Robert Taylor Sings the Blues
Motion Picture Magazine 1951(?)
by Keith Monroe
You never know when you’ll turn a corner in your life. One day you open a letter, answer the telephone, or walk into a room full of people—and presto—a new chapter in your life has begun. Things are never quite the same for you again.
It happened to Robert Taylor one noon recently, while he was lunching quietly in the MGM commissary. Unexpectedly, in the space of an hour, his world changed perspective.
I was there to see it, because I happened to be his lunch guest. Having been out of touch with Bob since he left Hollywood in the spring of 1948, I was hoping to find material for an article on “the new Taylor” and had asked for an opportunity to chat with him. He suggested that we meet for lunch.
But as we sat toying with our salad, the interview seemed bogged down.”I don’t have much to talk about any more,” he said, and it seemed true. Bob wasn’t bubbling with quotable remarks and amusing anecdotes as he always had been in the past.
I was startled at the change in him. He is still strikingly handsome, but the lines in his face are deeper.
He doesn’t smile as quickly or as often. Everything about him is quieter—even his clothes. He used to wear bright sport clothes around town during the day, but this time he was dressed in a sober dark suit.
As he chatted idly, reminiscing about his long stay abroad and his earlier days as a star, he mentioned Barbara Stanwyck occasionally in passing. However, he made it clear that he had no desire t talk about his marital difficulties. “Lots of things have happened to me, but not what you could talk about,” he remarked when the conversation began to drift in that direction. It stopped the drift.
There was a tinge of gloom in everything we talked about. We mentioned his social life, and he said,” I don’t get around much.” On his stay in England, he said, “We worked awfully hard. There was a three-week stretch when I had dinner every night in my hotel room—alone.”
We mentioned movie fans, and he spoke of the unusual ones who write letters demanding money, or who expect a star to produce autographed photos on an instant’s notice. “Whether you’re in a restaurant, in a pony express, or on a slow boat to China, some people ask for your picture and want it right away, he said. “When I ask, ‘do you think I carry photos of myself around me?’ They stare at me as if I had eight heads. They feel a star is inconsiderate not to have a boxful of portraits with him wherever he goes. Just imagine what a field day the columnists would have with any star who did carry pictures to hand out!”
It seemed to me as I watched him peck at his steak and vegetables, that Robert Taylor was wondering if his best days were behind him. His last picture, The Bribe, had been followed by The Conspirator, which he made in England; Ambush, in New Mexico; and Devil’s Doorway in Colorado—good movies, but not the memorable box-office smashes that some of his earlier films had been. Now he had three more pictures, two just released and one in the can. There wasn’t any definite indication whether they would be successful.
“My contract has five years to run,” he remarked. “At the end of that time, if the public decides they’re tired of Taylor, I’ll probably buy myself a little farm in California.”
A studio executive bustled over to our table, beaming. “Do you realize that MGM has $12,800,000 wrapped in your three new pictures?” he reminded Bob. “Three major epics, Quo Vadis, Westward the Women and Ivanhoe. Nothing but the best for you kid! Swell to see you back on the lot.”
Bob thanked him politely. He didn’t look optimistic, but he grew more thoughtful, and went back to dabbling with his steak, which he had pushed away a moment before.
“Hey, Bob, the rough cut of Ivanhoe is just in! Someone called to him. “Ya seen it yet?”
He shook his head. His face was inscrutable. “Ya should, boy! The whole studio’s talking about it. Looks like one of our hottest bets for 1952.”
Bob’s appetites seemed to improve. He took a big bite of the steak. We resumed our discussion of his long-range future, and now the view was slightly different. “That farm is just an idea. I’ll be around this town for a long time yet.” Then he reigned himself in, and added, “Even it it’s only as a film cutter.”
In his years as a movie star, Bob has probably seen too many rises and falls to let himself get excited over chickens which aren’t yet hatched. Nevertheless, there was a subtle change in the flavor of our conversation. We returned to the subject of movie fans, and now it was a pleasant subject. “Funny how people in the smallest villages of France recognize you,” he remembered. “Wherever I went, I was ‘Allo, Bubby,’ from the villagers. They never asked for anything, even autographs, but they looked glad to see me. In London the fans were extremely polite, but wanted to chat by the hour. In Rome they has snapshots on the brain; everybody wanted me to pose for a picture.” He smiled at the pleasant recollection.
Another executive stopped by the table. “Bob, you’ll be amazed when you see the box-office figures fro New York,” he said briskly. “Quo Vadis opened there last week to tremendous business.” He went on, spouting statistics from the Astor and the Capitol theaters in Manhattan. Bob didn’t let himself smile. Apparently he wouldn’t believe these mounting indications that his new pictures had swung him back on top. Yet he couldn’t help hoping.
He attacked his pie hungrily. “I don’t think I’ll ever retire,” he said. “Look at all the actors older than I am who keep on year after year! Why should I call it quits? It’s fun to make movies.”
Suddenly Howard Strickling, MGM publicity chief, came over to our table. “Excuse me for interrupting,” he said, “but this is too good to keep. Bob, I went downtown yesterday to watch the Quo Vadis opening in Los Angeles. The theater was mobbed. In spite of the rain, people were standing in line for blocks. Those lines were predominantly teen-agers, the age group that’s dynamite at the box-office.”
After Strickling left, we sat silent for a moment. Bob lit a cigarette and watched the smoke curl upward.
He said nothing about the significant news we’d just received. Instead he began talking about the next picture on his schedule—Eagle on His Cap.” I’m looking forward to it,” he said vigorously. “I hear it’s one of the best scripts the studio had found for a long time—the story of the pilot who dropped the first atom bomb.” Thoughts of the farm, of hanging on as a film cutter were forgotten now. He was looking ahead, and he liked what he saw.
“Didn’t give you much to write about, did I?” he said. “If you didn’t get a story today, we’ll lunch again. We’ll find something to talk about.”
As we walked out of the commissary, his step was faster than when he walked in. Someone said to him, “You sure look great, Bob. Feeling tip-top?”
“You bet I am!” he said firmly. “And I intend to stay that way.”