When American director Sam Wood first reported to Cecil B. De Mille as an assistant in 1915, Wood had already dabbled in real estate and acted on-stage under the name of Chad Applegate. A solo director by 1919, Wood worked throughout the '20s directing some of Paramount's biggest stars, among them Gloria Swanson and Wallace Reid. He began his long association with MGM in 1927, working with personalities as varied as Marion Davies, Clark Gable, Marie Dressler, and Jimmy Durante. He guided the Marx Brothers through their two most profitable films, A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937), and turned out one of the most accomplished sentimental dramas ever made in Hollywood, Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). Hopping from studio to studio in the '40s, Wood directed Ginger Rogers through her Oscar-winning performance in Kitty Foyle (1940), successfully transferred Thornton Wilder's highly theatrical Our Town (1940) to the screen (even the studio-imposed happy ending worked), and assembled the quintessential baseball biopic, The Pride of the Yankees (1942).
The list of Wood's successes would seem to assure him a niche in the ranks of all-time best Hollywood directors, yet his reputation has tarnished since his death in 1949. Most detractors insist that Wood was a hack, citing his habit of shooting each scene an average of 20 times, his only verbal direction in each instance being "Go out there and sell 'em a load of clams." In truth, this technique was invaluable in wearing down such mannered performers as Walter Brennan, Dan Duryea, Frank Morgan, and Wallace Beery, until they were tired enough to behave like human beings instead of play-actors. The 20-take habit also enabled the more limited actors to re-think their interpretations until they'd found nuances that they would never have considered on the first take: Ronald Reagan, who was certainly no Olivier, was never better than in Wood's Kings Row (1942). Taking into consideration all the complaints about Sam Wood, the biggest bone of contention seems to be his reactionary politics. Wood was active in a number of right-wing organizations, and in 1947 he virulently condemned Hollywood's "left" before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Those whose politics are diametrically opposite to Wood's dwell incessantly upon this aspect of his life, embellishing the facts by painting him as a bigot and (in the words of Groucho Marx) a "fascist." But just as it is fitting and proper to separate the performances of a Jane Fonda, Shirley MacLaine, or Paul Newman from their political agendas, so too would it be fair to extend the same courtesy to Wood. No matter what sort of man Sam Wood was personally, his string of Hollywood hits should be his true legacy.