Robert Z. “Pop” Leonard was a highly successful contract director at MGM, to such extent that critical appreciation of his work is practically nonexistent or of a negative kind. Nevertheless, the transparency of Leonard’s work conceals a skilled and talented artisan of the highest order, and several of his films rate as classics and remain popular favorites decades after they were made. Born in Chicago, Leonard began as a stage actor, making his film debut in 1908 at the Selig Polyscope studios in Chicago; his directing career began in 1913 at Rex, a former independent then operating as a unit within Universal. Leonard’s early films were comedies, often starring Leonard himself as a “boob” or an ethnic Swedish caricature. From the time vaudeville star Mae Murray arrived in Hollywood in 1916, Leonard gradually became her principal director, he abandoned his own career as a movie actor by 1918, but did make unbilled cameo appearances in later films.
Murray’s headstrong behavior and… read more
W. S. \“Woody\” Van Dyke II inaugurated his career at age three as a stage actor, in the company of his widowed actress-mother. When acting jobs were scarce, young Van Dyke worked as a miner, electrician and (allegedly) a soldier-for-hire in Mexico during the ‘teens. In 1916, he was hired as one of several assistants to director D.W. Griffith, working in this capacity on Griffith’s mammoth Intolerance. After assisting director James Young at Paramount, Van Dyke was allowed to direct his first solo film in 1917. He spent most of the 1920s laboring on quickie Westerns, earning a reputation for speed and efficiency. In 1928, he was brought into MGM’s troubled production White Shadows on the South Seas, which, under the snail’s-pace direction of Robert J. Flaherty (a brilliant documentary maker whose skills at fictional filmmaking was slight), was running way behind schedule. When White Shadows opened to critical and audience approval, Van Dyke was elevated to Hollywood’s A-list of directors… read more