Robert Taylor: The Last Matinee Idol

This is from a movie magazine under the category “Nostalgia.”  The year is 1974, based on some obituaries in it.  I couldn’t find the name of  the magazine on any of the pages.  I don’t agree with the premise of the article.  Robert Taylor was a splendid actor, much more than a matinée idol.  There is the usual plethora of factual errors, most of which I left alone.

By George Carpozi, Jr.

Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck made two motion pictures together before their friendship turned into love, then marriage in 1939. They got divorced in 1952. (original caption)

Rudolph Valentino’s premature  death widowed millions upon millions of romantic fantasies and created a unique void in the shimmering make-believe world of moviedom that no one believed would ever be filled.  But along came a young man from Nebraska named Spangler Arlington Brugh who’d been toiling as a $35 a week movie extra and subsisting  on chili parlor and cafeteria fare.  All at once his fame exploded all about him.  His name burned dazzling on the brilliantly lit marquees of theatres across the country–and woman from 16 to 6 awakened from their dreams of Clark Gable and Gary Cooper and Robert Montgomery.

Ten years later, Taylor married Ursula Thiess, an actress who had appeared in several minor pictures. Their 14-year union was a very happy one and produced to children–a son, Terrence and a daughter, Tessa. (original caption)

Spangler Arlington Brugh had suddenly captivated female America.  He was the new celluloid Adonis.

Spangler Arlington Brugh?

Well, it was quite a mouthful of a name and you couldn’t blame Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for its decision to rename their handsome, blue-eyed, six-foot 170 pound dreamboat.

It was a day in mid-February, 1934–just ten days after a movie scout caught Brugh (pronounced Broo) in the role of Captain Stanhope in the  Pomona College’s production of Journey’s End–that MGM signed him to a 17 year contract starting at $35 a week.  The contract player penned his new name on the bottom line: Robert Taylor.

Robert Taylor and Ruth Brugh, 1940s.

His mother, Ruth Adelia Stanhope, was a romantic, impressionable young woman of Scottish and English ancestry.  Somewhere, sometime, she had read a romantic novel whose hero was named Arlington, so when she married Spangler A. Brugh and gave birth to their first and only child in Filley, Nebraska, on August 5, 1911, he was named for the fictional hero and for all the males in the Brugh family since the founder of the line emigrated from Europe to the Pennsylvania Dutch country early in the 18th century.

Spangler Arlington was only three years old when his  curiosity was aroused by an endless procession of strangers coming to the house and closeting themselves with his mother in her bedroom.  His tender years spared the boy the awful truth–that his mother was dying of an incurable heart condition.  The consensus of the doctors who had examined Mrs. Brugh was that she had about a year, perhaps two at the most, to live.

Brugh, who was a grain dealer, wanted more than anything to help his Ruth.  He decided to do so at the age of 30 by enrolling at the medical college at Kirksville, Missouri.  Even before he was graduated as a doctor, Brugh had wrought the miracle of his medical learning:  Mrs. Brugh recovered!

Robert Taylor and Vivien Leigh in “Waterloo Bridge,” 1940.

Now arose another physical problem in the family.  Young Spangler Arlington was having increasing difficulty pronouncing words correctly.  He had a become a stammerer.  But a shift in scenery helped the boy overcome the impediment.  His father moved the family to Beatrice, Nebraska, where he opened his medical practice.  In that wide open country and among a host of new friends, Spangler Arlington lost his shyness and his  speech flaws disappeared.

In grammar school, young Spangler showed interest in music.  He played the banjo and saxophone, but he also took up the cello, and it was with that instrument that he formed a trio and broadcast over Nebraska radio station KMNJ.  In high school, Spangler won the state oratorical championship and also excelled as a middle-distance runner on the track team.  On summer vacations, he shucked wheat and worked at other odd jobs.

Rfobert Taylor and Van Heflin in “Johnny Eager,” 1941.

He enrolled in Doane College in Crete, Nebraska and indicated that he wanted to follow his father’s footsteps into medicine.  But the freshman course in science was something that Spangler disliked, and that made him give up his pursuit of a medical degree.  As a sophomore he switched to economics as a major, but that too went by the boards.

His music teacher, Herbert E. Gray, had taken a teaching post at Pomona College in Claremont, California, and  young Spangler decided to follow Horace Greeley’s advice and went west.  At Pomona, he played in the orchestra, continued his pursuit of oratorical honors, and drifted ultimately into dramatics.  Before he received his sheepskin, Spangler Arlington had made impressive appearances in such college productions as M’Lord the Duke, Camille, and The Importance of Being Earnest.

Then came his role as Captain Stanhope in Journey’s End–a role he took under protest because it kept him from a public speaking contest in Oregon.  It was the best thing that had happened to him.

Robert Taylor and Lloyd Nolan in “Bataan,” 1943.

Ten days later, after the scout from MGM collared him, Spangler Arlington Brugh had become Robert Taylor, was earning $35 a week and was allowed to continue his schooling until graduation that following June.

Meanwhile, however, he had a twice-a-week commitment to drive to Culver City and study with MGM dramatic coach Oliver Hinsdell.  After graduation, Robert Taylor moved to Hollywood.  But before he was given his first film work, a telegram carrying tragic news had arrived from Nebraska.  Bob’s father had died.

After the funeral, Bob told himself it wasn’t worth going back to Hollywood to fight for a foothold in the film capital.  He went to work in an oil station, convinced that his mother and he could live comfortably in Nebraska on whatever he earned–but by November Mrs. Brugh was trying to talk her only son into returning to Hollywood and taking up where he left off.

Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr in “Quo Vadis,” 1951.

“Only on one ground,” Taylor said to his mother.  “That you and Grandma come out to Hollywood  with me.”

They did.  And Robert Taylor underwent more coaching by Oliver Hinsdell.  Then came his biggest disappointment.  Instead of being put in an MGM picture, Robert was loaned to Fox for Will Rogers’ Handy Andy as his film debut, playing the great humorist’s son-in-law.

“I’ll never forget Will’s rare kindness and encouragement,” Taylor said later.  “It made a lot of difference to a newcomer.”

His second appearance in films was also a loan-out, playing a bit part with Binnie Barnes in There’s Always Tomorrow.

Robert Taylor and Elizabeth Taylor in “Ivanhoe,” 1952.

In 1935, MGM gave Robert Taylor a role he could sink his teeth into.  He was cast in support of Wallace Beery, Robert Young and Maureen O’Sullivan in West Point of the Air.

Fan mail poured in after the picture was released, and Taylor continued to attract nationwide attention from lady moviegoers as MGM gave him major roles opposite Chester Morris and Virginia Bruce in Society Doctor and Eleanor Powell in the glittering musical Broadway Melody of 1936, which also co-starred Jack Benny.

But the picture that really made Robert Taylor fill the void that had been created by

Robert taylor and Irene Dunne in “Magnificent Obsession, 1935.

Valentino’s death nearly a decade before was Magnificent Obsession, filmed in 1935.  His role opposite Irene Dunne brought fan mail cascading into the MGM studios like a Niagara torrent.  Nothing like it had ever happened before with any movie player and overnight Robert Taylor had become a star of the first magnitude.

With his status of stardom and his popularity with women, it was deemed only fitting that

Robert Taylor and Jean Harlow in Washington, D. C. 1937

he should accompany film land’s blonde bombshell Jean Harlow, to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s birthday party in Washington, D.C.  Taylor made a hit in the nation’s capital.  He was suddenly the matinée idol who had replaced Rudolph Valentino.

From then on Taylor was cast opposite only the most important stars.  Just in 1936 alone he was co-starred with Janet Gaynor in Small Town Girl, Joan Crawford in Gorgeous Hussy, Loretta Young in Private Number, Barbara Stanwyck in His Brother’s Wife, Jean Harlow in Personal Property and then in a role that was familiar to him since he had played it in college–Armand in Camille.  His co-star in that film was the inimitable Greta Garbo.

By the time the film polls had recorded their surveys of box-office favorites that year, Robert Taylor had overtaken Clark Gable as No. 1!

Robert Taylor in “The Crowd Roars,” 1938.

By now, too, Robert Taylor’s salary had been boosted to $3,500 a week and his mail was pouring in at the rate of 7,000 letters a week.  He spent each Sunday autographing more than 3,000 pictures his fans were begging for.

Until now, Robert Taylor had played in starring roles that made him appear to men as “sissyish.”  The studio decided that the time had come to introduce a new and tougher Taylor to the screen, so he was cast in The Crowd Roars, in which he plays a prize-fighter and in Three Comrades, in which he plays a taxi driver.

In 1939, he reached a new high in his career as he was cast opposite two promising newcomers, Hedy Lamarr and Greer Garson, in Lady of the Tropics and Remember?, respectively, then co-starred with Myrna Loy in Lucky Night.

Mr. and Mrs. Robert Taylor on their wedding day, May 14, 1939.

It was while he was filming Tropics, with Miss Lamarr that Taylor suddenly absented himself from the set on May 13, 1939 in order to get married.  It happened in San Diego and the reason no enterprising reporter spotted  the application was that the couple who intended to take their wedding vows had given their real names: Ruby Stevens Fay, 30 years old and the divorced wife of comedian Frank Fay, as well as the mother of an adopted son, Dion, then seven years old; and, of course–Spangler Arlington Brugh, 28 years old.

The nuptials culminated a three-year romance for Bob and Barbara that had begun when they appeared in their first flick, His Brother’s Wife.  Their honeymoon was a brief overnight stay at Barbara’s ranch in the San Fernando Valley, because they both had to return to the Hollywood sound stages to complete commitments on film work.

Robert Taylor in “Flight Command,” 1940.

After settling down in his marriage to Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Taylor found his popularity climbing to new heights.  Waterloo Bridge, which was produced in 1940 and reunited him with Vivien Leight, who’d starred with him in A Yank at Oxford, sent Bob into orbit–and he was kept there by Escape, an anti-Nazi melodrama with Norma Shearer and Alla Nazimova, Flight Command, which started his interest in flying, Billy the Kid and When Ladies Meet, a sparkling drawing-room comedy with Joan Crawford, Greer Garson and Herbert Marshall.

He received his best critical appraisals as an actor in his role as a hard-bitten sergeant who died fighting at the edge of the grave he had dug for himself.  The film was called Bataan–certainly one of Robert Taylor’s greatest.

Then in the same year of 1942 he starred in Song of Russia, a film that he would criticize five years later when his name made headlines as a witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was probing Communist activity in Hollywood.  Bob supported his contention that the Red influence had infiltrated the movie capital and he cited Song of Russia as an example of a very pro-Communist film.

Bob temporarily ended his filmmaking activity in 1942 when he enlisted in the Navy’s

Robert Taylor in the Navy, 1943-1945.

Volunteer Transport Division.  Since, at age 32, he was considered “too old” for combat flying, he spent the rest of World War II as a flight instructor.

His return to filmmaking in 1946 was in the heavy role of a jealous industrialist opposite Katharine Hepburn in Undercurrent.  Now, at last, reviewers stood up and took special notice of Bob.  “He has a new presence and dignity,” wrote one critic.  He is not only handsome but has a forceful maturity and his performance is overpowering…”

In 1949, Taylor began spending his time “on location” far from home.  He spent four months at Elstree, England, making Conspirator, a trying experience because Bob had to play a British Army major spying for Soviet Russia.  The role of his innocent wife was played by Elizabeth Taylor.

His penchant to stay away from Hollywood–and from Barbara Stanwyck, his wife of 11 years–came into clearest focus in 1950 when he spent most of the year in Italy playing the  Roman centurion, Marcus Vinicius, to Deborah Kerr’s Lygia in the $6,000,000 spectacular Quo Vadis?

Robert Taylor in “Westward the Women,” 1951.

He finally returned to filming in Hollywood in 1951 and played the part of a bearded trail boss in Westward the Women, in which he led a wagon train of prospective brides across the desert.

No sooner had he finished work on this film than he was off to England for three months’ work in Ivanhoe. Again he was co-starred with Elizabeth Taylor, who played Rebecca.  Joan Fontaine was Rowena.

There was much on the road and at home to occupy Robert Taylor’s off-camera hours.  He was a collector of model cars, he enjoyed skeet  shooting, he loved hunting and fishing, and–after that experience in the Navy–he became an ardent enthusiast of flying.  He bought a six passenger plane that he flew as often as he could.

But through all that activity, life with Barbara Stanwyck was no longer what it had been.  On February 25, 1952, the divorce that had been granted a year earlier had become final.

Robert Taylor in “Knights of the Round Table,” 1953.

Yet even after they had filed the papers for the decree, Bob and Barbara were seen often on dates.  On one such outing to a Hollywood nightclub, Barbara let it be known: “There’s no use trying to keep it a secret.  I’m carrying a torch for Bob.  But it’s too early to say whether we will be reconciled…”

They never were.  There was a professional reunion, however, more than 12 years later, when they teamed in the suspense thriller, The Night Walker.

By then, Bob had been a happily married man of 11 years–almost as long as he and Barbara Stanwyck had been man and wife.  His marriage to beautiful Ursula Thiess, the German actress who had starred in several American films before she became Mrs. Robert

Robert Taylor and Eleanor Parker in “Many Rivers To Cross.” 1955.

Taylor, had been blessed by the birth of two children, Terrance, born in 1955 and Tessa, born in 1959.

Robert Taylor’s career in films continued on a high plane even as he passed his 50th movie, Many Rivers To Cross.  He went on to star with Dorothy Malone in Tip on a Dead Jockey in 1957, a trigger-happy Western, Saddle the Wind, in 1958, and another of his most important films, Rogue Cop, in which Bob played a detective in the pay of a penthoused gangster, played by the inimitable George Raft.

This film is said to have given television writers the bug to write a video series in which Robert Taylor would be starred.  The created the package, called it The Detectives, and presented it to Taylor who agreed to the role.  The show playing in the 1961-62 television

Robert Taylor in his TV series “The Detectives,” 1959-62.


Meanwhile, Bob Taylor avoided the pressures and commitments of his earlier days.  With Ursula and their children–and those of her earlier marriage to German director George Thiess–they lived a quiet life in a bucolic retreat from the hectic schedules of films and television.  Their preserve was an 113 acre ranch.

The happy life that Robert Taylor had been living with Ursula Thiess and the children suddenly plumbed the depths on October 8, 1968.  He underwent surgery in St.  John’s hospital, Santa Monica, for removal of his right lung.  In December, Bob Taylor admitted that he had cancer.

Robert Taylor in “Miracle of the White Stallions,” 1963.

“It was a tremendous shock,” he said.  There is no pain but I’m very weak and have lost a lot of weight–30 pounds.  I have to get a lot of rest and that’s the hardest part for me, because I’ve always been very active.  But I’ve got to  face it.  I’m putting myself and all my faith in the hands of my doctors.”

His doctors managed to uphold Bob Taylor’s faith for six months more.  On June 8, 1969, the end came in St. John’s hospital, with Ursula at this bedside.

At the funeral at Forest Lawn’s Church of the Recessional, more than 200 persons gathered to mourn Bob Taylor’s passing.  The eulogy was delivered by an old-time actor,

Manuela Thiess, Ursula Thiess, Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan at Robert Taylor’s funeral, June 1969.

Ronald Reagan, now governor of California.  Reagan broke down several times and his eyes filled with tears as he said:  “Bob Taylor was one of the great and enduring motion picture stars of all time.  He was also  the most handsome.  But he was more than a pretty boy, an image that embarrassed because he was a man who respected his profession and was a master of it…”

After 70 starring movies and two television series, what else could be said about Robert Taylor–except that, in every sense, he was the last matinée idol.

Robert Taylor photo by Ted Allan, 1930s.



About giraffe44

I became a Robert Taylor fan at the age of 15 when his TV show, "The Detectives" premiered. My mother wanted to watch it because she remembered Mr. Taylor from the thirties. I took one look and that was it. I spent the rest of my high school career watching Robert Taylor movies on late night TV, buying photos of him, making scrapbooks and being a typical teenager. College, marriage and career intervened. I remember being sad when Mr. Taylor died. I mailed two huge scrapbooks to Ursula Thiess. I hope she got them. Time passed, retirement, moving to Florida. Then in 2012 my husband Fred pointed that there were two Robert Taylor movies that evening on Turner Classic Movies--"Ivanhoe" and "Quentin Durward." I watched both and it happened all over again. I started this blog both for fans and for people who didn't know about Robert Taylor. As the blog passes 200,000 views I'm delighted that so many people have come by and hope it will help preserve the legacy of this fine actor and equally good man.
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2 Responses to Robert Taylor: The Last Matinee Idol

  1. SusanaG says:

    Hi Judith! Yes, the writer incurs in many inaccuracies, even though there was a good deal of info and a lot to research back then (I mean, many of his leading ladies, fellow actors, directors, etc. still alive by 1974) if they really wanted to write an inspired, factual article about RT. But no, the “pretty-boy/matinée idol” image used to sell much more… I’m sure any article written today, when 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of RT’s passing, would still retain the same cliché. Sad.


    • giraffe44 says:

      Susana, I think it’s just laziness. Why not just pull quotes rather than doing research? I guess they figure no one would notice. Thanks for writing. Judith


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