Born in San Diego, California, Van Dyke was a child actor on the vaudeville circuit, and in his early adult years was unsettled and moved from career to career until arriving in Hollywood. His first movie assignment was as an assistant director on the D. W. Griffith feature motion picture Intolerance (1916). During the silent era he learned his craft and by the advent of the talkies was one of MGM's most reliable directors.
He came to be known as "One Take Woody" for the speed with which he would complete his assignments, and although not regarded as one of the screen's most talented directors, MGM regarded him as one of the most versatile, equally at home directing costume dramas, westerns, comedies, crime melodramas and musicals. Many of his films were huge hits and top box office in any given year. He received Academy Award for Best Director nominations for The Thin Man (1934) and San Francisco (1936). He also directed the Oscar winning classic "Eskimo/Mala the Magnificent" (see Ray Mala).
His other films include Trader Horn (1931), Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), Manhattan Melodrama (1934), and Marie Antoinette (1938). He is perhaps best remembered for directing Myrna Loy and William Powell in four Thin Man films: The Thin Man (1934), After the Thin Man (1936), Another Thin Man (1939) and Shadow of the Thin Man (1941); and Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in six of their greatest hits, Naughty Marietta (1935), Rose Marie (1936), Sweethearts (1938), New Moon (1940) (uncredited because halfway through filming Robert Z. Leonard took over), Bitter Sweet (1940) and I Married an Angel (1942).
The earthquake sequence in San Francisco is considered one of the best special-effects sequences ever filmed. To help direct, Van Dyke called upon his early mentor, D.W. Griffith, who had fallen on hard times. Van Dyke was also known to hire old-time, out-of-work actors as extras; because of his loyalty he was much beloved and admired in the industry.
Promoted to Major prior to World War II, the patriotic Van Dyke set up a Marines recruiting center in his MGM office. He was one of the first Hollywood bigwigs to advocate early U.S. involvement, and he convinced stars like Clark Gable, James Stewart, Robert Taylor and Nelson Eddy to become involved in the war effort. He did not survive the war, however. Terminally ill with cancer and a bad heart, he managed to direct one last film to show America what it was fighting for, the children. Journey for Margaret was a heart-rending movie that made five-year old Margaret O'Brien an overnight star.
A devout Christian Scientist, Van Dyke refused most medical care during his last painful years. After finishing his last film and failing rapidly, he said his goodbyes to his wife, children and studio boss Louis B. Mayer, and committed suicide in Brentwood, Los Angeles, California. At his request, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy both sang and officiated at his funeral.
Van Dyke was known for allowing ad-libbing (that remained in the film) and for coaxing natural performances from his actors. He made stars of Nelson Eddy, James Stewart, Myrna Loy, Johnny Weissmuller, Eleanor Powell, Ilona Massey and Margaret O'Brien. He was often called in to work a few days (or more), uncredited, on a film that was in trouble or had gone over production schedule.
Woody Van Dyke has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his contribution to Motion Pictures, at 6141 Hollywood Boulevard.