Oscar Profile #452: Sam Wood

Born July 10, 1883 in Philadelphia, PA, Samuel Grosvenor Wood married Clara Louise Rousch in 1908. He began his Hollywood career as an actor and assistant to Cecil B. DeMille in 1915, becoming a full-time director in 1917. He would eventually direct 82 films between 1920 and his death in 1949.

Wood’s silent films included Peck’s Bad Boy and It’s a Great Life. It was his direction of two Marx Brothers comedies in the mid-1930s, A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, that established him as a major director. In 1937, the year of A Day at the Races, he also directed the Gladys George remake of Madame X and worked uncredited on The Good Earth.

Oscar recognized Wood for the first time as the director of 1939’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips, the film that earned Robert Donat an Oscar and Greer Garson her first nomination. That same year he also directed the David Niven remake of Raffles and worked several weeks in place of an ill Victor Fleming as director on Gone with the Wind. The following year, he had two films nominated for Best Picture, Our Town with Best Actress nominee Martha Scott and Kitty Foyle with Best Actress winner Ginger Rogers, for which he received a second Oscar nomination for Best Director. In 1941, he directed Charles Coburn to an Oscar nomination in The Devil and Miss Jones. With the 1942 Oscar nominations, he become the first and so far, only director to twice have two films nominated for Best Picture in the same year, Kings Row and The Pride of the Yankees with Best Actor nominee Gary Cooper and Best Actress nominee Teresa Wright, receiving a third nomination for Best Director for the former.

Wood was an arch conservative who famously reduced the anti-fascist content of 1943’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, saying it would be the same love story if they were on the other side. Although the film received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Actor (Gary Cooper), Actress (Ingrid Bergman), Supporting Actor (Akim Tamiroff) and a win for Supporting Actress (Katina Paxinou), Wood himself was not nominated. Three years later, Wood’s Cooper-Bergman starrer, Saratoga Trunk, would earn Flora Robson a nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Wood’s subsequent films included Command Decision, The Stratton Story and Ambush.

In 1944, Wood founded and served as president of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an organization that lobbied the House Un-American Activities Committee to examine elements of Communism in the movie industry, which they did in 1947.

On September 2, 1949, following a meeting of the Alliance in 1949 in which he raged against a liberal screenwriter who was suing the group for slandering him, he suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 66.

Wood had added a condition to his will that no one, including his children, could collect on their inheritance unless and until they filed a legal affidavit that they had never been a Communist.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS (1939)

Wood received his first Oscar nomination for his stellar direction of Robert Donat and Greer Garson in the film version of James Hilton’s beloved novel. Donat would win for his unforgettable portrayal of the beloved teacher in a tough race with Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Garson, despite the brevity of her role, would be nominated for Best Actress for her portrayal of Donat’s adoring wife, a characterization that stays with you long after her character has departed the film. Wood gets fine support from Paul Henreid, Terry Kilburn, John Mills and others.

OUR TOWN (1940)

Wood had two films in contention for Best Picture of 1940, receiving his second personal nomination for the more popular Kitty Foyle starring Ginger Rogers in her Oscar-winning role, but that film doesn’t stand the test of time. This one does. Thornton Wilder’s play is often revived because, aside from being good, costs very little to produce as there is no scenery. The film adds scenery and a legendary score by Aaron Copland. It also has one of the best casts ever assembled for a film in Oscar nominated Martha Scott, along with William Holden, Fay Bainter, Beulah Bondi, Thomas Mitchell, Guy Kibbee and more.

THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES (1942)

Wood once again had two films in contention in Best Picture, the only director to thus far have achieved that distinction twice. Once again, he was nominated for directing the wrong one. Certainly, his direction of the small-town exposé, Kings Row starring Ann Sheridan, Robert Cummings and Ronald Reagan, is strong but the film doesn’t come close to capturing the appeal of The Pride of the Yankees. The biography of first baseman Lou Gehrig who died of ALS in 1941 at 37, remains one of the great films about sports with its terrific Oscar nominated performances by Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright

FOR WHOM THE BELLS TOLLS (1943)

Wood’s film of Hemingway’s novel about the Spanish Civil War is confusing at times, mostly because of Wood’s throwing out whole pages of dialogue to obscure the politics and play up the love story of dynamiter Gary Cooper and anti-fascist guerilla Ingrid Bergman. Wood would not receive an Oscar nomination this time, but four cast members, Cooper, Bergman, Akim Tamiroff and Katina Paxinou did, winning the award for Best Supporting Actress for her fiery performance. The film was nominated for 9 Oscars over all, including one for Victor Young’s score, the first American film score to receive a full-length recording.

THE STRATTON STORY (1949)

Wood’s next to last film and the last to be released before his death, was like The Pride of the Yankees, a moving film about a baseball star. James Stewart won the Photoplay Award for Most Popular Male Star for his portrayal of Monty Stratton, the major league pitcher who made a comeback after losing a leg in a hunting accident. Douglas Morrow won an Oscar for his original story. It was the first pairing of Stewart and June Allyson who went on to make two more biographical films, The Glenn Miller Story and Strategic Air Command. Frank Morgan and Agnes Moorehead co-starred.

SAM WOOD AND OSCAR

  • Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) – nominated – Best Director
  • Kitty Foyle (1940) – nominated – Best Director
  • Kings Row (1942) – nominated – Best Director

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