Few Actors Have More Handsome and More Modest
By Ronald L. Bowers
Films in Review
Volume XVIII, No. 1
Robert Taylor is an exceptionally handsome man, but that does not explain his stardom.
An analysis of his face yields this truth: the proportions of forehead, eyes, nose, cheeks, lips and chin are perfect individually and in ensemble. In addition, his coloring, especially the blue eyes beneath dark hair, is striking; his chest, arms and legs are well formed; and his carriage is gracefully masculine.
Other actors have been equally blest in such ways but have failed to quicken the particular kind of yea-saying, in both men and women, that is the sine qua non of stardom. For though good looks are an asset, unless they put an audience’s imagination to work and lead men and women to guess about the inner man, and to like what they surmise that inner man to be, good looks are the proverbial snare and delusion.
Beneath Robert Taylor’s good looks audiences sensed the character traits men immemorially have preferred: strength, modesty, rectitude, honor. Although these old fashioned virtues have nothing to do with frenetic intellectualism, even today’s frenetic audiences were delighted to see them exemplified, via Robert Taylor, by a handsome man.
There are limitations in an actor whose chief commodity is this embodiment of latent wishes of the human race, and yet the role-range for such a player is greater than is commonly supposed. Since the human race’s profoundest wishes are eternal verities, the actor who personifies them is appropriate to any time and place, as Taylor proved in Camille and Quo Vadis. But they are inappropriate to the meretricious and the factitious, as Taylor proved whenever he let himself be cast in a pointless melodrama, or as a villain.
Robert Taylor was born in the small town of Filley, Nebraska, on August 5, 1911, the only child of Spangler Andrew and Ruth Adelia [Stanhope] Brugh and was named Spangler Arlington Brugh.
His father was a grain merchant and while Taylor was still very young his mother developed a heart ailment which prompted the father to turn to the study of medicine. After attending classes in a school in Kirksville, Missouri, Mr. Brugh practiced medicine in Fremont, Nebraska, in association with another physician. Two years later, in ’18, the Brughs settled in Beatrice, Nebraska, where Taylor attended grade and high school.
In the latter he was active in track and tennis, played the cello, and excelled in public speaking. Indeed, for an oration entitled “The Peculiar Position held by School Teachers in Public Society” he won a trip to Detroit. When he graduated, in’29, he enrolled in Doane College in nearby Crete, Nebraska, with the idea of becoming a doctor. But his mother urged him to continue with the cello, and, when his music teacher at Doane, Professor Herbert E. Gray, transferred to Pomona College in Claremont, California, she induced Dr. Brugh to allow their son to go there also.
Taylor says he now cannot remember why, at Pomona, he joined the drama club and appeared in its productions of Camille, The Importance of Being Earnest and M’Lord the Duke. In any case, during his senior year, he was seen as Captain Stanhope in Journey’s End by Ben Piazza, an MGM casting director, who offered him free acting lessons at the studio on weekends.
Taylor then had no acting ambitions and turned the offer down, but after graduating from Pomona (June ’33) acting began to seem to him to be a not unattractive way of earning a
living, and he enrolled in the Neely Dixon Dramatic School in Hollywood.
That August his father became seriously ill and Taylor returned to Nebraska. His father died in October and, a month later, his mother proposed that she and Taylor move to California and that he resume study at the Neely Dixon School and begin pursuing an acting career in earnest.
Taylor’s first encouragement was a screen test at Goldwyn’s on a fourteen day option, although nothing came of it. Then Oliver Tinsdell, a drama coach at MGM, recommended that he be given a 7-year contract, and, on February 26, ’34, he was. The starting salary was $35 a week. Ida Koverman, Louis B. Mayer’s major domo, suggested the name “Robert Taylor.” Tinsdell took over Taylor’s acting education.
His film debut was on loan-out to Fox in a Will Rogers vehicle called Handy Andy (’34) in which he played the beau of Rogers’ daughter. He was next lent to Universal to play Frank Morgan’s son in There’s Always Tomorrow (’34), in which Binnie Barnes made her US film debut. Supporting roles followed in A Wicked Woman (’35), which starred Mady Christians and Jean Parker, and Buried Loot (’35), the first of MGM’s Crime Does Not Pay series of shorts. He was then cast as the young intern in Society Doctor (’35), a role which elicited a little fan mail. MGM raised his pay to $50 a week and quickly used him as a flying cadet in West Point of the Air (’35); a night club host in Times Square Lady (’35); a Navy lieutenant in Murder in the Fleet (’35).
Then, to see how Taylor would be in a musical, MGM put him in the Broadway Melody of 1936 (released in ’35). He played a theatrical producer and sang one song, “I’ve Got a Feeling You’re Fooling,” and danced with June Knight. He was given no further singing-dancing assignments.
But he was chosen by Universal to play opposite Irene Dunne in Magnificent Obsession, and it was his performance in that tried-&-true sudser which lifted him to stardom. The same role in the ’54 remake did the same thing for Rock Hudson. Recalls Irene Dunne: “I remember sitting with John Stahl looking at some film of Robert Taylor before Magnificent Obsession started shooting. Anyone who knows Stahl knows he made all the decisions. But I like to recall that I did tell him I thought Bob entirely right for the part. And it was pleasant working with Bob Taylor. He always assumed his full share of responsibility.”
Thereafter Taylor was cast opposite Hollywood’s brightest female stars. In Small Town Girl (’36) he is a Boston socialite doctor who marries Janet Gaynor while intoxicated, and in Private Number (’36) he is a wealthy college student who falls in love with the family maid played by Loretta Young. Said Miss Young four years later: “I worked with Bob Taylor just after the big furore about him got underway, and he was being hailed as the new great lover. I don’t know what I expected him to be like, but I found him a surprisingly normal person, neither fussed nor conceited. He was simply doing his work and letting matters take their own course. It’s always easy to get along with anyone like that.”
It was by being cast as an idealistic medical student [in a film] called His Brother’s Wife that Taylor, in ’36, met Barbara Stanwyck, whom he was fated to marry. She had just divorced Frank Fay and within comparatively few months they were seen together so often that columnists demanded an explanation. Said Taylor, one one of show-business’
great understatements, “Barbara is the sort of woman I’d never have met in Nebraska.”
After playing opposite her in His Brother’s Wife, and opposite Joan Crawford in The Gorgeous Hussy, in which Crawford portrayed the Peggy Eaton of Andrew Jackson’s administration, Taylor reached his apogee by playing Armand in Greta Garbo’s Camille. Said he a few years later: “I was a scared kid of 25 and she was 31, in full bloom, already a fantastic legend.” Said the NY “Times” in its review of that box-officer: “Taylor avoids the callousness of previous Armands.”
After Camille, Robert Taylor was eagerly sought for their films by all of Hollywood’s foremost actresses, and it has seemed to curious to many that MGM should have paired him with Jean Harlow in a frivolous comedy called Personal Property. I suspect the reason was the studio knew she was mortally ill, that it feared the signs would show in her performance, and hence on the screen, and that it used Taylor as “box-office insurance.” Personal Property was Jean Harlow’s last picture. After it was finished Taylor accompanied her to Washington where they attended President Roosevelt’s birthday ball, for the benefit of the March of Dimes, on January 30, 1937. Six months later, on June 7, Harlow was dead.
To exploit the public’s awareness of his interest in Barbara Stanwyck, 20th Century Fox borrowed him and put them in This Is My Affair (’37), in which he is the dashing Navy lieutenant who, as an under-cover agent, is sent by President McKinley to solve
mysterious bank robberies in the Middle West.
Taylor was aware that his looks, and not acting ability, accounted for his having become one of Hollywood’s greatest money-making stars. He was also aware that good looks do not last forever, and he began to feel that a certain proportion of his roles should require acting ability as well as looks. Unlike some performers, he found MGM’s Louis B. Mayer more than cooperative.
Taylor respects Mayer and credits him with much of his success. Said Taylor in a ’64 interview: “Some writers have implied that Mayer was tyrannical and abusive, and a male prima donna who out-acted his actors. As I knew him, he was kind, fatherly, understanding and protective. He gave me picture assignments up to the level that my abilities could sustain at the time, and was always there when I had problems. I just wish today’s young actors had a studio and boss like I had. It groomed us carefully, kept us busy in picture after picture, thus giving us exposure, and made us stars. My memories of ‘L.B.’ will always be pleasant, and my days at MGM are my happiest period professionally.”
After Taylor’s talks with Mayer MGM promoted Taylor in he-man parts. Two of the three Taylor films released in ’38 are examples. In A Yank at Oxford he was successfully cast as he football hero who becomes involved with a coquette (Vivien Leigh). That film, incidentally, was MGM’s first production at its studio in Denham, England, and Taylor’s journey to make the picture was his first trip abroad.
His other he-man role that year was as an ethical young boxer who accidentally kills a man in the ring in The Crowd Roars, which co-starred Maureen O’Sullivan and Frank Morgan.
MGM, of course, also continued to put him in routine programmers: Three Comrades with Margaret Sullavan; Stand Up and Fight, his first Western; Lucky Night with Myrna Loy; Lady of the Tropics, with a lushly photographed Hedy Lamarr; and a fairly amusing situational comedy called Remember?, with Greer Garson.
On May 14, ’39, Taylor and Babara Stanwyck, accompanied by Zeppo and Marian Marx, and by Ida Koverman, were married in San Diego. They rented a house in Beverly Hills from Colleen Moore’s mother, and “Buck” Mack, the vaudevillian who had taught Stanwyck to dance, and who was her godfather, came to live with them.
Right after his marriage, Taylor did the film which is his favorite Taylor picture: Waterloo Bridge, a cinemazation of Robert E. Sherwood’s play, in which he was teamed again with Vivien Leigh. It’s his favorite, he says, “because it came at a time when I didn’t think I was a good actor. When I saw the picture, I was surprised—along with everybody else.”
After appearing in Escape, Ethel Vance’s anti-Nazi tale of a son (Taylor) who maneuvers to free his mother from a concentration camp, he did his second Western, Billy the Kid (’41). Its Gene Fowler script whitewashed that criminal via the usual fictions. The NY
“Times” called it a “routine horse-opera” and added that “the magnificence of Robert Taylor, which is always something to behold, is here diminished by the scenery.”
Billy the Kid is a good example of the sort of film Taylor should avoided. It required no acting ability, and hence can’t be excused on those grounds. And it did nothing for his screen image. Taylor was not, at that phase of his career, sufficiently knowledgeable to pick films which would advance him beyond the “male glamor” roles his detractors mocked him for. Miss Stanwyck, ten much shrewder about such matters, was too busy with her own career to give him the guidance she could have.
Johnny Eager is another example of the sort of film Taylor could, and should, have avoided. He is a heavy in it—a gangster who frames the daughter of a district attorney and then falls in love with her. Van Heflin, in a supporting role, stole this picture from both Taylor and Lana Turner, and won an Academy Award in doing so.
As though the above two misjudgments weren’t enough, Taylor, who at that time could have had script approval if, indeed, he hadn’t, then went into the debacle called Her Cardboard Lover, Norma Shearer’s worst, and last, film.
His next two pictures were part of MGM’s war effort. Stand By for Action (’42) is a US counterpart of England’s In Which We Serve, but without such good characterizations. Bataan (’43) is more realistic. Taylor is one of thirteen expendable soldiers, the hard-bitten sergeant who is the last to die (at the edge of his self-dug grave). But the picture isn’t as good as that phase of WW II deserves.
Except for a guest appearance in The Youngest Profession (’43), Taylor’s last film before enlisting in the Navy is the controversial Song of Russia (’44), in which he is an American symphony orchestra conductor who tours Russia and falls in love with a Russian girl. Taylor did not want to complete this film for two reasons; he was anxious to enlist, and he considered Song of Russia to be pro-Communist. When it was released the NY “Times” called it “a honey of a topical film, full of rare good humor, rich vitality and a proper respect for the Russians’ fight in this war” and “close to being the best film on Russia by Hollywood.” But in ’47 the House Un-American Activities Committee, investigating Communist influence in Hollywood, considered it as an example of such influence. Louis B.Mayer acknowledged it was friendly to Russia but said it had been produced at a time when the Russian situation at Stalingrad was desperate and our national leaders were pleading for all-out support for Russia. Mayer also said the film’s final script was little more than a boy-girl story set in Russia with music by Tchaikowsky.
Taylor appeared before the Committee and declared that many points he had considered
pro-Communist were not in the final script. But he also said there had been “more indications” of Communist activity in Hollywood in the past 4 or 5 years, and that there were actors and actresses who “if not Communists, are working awfully hard to be so.” He called this group a “disturbing influence” and said all Communists should be forced to live in Russia.
Taylor was a licensed civilian pilot when he enlisted in the Navy’s Air Corps and was soon commissioned a lieutenant (j.g.) and assigned to be a flying instructor. He also directed 17 training films and spoke the narration of the Oscar-winning documentary The Fighting Lady (’44).
After his discharge from the Navy in November ’45, as a senior grade lieutenant, he resumed his film career by appearing with Katharine Hepburn and Robert Mitchum in Undercurrent (’46), an unsuccessful psychological thriller in which Taylor kills a man in order to steal his invention and become a tycoon.
In ’47 Taylor and Miss Stanwyck motored through Europe for several months. There were those who regarded the trip as an attempt to save their marriage.
Except for Quo Vadis, the pictures Taylor made between the time of his return to the US (’48) and his divorce from Miss Stanwyck (February 25, ‘520, are a nondescript lot. In High Wall he is a neurotic war veteran. The Bribe is a melodrama about smuggling in the Caribbean (with Ava Gardner). In Conspirator, which he made in England with Elizabeth Taylor, he is a Communist agent. And he made two Westerns—Ambush and The Devil’s Doorway.
Quo Vadis is a major motion picture effort that wears well. Indeed, I think that cinemazation of the Sienkiewicz novel belongs in the top rank of motion picture spectacles. And although Mr. Taylor’s performance as the commander of a Roman legion who falls in love with a Christian was not especially praised when Quo Vadis was first released (’51), I consider it a prime example of something Taylor came to do extremely well: i.e., exemplifying historically or literarily symbolical figures. In short, embodying abstractions—human hopes and desires.
He certainly did this effectively in the title role of Ivanhoe, and, I would argue, as the pilot who led our atom-bomb expedition over Japan in Above and Beyond. And he certainly did it in Knights of the Round Table and Quentin Durward.
A few months after his divorce from Miss Stanwyck, he met, on a blind date, a German-born model with two children named Ursula Schmidt-Hut Thiess. She had married, at 18 after a brief training as an actress with a repertory company, the German film director George Thiess. They had two children, Manuela and Michael, and divorced in ’47. She thereupon became a model, and, as the result of an appearance on a “Life” cover, was offered a contract with RKO by Howard Hughes. She arrived in the US on May 23, 1951, and on April 24 ’52, met Taylor. They married on May 24, ’54. She appeared in
five films and in a few segments of Taylor’s TV series, The Detectives. They have two children –Terence (b: 6/18/55) and Tessa (b. 8/16/59)–and live on an 113-acre ranch in the Mandeville Canyon.
After Louis B. Mayer was ousted from MGM, to be replaced by Dore Schary,Taylor’s pictures, with a few exceptions, steadily deteriorated and in ’59 his neighbor, Dick Powell, interested him in television. For three years Taylor played Captain Matt Holbrook in The Detectives, which ran two years as a half-hour show and then a third year as an hour one. “Television is a lot of fun,” Taylor said at the time. ‘You go in and get it done. No time is wasted, as in the movie business.”
He recently succeeded Ronald Reagan as host, narrator and actor on the fifteenth TV season of Death Valley Days.
Taylor is one of the most modest of actors. He has frequently referred to himself as “a punk kid from Nebraska who’s had an awful lot of the world’s good things dumped in his lap.” He attributes his success more to luck than to ambition and says: “I’ve never been terribly ambitious—simply wanted to do a good job at whatever I did. The reviews usually said I gave an adequate or good performance. I never got raves, but neither did I get pans. I’ve never had an Oscar and probably never will. I’m content to try to do as well as I can.”
Taylor thinks the star system at MGM in its great days was exactly right for him. “My metabolism doesn’t lend itself to the Davis-Cagney brand of high-pressure careering,” he says. “I stayed with one studio for 20 years, took what they gave me to do, did my work. While I wasn’t happy with everything, I scored pretty well.”
“If I didn’t need the money I make on TV,” he told “TV Guide” in ’61, “I tell myself I’d hunt and fish all the time. Ernest Hemingway got me interested in it years ago, and looking forward to hunting and fishing has often, in this business, kept me from going nuts.”
“People seem to think I’m a millionaire, but I’m not. I’ve saved a little money, but every time a chance came along to really strike it rich outside the movie business, like the real-estate deals of some stars, I was always a dollar short or a day late. It’s the story of my life.”