Samuel Grosvenor Wood was an American film director and producer, who was best known for directing such Hollywood hits as A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and The Pride of the Yankees. He was also involved in a few acting and writing projects.
Wood was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He began his career as an actor, and worked for Cecil B. De Mille as an assistant in 1915. A solo director by 1919, Wood worked throughout the 1920s directing some of Paramount Pictures's biggest stars, among them Gloria Swanson and Wallace Reid.
He joined Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1927, where he spent most of his career. While filming the Marx Brothers' A Day at the Races, Wood became exasperated by the brothers' lack of seriousness on the set and shouted, "You can't make an actor out of clay!" Groucho Marx immediately replied, "Nor a director out of Wood!"
After trying his hand as a gold prospector in Nevada and a real-estate agent in California, Wood turned to acting; his film credits included Who Knows? (1917). However, he found himself uncomfortable in front of the camera and was soon working as an assistant director to Cecil B. DeMille. Wood was given a chance to make features for Paramount in 1920, a year in which he directed eight films, the first of which was Double Speed. One of the stars he worked with most frequently early in his career was Gloria Swanson. He directed her in several silent melodramas, including Under the Lash (1921), Beyond the Rocks (1922), My American Wife (1922), and Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1923).
After moving to MGM in 1927, Wood was assigned to The Fair Co-Ed (1927), a comedy starring Marion Davies; The Latest from Paris (1928) with Norma Shearer; and Telling the World (1928), among other projects. In 1929 Wood directed his first all-sound film, So This Is College, with Robert Montgomery. It was largely forgotten, as were such other early talkies as Way for a Sailor (with John Gilbert), They Learned About Women (codirected with Jack Conway), and The Girl Said No, with William Haines and Marie Dressler (all 1930). More memorable was Paid (1930), a popular Joan Crawford melodrama, in which the actress played a store clerk who is wrongly incarcerated and vows revenge. In 1931 Wood directed (uncredited) The Man in Possession, a comedy with Montgomery, and New Adventures of Get Rich Quick Wallingford (1931), which featured Haines, a Wood favourite; the latter also starred Jimmy Durante.
Wood was uncredited on several subsequent projects, including Huddle (1932), a football drama starring Ramon Novarro; Prosperity (1932), the ninth and last teaming of popular comedians Dressler and Polly Moran; and Hold Your Man (1933), a calculated showcase for the charismatic pair of Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. Wood’s other credits from 1933 were The Barbarian, a romantic drama with Myrna Loy and Novarro, and Christopher Bean, an adaptation of a Sidney Howard play that proved to be Dressler’s last film. Loy returned for Stamboul Quest (1934), which was inspired by the real-life German spy known as Fräulein Doktor. More successful was Let ’Em Have It (1935), a suspenseful crime drama with Richard Arlen as an FBI agent on the trail of a scar-faced criminal (Bruce Cabot).
In 1935 Wood had his first major hit with A Night at the Opera; Edmund Goulding directed some scenes, but his work was uncredited. It was the Marx Brothers’ first film for MGM, and many consider it their best movie. The madcap comedy featured the comedians’ anarchic humour, and the numerous memorable scenes included a sequence in which a mob of passengers squeeze into a small cabin on a cruise ship. Whipsaw (1935) was another Loy vehicle, this time offering her as a jewel thief who is pursued by a persistent FBI agent (Spencer Tracy). The Unguarded Hour (1936) was a complicated but stagy mystery starring Franchot Tone and Loretta Young.
n 1937 Wood reteamed with the Marx Brothers on A Day at the Races. Although not as critically acclaimed as their earlier effort, the comedy was a huge box-office hit. Part of its success was attributed to the fact that the material had been polished through numerous live public performances prior to filming (although the brothers had also rehearsed their material before making A Night at the Opera). Navy Blue and Gold (1937), with Robert Young and James Stewart as cadets at the U.S. Naval Academy, was formulaic, but Madame X (1937) was a fine adaptation of the Alexandre Bisson play, with Gladys George as the mother who sacrifices her own welfare to ensure the success of her son (John Beal). Woods then made the family drama Lord Jeff (1938), a showcase for MGM’s young stars Mickey Rooney and Freddie Bartholomew. The horse-racing drama Stablemates (1938) featured Rooney as a jockey and Wallace Beery as an alcoholic veterinarian.
Wood’s success continued with the comedy The Devil and Miss Jones (1941). Charles Coburn starred as the wealthy owner of a department store who goes undercover in order to root out union activists but instead is befriended by a clerk (played by Jean Arthur) and develops sympathy for his mistreated employees. Kings Row (1942), a sanitized adaptation of Henry Bellamann’s sensational best seller, was probably Wood’s finest work, a sprawling saga of a Midwestern town’s dark hidden life in the early 1900s. The cast included Ann Sheridan, Ronald Reagan, Claude Rains, Betty Field, and Coburn. Some of the book’s more controversial aspects, including incest and homosexuality, had to be toned down to meet the Production Code standards. The drama received an Academy Award nomination for best picture, and Wood earned his third best director nod in four years. At the Academy Awards ceremony, Wood’s loyalties were divided, however, because his other film from 1942, The Pride of the Yankees, was also a best-picture nominee. The biopic about New York Yankees great Lou Gehrig is considered a classic among baseball films, and Gary Cooper (in the title role) and costar Teresa Wright (as Gehrig’s wife) also received Oscar nods.
In 1943 Woods replaced DeMille, his mentor, on For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), which became arguably his highest-profile project. The adventure film was based on the Ernest Hemingway novel and is considered one of the best adaptations of the writer’s works. It was an enormous box-office success and received nine Academy Award nominations, with stars Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, Akim Tamiroff, and Katina Paxinou (who won) all receiving nods. Wood reunited with Cooper and Wright on Casanova Brown (1944), a modest comedy about ex-spouses whose baby becomes a point of contention. Bergman and Cooper worked again with Wood on Saratoga Trunk (1945), an adaptation of the Edna Ferber novel about a half-Creole woman in New Orleans who, seeking revenge against her father’s snobbish family, creates a scandal when she begins dating a gambler. Although criticized for being overly melodramatic, the film was popular with moviegoers.
Wood then returned to MGM to make his last three pictures. Command Decision (1948) was a solid version of a William Wister Haines play. Gable gave a notable performance as a conscience-racked flight commander who sends his men on a deadly mission, and Walter Pidgeon, John Hodiak, and Van Johnson appeared in supporting roles. The Stratton Story (1949) was a fine biopic about the baseball player Monty Stratton, who overcame the loss of one leg; James Stewart played the title role, and June Allyson was Stratton’s wife. Finally, there was Ambush (1950), an adequate western about an Indian scout (Robert Taylor) trying to rescue a woman kidnapped by Apaches. Before the film was released, Wood suffered a fatal heart attack.
Wood, a committed anticommunist, helped found the watchdog Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals in 1944, and he served as its first president. In 1947 he testified against many figures in Hollywood before the House Un-American Activities Committee. His will specified that his heirs (except his wife) had to sign a loyalty oath to the United States before receiving their inheritance.
Wood became increasingly and aggressively conservative. In 1943, he tamped down much of the anti-fascist content of For Whom the Bell Tolls, saying "It would be the same love story if they were on the other side." In 1944, he founded and served as president of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. The organization quietly lobbied the House Un-American Activities Committee to examine Communist elements in the movie industry, which they did in 1947. Wood had been keeping a black notebook in which he wrote down the names of those he considered subversive. His daughter Jeane Wood said that his crusade "transformed Dad into a snarling, unreasoning brute." Shortly following a 1949 meeting of his Motion Picture Alliance in which he had raged against a liberal screenwriter who was suing the group for slandering him, Wood suffered a fatal heart attack. He had added a condition to his will: no one, including his children, could collect their inheritance until they filed a legal affidavit affirming that they had never been Communists.
Wood was married to Clara L. Roush from 1908 to his death in 1949. One of Wood's daughters, Gloria, was film and television actress K.T. Stevens. Another daughter was also an actress, Jeane Wood.