W.S. Van Dyke – the trusted director, star maker, party host and patriot who would not wait for death

mitzi-at-van-dyke-party-group-shot-1935-watermark

June, 1935: my grandmother, Mitzi in the elegant white hat, with some of Hollywood’s hardest working actors at one W.S. Van Dyke’s legendary Hollywood parties. The director had a tragic start to life and one of the most tragic endings in Hollywood.

“My mother, Laura Winston, with a baby to support, went back to the calling she had followed before her marriage – the stage. I was raised in a theatre trunk. We went on the road, up and down the coast, into the Middle West, all over the US. When I was 5 years old they starred at the old San Francisco Grand Opera House in ‘Blind Girl’. Much to my disgust, I played the little blind girl in wig and pinafore. I think I’ve been to school in every state in the Union.” W.S. Van Dyke about his early childhood after the sudden death of his father, a Superior Court judge.

There are so many stories in this photo that as I began to research it I was even more convinced that Hollywood’s early stars were far more amazing than the films they starred in. Everyone in this picture has passed on so like gods we can dial time in any direction – before the photo, after the photo – and know the facts and figures of their lives.

Each person is interesting to me but it is W.S. Van Dyke, the man at the back on the right with the greying hair and wry smile, whose story has the most tragic ending. As the only director amongst this glamorous crowd, W.S. Van Dyke is also the only person looking directly at the camera and without a hint of pretense. Of course, everyone else in this photo makes their living in front of the camera, so naturally each looks like they are posing with Louella Parson’s famous gossip column in mind.

There’s William Powell on the far left, at the time one of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s biggest stars and blonde bombshell, Jean Harlow’s new man – he would also be her last. Sadly, in just under two years from this dazzling night, Powell will rush Harlow to the hospital and within 24 hours the platinum goddess would be dead from kidney failure at just 26 years old. She may well have been at this party, perhaps just around the corner in another gorgeous group of Hollywood’s box office titans; not that this pic is lacking from star power, however.

Four months before this party, Powell had missed out on the Academy Award for Best Actor for The Thin Man, starring opposite Myrna Loy (with whom he made over a dozen films). On the other side of this photo, Frank Morgan had also been nominated for his role in The Affairs of Cellini. Both Powell and Morgan lost to Clark Gable and his lead role in It Happened One Night. The year after this photo was taken would be just as busy for Powell; he and Loy starred in The Great Ziegfield, which won Best Picture for MGM and Powell would be nominated for Best Actor a second time for My Man Godfrey.

Next to Powell is the elegant and hard-working actress, Aline McMahon, the daughter of an Irish-born father and Russian-born Jewish mother, which was probably a drama in itself during a time when ‘mixed marriages’ tore families apart. McMahon made dozens of films and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Dragon Seed (1944). She was up against a tough field: Angela Lansbury, Agnes Moorehead, Jennifer Jones and Ethel Barrymore, who won the Oscar for None But the Lonely Heart. McMahon continued to work in film and television for another forty years and finally retired in 1975. Her mother would live to 105 and McMahon herself died just seven years later in 1991 at 92 years of age.

To her right is Otto Kruger, the German-American actor whose great-uncle was the South African pioneer and president, Paul Kruger. The year before this photo Otto Kruger was in four films, including Chained with Joan Crawford and Clark Gable. He was a prolific and versatile actor, generally appearing in multiple films each year up until the early 60s, including The Runaway Wife (1915), The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933), Treasure Island (1934), The Man I Married (1940), Murder, My Sweet (1944), Valentino (1951), High Noon (1952), The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) and Sex and the Single Girl (1964). He also had many television appearances from the late 50s – mainly Perry Mason – but retired from acting in 1964. He died ten years later on his 89th birthday at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Los Angeles. Kruger’s only child, Ottile Kruger, also chose acting but preferred the stage.

Two Mexican-born sisters, actresses Renee and Raquel Torres strike perfect poses on either side of my glamorous grandmother, Mitzi Cummings who is wearing that sensational white hat. In fact, the sisters were half German, half Mexican and their birth name was Osterman. There were many beautiful women in Hollywood but evidently their foreign allure drove men crazy. Raquel reportedly said no to a $2 million marriage offer from a Polynesian prince and the year before this photo was taken had cancelled her wedding to film producer Charlie Feldman.

In her column on the 5th of February 1934, Louella Parsons laid bare what everyone in Tinseltown was thinking:

“Loud are the whispers in Hollywood that Raquel Torres and Stephen Ames will get married while the New York millionaire is in Hollywood. Difficult for us, however, to get excited over Raquel’s marriages. She and Charlie Feldman had the day set at Agua Caliente, the attendants picked and all arrangements made when the Mexican beauty changed her mind”. (Perhaps Parsons was also the role model for Yoda’s distinctive sentence structure?) Raquel Torres and Stephen Ames had met at a similar Hollywood party when Ames was already married. As Parson’s predicted, Raquel did marry the stock broker and Ames presented Raquel with a Rolls Royce. The couple stayed together until his death in 1955. In 1959, Raquel married actor John Hall, but they later divorced. She lived until she was 78 and died in Los Angeles in 1987.

Raquel’s sister Renee had four marriages – absolutely scandalous for the time, but not unheard of for Hollywood. While a party brought Raquel a new husband and 20 year marriage, Renee would use her second husband’s romantic party antics to obtain a court-ordered divorce in 1938, just 18 months after their wedding. But this was not her first court experience. In 1930, five years before this photo, Renee was charged with negligent driving causing damage of almost $2,000 – a serious sum in those days. When Renee fronted the judge she claimed she left the scene of the accident because she was only wearing pajamas. To ensure the judge got the point, Renee Torres approached the bench and opened her full length coat to reveal said pajamas. Evidently, she made a compelling case as she wasn’t required to do jail time.

With one Torres sister on one arm, and beautiful Mitzi on the other, the luckiest man of the evening appears to be singer and MGM actor, Nelson Eddy. Of all the stars captured in this photo, Eddy was the only one who crossed over from film to musical to opera to television and back again. The year this photo was taken, Eddy starred in Naughty Marietta, directed by W.S. Van Dyke and critics were full of praise for his performance. One of the songs of the film became a hit and Eddy earned his first gold record. Between 1935 and 1964, Eddy made close to 300 recordings. He was simply one of America’s hardest working performers so it is no surprise that he would practically die on stage. In March 1967, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage during a performance at the Sans Souci Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida. He died just a few hours later at 65 years old.

And finally we come to the gentlemen on the right – the host of the party, trusted and hard-working director W.S. Van Dyke and Mr Wizard of Oz himself, character actor Frank Morgan, who in fact played several characters in the iconic movie and had pipped W.C. Fields for the role due to his protracted fee negotiations with the studio. Like the Osterman sisters, Morgan, born Francis Phillip Wuppermann in New York City in 1890, was of German and Hispanic (Spanish) descent. Despite his Best Actor loss to Clark Gable, Frank Morgan had a lot to smile about as he had been given a rare life-time contract with MGM. In 1936, he and Powell would be in the same Best Picture winning film, The Great Ziegfield. Hollywood was a small town and its movie stars were used to the vagaries of competition and collaboration. In fact, this played out in within his own family as Morgan followed his older brother, actor Ralph Morgan, to Hollywood but became the more famous of the two. The veteran actor died of a heart attack on September 18, 1949, while filming Annie Get Your Gun. He was replaced by Louis Calhern in the role.

Standing at the back of the glamorous crowd, happy to be upstaged by the stars, is the host of this party, Woodbridge Strong “Woody” Van Dyke II, a hard-working director who was also trusted as a ‘fixer’ – sent in to finish projects that had gone off the rails and needed a steady and experienced hand. Van Dyke, also known as “One Take Woody” and “One Take Van Dyke” because of the speed at which he worked, had directed Myrna Loy and William Powell in The Thin Man and had also received a nomination on Oscar night in 1935 for Best Director. The next year he would be nominated for San Francisco for which he had gone back to his old mentor, pioneering film-maker, D.W. Griffiths for directing advice. Despite causing a sensation with the stunning earthquake sequence in the movie, Van Dyke lost to Frank Capra for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town at the 9th Academy Awards in 1937.

Van Dyke’s approach to directing was very much what you might expect of today’s film directors – collaborative, allowing ad-libbing and coaxing natural performances from his actors. His style worked and he made stars of Nelson Eddy, James Stewart, Myrna Loy, Johnny Weissmuller, Maureen O’Sullivan, Eleanor Powell, Ilona Massey and five-year old Margaret O’Brien. Promoted to Major before World War II, Van Dyke also dragged several of these stars and others, including Robert Taylor and Clark Gable, into war-time involvement through his establishment of a Marine Corp recruitment center at MGM. Nelson Eddy was particularly passionate about performing for the troops and he crisscrossed the theatres of war crooning his most popular songs to war-weary soldiers.

So many people owed their careers to Van Dyke and yet few knew that his own career in the entertainment industry would have been very unlikely had it not been for the sudden death of his father, W.S. Van Dyke, a Superior Court judge, right before his birth.

Here is how Van Dyke describes what happened in a serial about his life published six months after the photo above: “They kept the news from my mother, but she, certain that something was wrong, got up from her bed to try to find him. In the kitchen she collapsed, and there I saw the light of day.

“There was no insurance. My mother, Laura Winston, with a baby to support, went back to the calling she had followed before her marriage – the stage. I was raised in a theatre trunk. We went on the road, up and down the coast, into the Middle West, all over the US. When I was 5 years old they starred at the old San Francisco Grand Opera House in ‘Blind Girl’. Much to my disgust, I played the little blind girl in wig and pinafore. I think I’ve been to school in every state in the Union. Whenever the company stopped off long enough in any city I went back behind a school desk. The rest of the time my mother taught me”.

At 12 Van Dyke decided he wanted his own adventures. He worked on a train, in a mine, as a door-to-door salesman, in a grocery store, in a lumber camp and swept the floors of a business college in exchange for tuition. He then joined his mother in Seattle and took to the stage again, but got itchy feet and headed back up north to help build a trail and work as a lumber jack again. The pull to the stage was too strong and back in Seattle Van Dyke got a part in a “western playlet” which was successful enough to tour to Los Angeles in 1915.

As Van Dyke recounts, “Hollywood was just beginning to dawn. The city was just becoming picture-conscious. I found an old stage friend, Walter Long, working pictures, and it was Walter who first talked me into trying my luck on the screen.” In no time it seems, Van Dyke was working with D.W. Griffith, then directed his first movie and his career in the film business took off.

Van Dyke was an industry fixture, secure enough to be a democrat when his boss, Louis B Mayer was a fervent Republican; in fact, he served as the California delegate to the 1940 Democratic National Convention. Life was full and wonderful. He and his wife Ruth Mannix, daughter of the MGM VP, Eddie Mannix, had a son, Woodbridge Strong Van Dyke III, and their happy homes in Brentwood and later, Malibu, were the locations for countless, legendary Hollywood parties.

Van Dyke also loved practical jokes. When tough guy Jimmy Durante came out west to make movies, the director thought he would have a little fun.

Said Van Dyke, “We told him that we were going to shoot a masquerade ball sequence on location and sent him over to the costume department to get fixed up. And did they fix him up! We explained that we had to wait at the studio for some changes in the script, but that if he would ride out to Hollywood Blvd and Cahuenga, and wait on the corner, we’d pick him up there. Jimmy went right along, costume and all, looking like something out of a mardi gras. For better than an hour he stood at Hollywood and Cahuenga waiting for us to show up, while people stood and stared and pointed. Finally, it began to dawn that maybe there was something phoney in the business. And he was mortified!”

Respected and at the top of his career, Van Dyke discovered he had cancer in the early 1940s but despite this he directed Journey for Margaret with Robert Young and Laraine Day. Five-year old Margaret O’Brien, half-Irish and half-Spanish, played an orphan in the movie and became an overnight star.

After finishing this film, Van Dyke said his good-byes – to his wife, to his children, to my great-uncle Louis B Mayer, who for years was his greatest champion. He died on the 5th of February, 1943. He was just 53 years old.

Copyright Alicia Mayer 2012.

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9 comments

  1. “Hollywood’s early stars had lives that were far more amazing than the films they starred in.” You’re absolutely right!

    Thanks for highlighting W.S. Van Dyke. He doesn’t get enough airtime these days.

  2. Thanks so much Roberto for taking the time to leave that lovely comment. Made my day.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this and seeing this picture. The Torres sisters were actually family of my step father (great aunt and grandmother). My grandmother ended up with the majority of their estate. We recently took one of their diamond rings had it reset and it is now my engagement ring. It is an honor to wear every day but I would love to know more about them and their lives. Every story I find seems to hold the same information. I was curious about a few things, mostly being that we were told Raquel had a daughter but I cannot find any information on her. Do you have any more information on these ladies or know where I could go gather more? Thank you so much!!

  4. What an amazing connection to these sisters. The best way to research more is to use Google archives. Best of luck, Alicia

  5. A fine director who seems to be over-looked except for brief comments in books about other people. A sad ending for a man who had so much creativity.

  6. It would be nice if you would use my name. And Sharon Rich’s name. She interviewed Van Dyke’s son in the ’70s and grandson in the ’80s. No one definitively said that W.S. Van Dyke II killed himself. – Mark A. Vieira

  7. Mark, if you read the article you will note I made the change based on your emails to me. I have not had the chance to re-trace my tracks from several years ago when I did my own research. I did not use your name in my reply to the comment because I did not know I had your permission to do so (or Sharon’s) but I wanted to ensure the person who posted knew there were other views. Unfortunately, you choose to see offense were none is intended.

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