really, despite the hokey amnesia trope that drives their development. That's why I Love You Again is as wonderful as it is, I think. Oh, and it is very funny in every respect and masterfully directed through heavily relying on moving-camera medium shots to underscore how quickly George has to think to keep up with Larry's reality. Powell’s comic acting is a thing of brilliant, risible beauty; he somehow never lets either of his personae seem all that bright, which is something else to chuckle about, especially during his hilarious stint as a Boy Scout leader.

Besides those five masterpieces, Van Dyke made musicals, notably most of those starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, many urban crime yarns both less and as humorous as The Thin Man, several romantic comedies, a couple of hit historicals (the quasi-musical San Francisco, 1936; Marie Antoinette, 1938), three Thin Man sequels, an episode each of series (Andy Hardy and Doctor Kildare) usually handled by lesser talents, a kids’ adventure, and, at the end, two WWII propaganda melodramas. He died a suicide after spurning treatment for heart disease and cancer because of his devotion to Christian Science. The one book about him is more pressbook than biography. Other Van Dykes worth watching include:

Night Court (1932): A socially conscious melodrama about a crooked judge (Walter Huston, devouring the scenery) and his prey, a young father (ill-fated pretty-boy leading man Phillips Holmes, never better). The camera almost runs the players down to stay with the action.

Manhattan Melodrama (1934): Two boys orphaned by the 1904 General Slocum fire grow up to be lawyer and crook, respectively, while remaining friends. It’s a wacky delight that Mickey Rooney matures into Clark Gable!

Naughty Marietta (1935): The first MacDonald-Eddy picture may surprise you. It’s wittier and funnier than you’d ever suspected. Much.

Rose Marie (1936): And their second collaboration is even better. Jeanette is always one smart cookie, and Nelson’s Mountie trades her quip for quip.

San Francisco (1936): Spencer Tracy’s priest is a wash-out, and Jeanette doesn’t quite fit, but Gable’s gambler-entrepreneur Blackie is iconic in a quasilegitimate sense of the term. Rhett Butler, eat your heart out.

Ray Olson

Ray Oslon

3 Responses

  1. Michael Strenk says:

    Your knowledge on the subject is truly encyclopedic, Mr. Olson. This list includes some of our all-time favorites and will send me blood-hounding for the best deal on others. Thanks again.

  2. Vince Cornell says:

    Ray opened my eyes to Woody Van Dyke a long time ago, from reviews he had posted on the now defunct Classicflix.com (back when they primarily did movie rentals and not selling their own version of restored movies). I remember watching a Thin Man movie (I forget which one, perhaps the third – it was the on with the race horses), and Nick is just looking around in the stable for clues, and I thought to myself, “How is this scene, where so little is happening, so dang entertaining!?”

    I will definitely “They Gave Him a Gun.” I actually already have a copy of “I Love You, Again” which I haven’t got around to viewing yet. Put me down as an avid member of the Woody Van Dyke fan club. (I even liked his Tarzan movie – no classic, for sure, but given the weak script and all the stock footage he had to use, I was still impressed that he was able to keep any tension in the movie at all)

  3. Michael Strenk says:

    It’s William Powell and his face, Mr. Cornell. I think that they could have sat Powell down in a chair in an empty room just filming him thinking and it would have been hilarious.

    Don’t miss Double Wedding, also with Powell and Loy; zany and hilarious.