This week I finally reaped the harvest of my work on Sam Wood, legendary Hollywood filmmaker of the golden age. The result was a 1200 word entry for an encyclopedia of film directors in Farsi that will be published early summer (or maybe sooner). Following notes (based on facts from different sources) is a brief survey of his life and work:
Samuel Grosvenor Wood (1883–1949) was a former real estate broker before in the silent days of American cinema he became a movie director and by reaching the talking age, a prominent director and one of the most trusted and technically gifted of all Hollywood veterans.
He appeared as an actor in a few two-reelers in 1908, under name Chad Applegate, and in 1915 became an assistant director to C. B. DeMille. Late in 1919 he was graduated to director at Paramount. In the 1920s he handled many of the films of Gloria Swanson (even some parts of ill-fated Queen Kelly). He was developing a reputation as a reliable craftsman who could turn mediocre material into acceptable entertainment. Unfortunately most of his silent films are lost or not accessible. He solidified his positions in the 1930s when, at MGM, he effectively directed, along with a large number of routine productions, such diverse films as the superb Marx Bros. comedies A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. Goodbye Mr. Chips was also another favorite films of his from this period. He even directed few scenes from Gone With the Wind, after George Cukor was fired by producer Selznick. He reached the peak of his craft toward the end of his career, in the 1940s, when he turned out the sure-handed skill such films as Our Town, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Pride of the Yankees, Command Decision and the excellent drama Kings Row. And it was Wood who directed Ginger Rogers through her Oscar-winning performance in Kitty Foyle.
He made four films with his pal, Gary Cooper, the leading male star during the war years. Starting with The Pride of the Yankees, a biopic of the baseball legend Lou Gehrig (who had died recently at age 37) and continued with For Whom The Bell Tolls, one of Wood's masterpieces Casanova Brown and Saratoga Trunk.
After relative quiet through the early war years, several incidents in 1944 indicated Hollywood's increasingly volatile and politicized labor scene. The first involved the creation of two quasi-political organizations, the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPAAI, usually MPA) and the Council of Hollywood Guilds and Unions (CHGU). The Motion Picture Alliance was formed in February 1944 by a group of notable Hollywood conservatives, including Gary Cooper, Walt Disney, King Vidor, the writer Casey Robinson, art director Cedric Gibbons; and Sam Wood was elected as its first president. According to Variety, the Alliance was formed in response to a Writers Congress meeting at UCLA that the Alliance founders felt was Communist-inspired; the organization's goal was to combat communism, fascism, and other alien "isms" in Hollywood. In a brochure published in 1944, the Alliance defined its mission as follows:
“Our purpose is to uphold the American way of life, on the screen and among screen workers; to educate, not to smear. We seek to make a rallying place for the vast, silent majority of our fellow workers; to give voice to their unwavering loyalty to democratic forms and so to drown out the highly vocal, lunatic fringe of dissidents; to present to our fellow countrymen the vision of a great American industry united in upholding the American faith.”
Reflections of this manifest is evident in Wood’s optimistic The Stratton Story (1949) or even before that, in most of his early 1940s pieces of Americana.
Later on, sadly, he provided key testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, helping to fan fears of Communist influence in the U.S. film industry. It was when Groucho Marx called him a fascist!
Wood died from a heart attack, in Hollywood, at the age of 66.