It’s impossible to know whether Robert Taylor wrote this article himself or not but the tone of voice seems right for him. It contains one of the acting principles he lived by: “Good acting depends on lack of gestures and restraint of facial expression. The most difficult thing in the world is the art of doing nothing.” Maybe the people who call him “wooden” are so used to uninterrupted action, lots of loud noises and things blowing up, they just can’t hear the silences. A reviewer once said he would love it if Robert Taylor just “cut loose” for once, but that is the last thing he would do. Rather than yelling and gesticulating, Mr. Taylor conveyed emotion through his eyes, his posture and his hands. The first five photos are original to the article. The sixth one comes from the same magazine.
Anything Can Happen in Hollywood
Ladies Home Journal
by Robert Taylor
Recently a national poll among girls of from sixteen to twenty was conducted to find out who were the favorite entertainers of the young girls of America. And can anyone here guess who is their favorite movie star?” our host, one of the sponsors of the poll, asked. “Not Clark Gable. Gable was second. As a matter of fact, the favorite received four times as many votes as Gable.” And our host offered a dollar to anyone who could guess the favorite’s identity.
We tried, with guesses ranging from Robert Montgomery to Victor McLaglen.
You’d never guess in a million years,” serenely our host taunted us. Among the guests were a Washington correspondent, a New York literary critic, a famous book publisher, a popular short-story writer, two editors—all of whom are supposed to know what the public like and when they like it. We all hated to admit defeat. But no one won the dollar, because no one guessed the name of Robert Taylor. Only three of the people present had, in fact, ever seen him. It made us decide to print his story-which we present herewith as written exclusively for the Journal. Other favorites ran truer to form: Myrna Loy and Claudette Colbert, favorite movie actresses; Wayne King, favorite orchestra leader; Jack Benny, favorite radio comedian. Only Taylor was the surprise—and a new star in the entertainment sky of America. Take it away, Robert Taylor. The Editors
Indirectly, a college production of Journey’s End gave me my chance in motion pictures—a performance I hadn’t wanted to play. On the same night there was an oratorical contest in Oregon and I was slated for both. I had chosen the contest because I had not been in Oregon. But the school chose the play. I wasn’t too happy in the part, so you can imagine the shock when my roommate dashed behind the scenes after the performance and grabbed me by the shoulder. There’s a motion-picture scout out there and he’s inquiring about you. Maybe you’ll be the next Clark Gable.” I laughed at my roommate’s enthusiasm, but deep within me something stirred. I had been hunting for my place in life and was having a tough time finding it. Perhaps—
It’s only forty miles from Pomona College to Culver City, but I relived my life while driving there. That wasn’t difficult. My life had lasted only twenty-one years. This was the first semester of my senior year, and from birth I had been destined to become a doctor. My father was a doctor. He had a fine practice in Beatrice, Nebraska. I was an only child. We all thought I would step easily into dad’s shoes, until I was in my freshman year at Doane College, in Crete, not far from my home. Then I decided I couldn’t, for I hated science. But perhaps the real reason is that dad’s shoes didn’t sound exciting. Romance! Thrills! Adventure! Any young fellow wants them. My second year, I tried economics, thinking I might become a business expert. This time I blamed mathematics, which seemed even more dull than the other science. Perhaps I needed a new environment, for, except when I was a baby, I had not been out of Nebraska. The East didn’t appeal to me. I was afraid of big cities and big universities. California! It sounded like Utopia. A professor from Doane was being transferred to Pomona and I transferred with him.
And here I was, now, halfway to Culver City for a motion-picture test! The casting office was crowded. Twenty-five to thirty-five actors. Old hands at this game. People who knew why they were there. I didn’t. I walked up to the girl and gave my name.
“Oh, yes, Mr. Brugh; go right in!”
My name then was S. Arlington Brugh, and it had never meant so much to me as at that moment. For the first time in my life I felt important. While these trained people waited, I went right in. Conceited? Perhaps. But the first time you feel important it is a great moment.
The casting director was kindly. He gave me an audition. I read something from Private Lives. Later I realized that I had “mugged” all over the place–”mugging” being he worst kind of overacting. I could see he was disappointed, although he did say I had a “Gablesque” quality of voice. There was no opening at the moment, but if I cared to see Oliver Hinsdell, dramatic coach, perhaps he could find a place for me in his school for newcomers, conducted on the lot. Mr. Hinsdell said I could come in twice a week and study with him. This lasted only three weeks. I was so bad I could see his interest waning and gave him up before he should give me up. I told him that going to his school and Pomona too was overdoing it, and I returned definitely to Pomona.
But my vocation was settled. I was going to become a motion-picture actor! I do not believe my decision was motivated so much by artistic or monetary ambitions as by curiosity. Although I had seen little of the making of pictures in my few brief visits to the lot, I wanted to see more. The place fascinated me. Eighty-two acres of ground for one studio. Huge squares of concrete rising like giant’s blocks in every direction. Mammoth doors, guarded by a single, small, red electric light—blinking on and off from early morning until late in the night. Stages! I wanted to know what happened behind those lights. I had sneaked a walk across the “back lot.” Streets. I wended my way through the crooked cobble-stoned thoroughfare of the left bank of Paris to the wide, dirt roadway of a mining town in Wyoming. I visited China, India and Africa. I wandered down the banks of a canal upon which a riverboat was chugging. I asked and was told these were permanent “sets” used again and again in the making of pictures. I saw the remnants of the elephants’ graveyard, used in one of Johnny Weismuller’s Tarzan pictures. And I knew I could spend my lifetime in travel and not see more weird corners than I could see reproduced in motion pictures. Besides, I could not spend my life in travel. I did not have enough money. My imagination had a new birth during those few weeks when I was trying to learn something of acting. I was going back. If a studio had sent for me once, it would give me a second chance when I was ready.
The moment my diploma was tucked into my trunk, I dumped the latter on my old roadster, drove to Hollywood and took a room in the home of a little old lady who reminded me of my grandmother in Nebraska. The first evening, I sat down and wrote a letter to the casting director at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer asking for an opportunity. He did not answer. I suppose it will sound strange when I admit I did not hire a manager or dash around from casting director to casting director. Perhaps I would have, had I been in actual need of money. I had enough for a simple existence.
I know now that everyone gets his first chance in Hollywood in a different way. There is no rule. I merely waited. You see, I knew only one lot. I had imagined my future there. I wanted to satisfy my curiosity, and possibly my ambition, where I had started and flunked. Besides, I had learned how little I knew of acting from Oliver Hinsdell, and I wanted to show him I could learn.
While I was waiting, my father was taken ill and I drove back to Nebraska. It was October when I returned to Hollywood. The day after I returned I received a letter from the casting director. I had written to him in June; he had answered in October! Before I could go out to see him, my father died. This time I was in Nebraska until December, when I drove back with my mother and grandmother. California was now my home. There must be no further delay about my making my way into pictures.
I answered the letter in person. Now I did not breeze by dyed-in-the-wools but took a seat among them. They knew more of waiting as well as of acting than I did. I became so restless I chanced losing my turn and wandered outside for a whiff of air. The casting director was whiffing too. I stepped up and asked if he remembered me.
He took a swift glance, laughed and said, “Oh, the Pomona Mugger!” It hurt, but I tried to laugh and ask for another chance. “If Oliver Hinsdell wants to give it to you, it’s all right with me. See him.”
I have no idea just why Mr. Hinsdell gave me another chance. I hope it was because he realized I was serious this time and willing to do everything necessary to make myself over. For I had learned just enough to know I would have to be made completely over.
Mr. Hinsdell’s first step was to hand me models of six pieces of statuary; The Winged Victory (the Louvre); The Sower by Alvin Polasek (Chicago Art Institute); the Greek friezes from the Temple of Minerva (the Louvre); Solitude of the Soul by Lorado Taft (Chicago Art Institute); Diana of the Chase and Diana of Gabii (both in the Louvre).
If you can’t understand what these statues can teach you of correct posture and movement, there is very little hope for you,” he said.
Get copies of these statues and try to figure them out! I didn’t understand them all—not without looking them up. But the reference room of a library is a handy place. The Winged Victory shows physical grace better than any other piece of art in the world. The Sower represents perfect rhythm in man; Diana of the Chase, in woman, Diana of Gabii will show anyone how badly he handles his hands. The friezes depict six figures at different points of arrested motion. These helped me a great deal. I had two of the worst sins of posture and motion: I stood with my weight on both feet instead of having one leg slightly bent; and I stepped forward from flat feet rather than from the balls of my feet. These six figures prove how perfect grace comes through the correct use of legs and feet. I am still working on imitating them.
I have left Solitude of the Soul to the last, because it is the most important.
Here the body is in perfect repose. Of all the lessons you must learn for acting, relaxation is the hardest, not only for me but for most modern young people. Mr. Hinsdell says that is because we are keyed so highly today we do not know how to relax. We are on the go every moment, even when we are resting. Yet the secret of taking even a successful photograph lies in relaxation. I had to sit for fifteen minutes each day before Lorado Taft’s sculpture and prove to Mr. Hinsdell that I had done it. After six months of this, including Sundays, I walked before my teacher, dropped into a chair and demanded that he look at me. My arms hung limply; the tension had gone from my face. I was in repose. Only a few days later, I was cast in my first picture. That first picture does not come until you have learned the secret of relaxation.
I began as the “Pomona Mugger.” Like most beginners, I thought acting depended on gestures and exaggerated facial expressions. Mr. Hinsdell soon took away that amateurish idea. Good acting depends on lack of gestures and restraint of facial expression.
“The most difficult thing in the world is the art of doing nothing,” he told us.
Just try to sit in a room and do nothing! Attempt to make a speech without waving your arms. Try to imply enthusiasm without gesticulating it. Learn The Raven. Speak it so that ease of voice and natural grace of body will tell the story. Stand before a mirror and watch yourself practice. Do this for months, until your inner personality begins to come out and your external one is slowly forgotten. Think The Raven so hard that you completely forget yourself. When you learn to do that, you will awaken some morning, begin your practice and realize that the only reason a gesture is important is that it is used so seldom.
I wish I had a dollar for every time Mr. Hinsdell said, “A comedian must never think himself funny. A person playing a serious role must never feel sorry for himself. The clever actor is one who forgets himself completely, merely suggests action and lets the audience do the acting.” To learn to forget yourself is not easy, but it can be done. I had expected my voice to be trained like a vocalist’s. Naturally, you learn enunciation; and for motion pictures, that means you learn to pronounce words as the average man understands them. You do not use the English, New York or Southern pronunciation, but an international one. You speak words so they sound natural. The secret of a talking picture voice is in its naturalness, its native personality.
I think I was more surprised at my first lesson on voice than at any other. Mr. Hinsdell said: “We aren’t looking for the perfect voice. We are looking for one with personality. You were shown one of Wallace Beery’s pictures yesterday. Experts wouldn’t call his voice perfect, but it is perfect for him. Clark Gable’s normal, conversational time fits him better than the most perfect voice in the world. Forget your voices!”
And to forget a voice, you must have perfect relaxation.
Naturally, you practice before a microphone, but this is largely to eliminate microphone fright—encourage that perfect relaxation. As to volume, no actor need worry about that today. It is controlled by the sound engineers. It is to be letter-perfect in your lines, so you are not conscious of your memory. To try to remember is to fun the risk of being self-conscious.
I had six months of this training before I asked to make a test for an actual picture. Only one change was made in my appearance. The studio make-up barber worked over me until he found the haircut which he thought gave me the best personality. Make-up lessons were simple. There is little for a man being groomed for “leading roles” to learn of make-up. Because my cheeks are red, I have to wear a clay-yellow powder which looks clear white on the screen. Red photographs black. You pat the powder on rather than rub it in, and there must be no blotches.
If I were a character actor, the make-up problem would be different. I heard weird tales about make-up from my fellow students. One of the favorite yarns was of Lewis Stone’s ear, or lack of ear, in Grand Hotel. Mr. Stone’s comments about suffering the “torments of the damned” have become legends on the lot. One of the make-up men told me that Jack Dawn, head make-up artist, took two hours each morning to eliminate Mr. Stone’s ear. He pushed the ear flat, covered it with collodion, and presto, there was no ear. To make the nasty wound on Johnny Weissmuller’s temple for Tarzan and his Mate. Mr. Dawn pinched the skin into a big hump, fastening it in place with collodion and painted on the bruises. It hurt! One hears weird stories of how Lon Chaney achieved his effects. No one really knows. He created them and they went with him.
Aside from listening to such stories, I had little excitement during those first six months. In fact, I was thoroughly lonely and not a little disappointed. I had expected glamor and found hard work and discipline. I looked better than I had ever looked, and there was nobody to see me! I was the proverbial cog in a great factory. Can you manage what it would be like to work in the same place with Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Norma Shearer, Robert Montgomery, Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, William Powell—to pass them every day and yet not be able to speak to them? It wasn’t that they were high hat. They just didn’t know me.
I had pictured Hollywood as the most unconventional city in the world. I found it the most conventional. The important people do not even smile at a fellow unless he is known—where he comes from and why he is there. They don’t dare. More crooks try to outwit the stars than any other class of people. Of course, there is another group in Hollywood—those who hang on the edges trying to get in; adventurers seeking an easy “break;” salesmen with nodding acquaintances; extras who have given up, and bury their disappointments in forced gaieties at wild parties. It’s not easy to get into that crowd. You don’t do it—not when you’ve learned that once you are in, you seldom get out.
There is a suspense about being in Hollywood which I doubt if one finds in any other city. Anything may happen! You are unknown today. Perhaps you will be reading your name in the newspapers tomorrow. Of course, if anyone had told me that I should be receiving more than one thousand letters a day within a year, I should have laughed at him. And yet I should have known it might happen. No matter how discouraged you become, that curious sense of adventure does not leave you.
My first test was a trial one with Evalyn Knapp, directed by Harry Bucquet, specialist in supervising of tests. There is nothing more cold or unfriendly than a test stage. The elaborate detail of a regular set is missing. The realism is not there. One camera, a few lights, a few odd pieces of furniture. This was a drawing-room scene, written especially for a test by a test-script writer. I was in full evening dress. You know how a man in evening dress feels walking into a restaurant at high noon? Evening dress requires a proper background.
Miss Knapp entered from one side; I came from the other. “Hello”–my first word for the screen was supposed to be nonchalant. I was about as nonchalant as a condemned man walking to the scaffold. “It’s a beautiful evening,” I added as we sat upon a bench. You could just see the evening—a backdrop with a red moon in a cheap vaudeville theater.
I was a dramatic coach teaching a girl the technique of love-making. The climax was when my play acting was supposed to become the real thing. I had been instructing the girl; I found myself in love with her. I wondered why Mr. Bucquet suddenly left the set at this point. He didn’t want to hurt my feelings.
My excitement was pathetic. I telephoned the studio before nine o’clock the next morning. Three days later there was a report. Mr. Bucquet’s secretary said: “I hate to tell you; but the camera went haywire. Everything’s blurred. The action’s all right, only you can’t see it.”
That was my luckiest break. Because my test blew up, I had passed my first examination of importance.
Loaned to Fox for my next picture: Handy Andy with Will Rogers! My feeling was one of keen disappointment. Why couldn’t I make my first picture in my own studio? Wasn’t I good enough to work where I had been trained?
I know now all actors feel that way at one time or another. Clark Gable admits he objected to being “farmed out” to Columbia for It Happened One Night. He even told director Frank Capra he didn’t want to do it. Yet he won the Motion Picture Academy Award for it! A studio is a busy place and its executives do not often stop to explain the reasons for their actions. I should have known. I had wanted to get away from Nebraska to learn how other people lived and worked. I did learn much from working at Fox. I had never been off my own lot. I was unknown at home.
At Fox, I was a guest. I became a personality. My name had been changed. Anyone knows that S. Arlington Brugh could not go into lights over a theater, if it should deserve to get there. The studio had suggested Geoffrey Taylor. I had kicked about that, knowing I would be called Geoff. Robert mean Bob, which was common but comfortable. A new name, a new place to work—a feeling of self-confidence. When Will Rogers patted my back or threw his arms around my shoulders, I straightened and wondered what the fellows back home would think if they could see it! And people did talk to me at this studio. Even Janet Gaynor and Warner Baxter! I began to have the feeling I have today about a studio; it is a big campus where everyone knows you and you know everyone; a place in which you work, but where you also have fun. You see, I had a recommendation at Fox. I was that “new guy, Robert Taylor, loaned to us by Metro.” My studio was my letter of introduction into the fraternal organization of another lot.
The first day on a motion-picture set is terrible. Even though you have been trained for six months, and have actually worked in trial productions-both on the stage and on sets—yet there is so much you do not know. You have been taught that relaxation is the secret and you find yourself as tense as a well-tuned violin string. You stumble against your own make-up table, one of those light dressing-room tables placed on the set so you may give a last dash of powder to your face before you go before the cameras. You feel perspiration seeping through the powder. You know you may not be needed for hours, but you cannot leave because you are “on call.” Relaxation? You never heard the word—you must do something. Count sheep? Young fellow, you are in pictures! This is your first picture. You don’t know much yet; you’d better study what’s going on about you. Can you name the equipment being used on this production? Probably not. Although you have been instructed, you realize only experience can teach you.
You would expect the eye to travel first to the director. Mine didn’t. I hunted and found the property man. He’s easy to locate because of the leather belt around his waist. Between the leather belt and his “props box” he carries everything which may be needed, from a clothes brush to buttons to match the buttons on the suits of the actors. As it happened, Mr. Rogers lost a button during the making of this picture. He didn’t notice it, but the prop boy did and was sewing one in its place before Mr. Rogers realized what had happened. Suppose I am smoking a cigarette. It’s three-quarters gone when the scene is over. I begin a rehearsal for the next scene. When the actual shooting starts, the property boy bounces over, removes my new cigarette and hands me one which is
three-quarters smoked. The moment I have finished the first shot, he has jumped to his box and cut a cigarette to the proper length. I use the words “bounce “and “jump” because I have never seen a property man who has not developed his own peculiar gait, intended, I suppose, to accelerate action.
When I was a student I had been taken on a tour of the studio, and the most amazing sight to me had been the props. “Animate” and “inanimate” properties are the two general classifications. One moves—the other doesn’t. If a director wants a duck that can walk, flap its wings and wipe its feet at the same time, he calls the head of the animate property department. However, one has been made within a week in the mechanical shop. Anything can happen in Hollywood—and usually does. The inanimate properties are equally startling. Our guide told us there were eighteen hundred real antiques in that department, and there are scouts continually hunting for antiques, as there are for actors. The hand-property department! Here we saw everything which can be moved by hand; telephones, crutches, suitcases, pie plates, communion cups, mirrors, surgical scalpels, wax flowers—I have never seen such a collection, not even in the largest department store in the world. Speaking of flowers, each studio has its florist’s ship. If Norma Shearer is to wear orchids in a scene, six corsages are ready. The scene may take all day and the flowers must be fresh for each shot.
I did not work that first day. I doubt if there is anything more nerve-racking than not to work on your first day on your first picture. It is true that Mr. Rogers held us up with his lines. He could not memorize accurately, but he could ad-lib more quickly and humorously than any other actor I have seen. One scene in an entire day!
When I went home, more tired and nervous than if I had worked, I knew one thing for certain; a motion-picture actor who decides his genius is responsible for a successful motion-picture is crazy. Every time I now find myself getting excited about my achievements—which anyone might do when it takes half an hour to get from the lobby at your hotel to your suite because of the women crowding the lobby, as they did during my recent first visit to New York City—I remember that first day with Will Rogers.
Despite this lesson, I was terrible when I went to work the next morning. I had to say two lines and I flunked them. Forgot. Stammered. Stood on the balls of my feet. In other words, I went rigid. I was frightened. I still am on the first day of a picture. Somehow, everything you know runs away from you. You see, I was thinking of myself, the one thing an actor must not do.
But when I returned to my own studio, I found my status had changed. I had made a picture! I had worked on another lot. I wasn’t just a schoolboy. There were tests made of me for pictures. I was cast in Buried Loot, the first of the “crime doesn’t pay” series. This was a short, but I had the lead. My first role of importance. Again I didn’t realize it, but the studio had shown its wisdom. This short was all action. Action pictures do not require so much repression as drama. I could still mug a little.
When a studio commences to advertize you, you know opportunity lies not too far ahead. And when the publicity department begins to pay you serious attention—then watch out. Fame is beckoning a finger. It may be a weak gesture, but it is a gesture.
Naturally, I did not see the letters which came in from Society Doctor, in which I played my fest important role. I could only guess the results had not been negative when Howard Strickling, Western publicity director, sent for me.
This interview frightened me as had few others. While going to school, I had heard weird tales of this department. If a fellow made a success, the publicity boys would tie him to their apron strings and become dictatorial mammas! They would write our life stories,, tell us what girls we could see, what time to get up and retire. Mr. Strickling talked on two subjects: (1) I was to be careful about getting into scrapes or situations which might injure my reputation. If I did get into trouble, such as being arrested for speeding, I was to report immediately to him, so the department would know the truth before a highly colored picture could be printed in the papers. A motion-picture actor was always news. He could not help that. There was no sense in resenting it. Even small fame was a responsibility and one should do his best to live up to it. (2) I was to tell my life story to one of his writers. I was to tell the truth. And I was to continue to tell the men of his department anything of interest which might happen to me from day-to-day.
The publicity department sorts out the writers who see us. There are careless writers, as there are careless stenographers. I say I admire a certain actress, that does not mean I am in love with her or going to marry her. But a careless writer may misquote me and so I embarrass the actress and myself.
The favorite question of fan-magazine interviewers seems to be,”What do you think of marriage?” My mother and dad made it pretty difficult for me when it comes to marriage. Although dad had a nurse in his office, the telephone would ring at home at ten o’clock almost every morning. Dad was asking for mother. “I’m lonely,” he’d say, and she’d go down and spend the rest of the day with him. She visited me while I was at Pomona. After two days she was ill. Seriously so, with a high temperature. I secretly wired dad and he came out. The moment he walked into that room she was well; didn’t even remember she had been ill. They were married twenty-five years, and if they spoke a cross word, I didn’t hear it. I don’t want divorce; I want marriage—the wholesome beauty of the real thing. And I cannot change that for “publicity” purposes.
The path leading to motion-picture recognition is lonely and difficult. The one I am traveling now is definitely hazardous. Ten pictures in a year! The studio has a method of building fame exactly as it has of training actors. I had received recognition in one picture, Society Doctor. The next step was to cast me with famous names. A small part in West Point of the Air, with Wallace Beery. No matter how small the part, the Beery following would see me. Then—to playing opposite the ladies. Two program pictures, or inexpensive productions: Times Square Lady with Virginia Bruce; Murder in the Fleet, with Jean Parker. Then a big picture, entitled to a big publicity campaign: Broadway Melody of 1936, with Eleanor Powell.
Because of this bit of luck, Universal borrowed me to play opposite Irene Dunne in Magnificent Obsession. Again loaning me to Universal for such an important picture was shrewd showmanship. Not only would I play in houses under a different management, but Universal is acknowledged to have the best foreign release for its product. This meant a definite build-up for my name in foreign countries. My reward for not doing a “flop” with Miss Dunne was playing the boy friend to Janet Gaynor in Small Town Girl. This picture pushed my fan mail to the point where I had to hire two secretaries. My latest star is Joan Crawford—I am opposite her in The Gorgeous Hussy. And now I do His Brother’s Wife, with Barbara Stanwyck, and then Camille, with Garbo. When a fellow plays opposite Garbo, he’s become a leading man in capital letters. Of course, there are still Norma Shearer and Myrna Loy. I’d like to play with them too.
I said this path is hazardous. Of course it is. Fame is always dangerous—especially fame which comes so quickly. You don’t know what to do with it. The public liked that boy it saw in that first picture. If he changes, he public may not like the new fellow.
Do I want stardom? It’s a lot easier to be Greta Garbo’s leading man. If Camille fails, she’ll be blamed. If I am a star and a picture is not good, I am to blame. That’s the public’s viewpoint.
The best thing I can do, as I see it, is to remember the boy who lived in Nebraska. He wanted adventure. He has it. He likes it. But he must not forget: anything can happen in Hollywood. One can get out much more quickly than he can get in. My father owned several farms in Nebraska. I am holding on to them.