by May Mann Baer (wife of Buddy Baer, Ursus in Quo Vadis) 1950
Original photos and captions,
There are things that Bob Taylor is prouder of than his record as a fine actor and romantic idol.
Rome. There was great excitement and talk about the war news at the garden party which was being held at Villa Taverna in Rome, the home of American Ambassador and Mrs. James C. Dunn. Eddie Mannix, Sam Zimbalist, the Mervyn LeRoys, Deborah Kerr, Buddy Baer, all in Rome to film Quo Vadis, were wondering out loud if the picture would be completed while all safe–and there was Bob Taylor. In a gray plaid suit, Bob stood, half leaning against a tree at the furthest end of the garden. He was surrounded by an admiring group of women of French, Italian, English, Dutch and Austrian nationality. From all appearances he seemed trapped. But he was being charming and talkative, and he was prefacing his remarks with, “My wife thinks so;” or “My wife will arrive from the States shortly and then perhaps we can accept your invitation;” or “When my wife arrives we will let you know,” etc. etc. With naive, masculine grace, he was subtly reminding the ladies that he was a married man. And even though his wife, Barbara Stanwyck, was still in far-off Hollywood–he was devoted to her, and would wait to accept any invitations when, on her arrival, she could share them with him.
An English girl said she had simply developed a dilly of a crush over him in Waterloo Bridge.” From her expression I gathered that she had as yet not recovered and was rekindling the flame of her hero-worship by Mr. Taylor’s realistic presence.
Bob grinned, disclosing a mischievous gleam in his eyes. As he responded, he unknowingly backed further against the tree–while the young woman advanced upon him with a rapturous expression, hanging on to his every word.
“I wouldn’t say that is true of me–not by a long shot,” Bob said. “I started out at college hoping to become like my Dad–a doctor. Somehow I got wound up with a cello and almost took up the idea of becoming a concert cellist seriously. Probably I would have, except that my teacher went to California for a season and took me along. I just happened to be in a school play, and an MGM scout saw me and signed me.”
“It was so easy for you then–acting, becoming a great artist,” the girl pursued.
“Too easy, I’d say,” Bob returned jovially, “That is, until now.” The girl was insistent and Bob, a man of few words and clipped speech, found himself being drawn out whether he willed it or not, and, I might add, with my help. As long as I have known Bob Taylor, I have never known him at all. There’s a remote side of him that baffles most people who know him casually. And now here he was–backed into a corner–and no way out. No one to rescue him.
“I sometimes think if it were not for my wife, Barbara, I wouldn’t have survived making movies,” he observed. “Barbara is extremely devoted to acting. When she is working she is happy and vital and full of life. When she is between pictures she seems lost and gets moody. A short vacation, and then she is anxious to work again.
“But me,” Bob disclosed, “I’m happy when a picture ends. I’m not a guy who will die for art. I like flying planes–digging ditches–doing anything that is man’s work. When I was first set for Quo Vadis, I can truthfully tell you I told the Queen (Bob’s nickname for Barbara) that I wished it were over. I dreaded the start of it. In fact, I had a dental appointment made six months in advance which, by comparison, I looked forward to keeping.”
That is the amazing truth about Bob Taylor. Who would suspect it? For he is a polished, finished actor who knows well the skill and tricks of his trade. I have watched him many times during the filming of Quo Vadis, in which he stars, and always he was letter-perfect in his lines and his interpretation of them. His producer, Sam Zimbalist, and director, Mervyn LeRoy, speak highly in his praise, for to them is entrusted the filming of Hollywood’s biggest movie to date–an eight million dollar production in Technicolor. It is well known that everyone at MGM turned talent scout in trying to cast Quo Vadis. For two years it had been preparing. Finally, one producer and director team became so much in awe of the vast spectacle. By an eventual vote on the MGM lot–Bob won by a vast majority the role of the hard, merciless Roman commander, whose love for the virgin, Lygia, all but costs him his life.
“I was very fortunate to be chosen for the role,” Bob nodded in agreement, his lower lip slightly jutting out–with a familiar twist as it does when he is thoughtful, “but this is not my first appearance in a toga.” With a laugh–feeling suddenly freer and less trapped now that he had swung into the mood of the conversation: “After MGM put me under contract the studio seemed unaware of my existence. There was nothing for me to do until Sam Goldwyn called me to test for a romantic role in Eddie Cantor’s Roman Scandals. I weighed all of 145 pounds , was skinny, and I wore a glorified sheet draped around me and posed by an urn. I was the hungriest Roman anyone ever saw.” He chuckled, with a shrug of his broad shoulders as though the memory brought shudders.
“However, in this production, fifteen years later, with the temperature up to 110, plus those Technicolor lights–I may turn out to be the skinniest looking Roman again. Encased in thirty pounds of armor is the next thing to being in a steam bath. And I can’t sit down either,” he said, “unless I get out of the armor. (It makes rosettes on his derriere.) And those chariots, they knock hell out of your knees. They may look fancy–but they are the roughest riding horse-and-chariot imaginable. They should have them padded with knee bumpers.”
The English girl was fascinated. No, Bob was not finished–not yet. “Do the women still mob you, Mr. Taylor?” she asked with guileless innocence. “I remember when you were making your first ocean voyage to Europe.”
A faint blush tinged Bob’s neck–rose to his ears and to his forehead. “I don’t think very many notice me,” he said modestly. He refused to discuss the day when he was mobbed by screaming, shrieking fans and was forced to be rescued by the police. Even though he has acted with Garbo and has received the critics’ acclaim for the rough, ruthless racketeer, Johnny Eager,” and many more roles–I think that Bob Taylor wonders why he is an actor. Secretly he harbors some remote fear that he isn’t as good as people say he is. I think the first fantastic publicity and public adulation that only Valentino, Gable, Bob Taylor and, later, Van Johnson and Frank Sinatra inspired, imposed too far on his sense of quiet dignity. When he was sworn in the Navy as Lieutenant (jg), due to his having 103 hours of civilian piloting to his credit, and rising to become a full Lieutenant, he felt, I believe, that at last he was doing a man’s job. He passed the physical, intelligence and mechanical adaptability tests with the highest marks and served for three years with distinction and honor. Then, like any ex-service man, he returned to his trade–which is acting. He loves hunting and fishing and he’s all for entering a conversation. But amazing as it seems–talk acting and he says he just isn’t any great shakes, in spite of the biggest role of the century having been assigned to him.
“Yes,” he smiled patiently, “I wear my own hair. Yes, I let it grow long for the picture.” Suddenly our hostess, Mrs. Dunn, to Bob’s secret relief, rescued him by introducing a member of the British Embassy to the English girl. Bob drew a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the tiny beads of perspiration from his brow.
“I’ll be so glad when Barbara gets here,” he said, running an index finger around the slightly wilted back of his collar. “I have no fondness for cocktail parties. I never know what to say–to women.”
“You don’t need to say anything special,” I said. “Just look at them and answer their questions.”
Bob didn’t reply, but my conjecture was that he was thinking, “Yes, and stand there like an idiot, while they expect me to say something extremely important and romantic, act like a screen star when I’m no screen star.” He’s just a fellow who was drawn into acting and who works at it as a trade, honestly and sincerely–but wants none of the fripperies and furbelows.
The next day at the studio there was Bob, handsome, more handsome than most any man had a right to be, in his Roman armor. He was at ease and sure of himself–for he was at work, in character, playing Marcus, hard, young and handsome, typical of the brash, unfeeling arrogance of the Rome Marcus knew. They were before the cameras, he and Lygia, who is played by Deborah Kerr. And she was staring at him with tears of anger and scorn in her eyes. And he was caressing her with his smile as he informed her he had chosen her to be his slave. “Make use of your beauty. Live it with me. Love as you were made to love.” And she was saying, “What difference does it make whether I love, now that you own me. You’ve but to give the word–the command–” At this stinging retort he seizes her by the shoulder and pulls her down to him mercilessly. “Yes, I own you. You realize that, don’t you? And you realize that I can take you to my house–have you flogged until you plead to love me?”
This Bob Taylor will undoubtedly cause a new furor of feminine adulation. Quo Vadis is likely to make Bob Taylor the most romantic actor on the screen, whether he likes it or not.
“I know that you have long tried to dodge special emphasis placed on romance in your pictures,” I said to Bob, “I know you have consistently been asking for rough, masculine parts. You didn’t even kiss the heroine in your last picture, Devil’s Doorway. At the preview, Ida Koverman, who is Louis B. Mayer’s executive secretary, had exclaimed to me, “Perfect characterization, but to waste Bob’s charm and romantic personality on playing an unromantic role (while he is still handsome and young) to prove it–perhaps more to himself than anyone else!”
But Bob in Quo Vadis requires a word of warning: “Girls, prepare to hold onto your hearts!” Bob can’t help himself.