Robert Taylor died on June 8, 1969 in St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, California. Decades of chain smoking had given him lung cancer. His ashes are interred at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California. Mr. Taylor left behind 77 films, many of which are of very high quality. It is said that no one loved his work except his peers and the public. Jealous critics gave him no quarter. Robert Taylor was an excellent actor, a good man, a good husband to Ursula Thiess and a good father to his children. He was an American patriot.
Robert Taylor as Johnny Eager and as Mark Preysing.
Yesterday, June 5, I had the pleasure of watching most of the Robert Taylor marathon on Turner Classic Movies. I was particularly struck by the contrast between Mr. Taylor’s characters in two of the films–Johnny Eager, 1941 and Escape, 1940. They were shown one after the other. Note: Lots of Spoilers
Johnny Eager is all sharp edges and angles. He wears broad shouldered suits with nipped in waists. Eager is a sociopath with no concern for anybody but himself. He calls women “dames” and refers to them all as “Sugar” so he doesn’t have to concern himself with individual names. Robert Taylor is completely convincing as this cold blooded gangster. His one friend, Jeff Hartnett (Van Heflin) is a drunk who sees himself as Taylor’s Boswell. Enter Lana Turner as Lisabeth Bard, a wealthy and socially prominent young sociology student, who falls for Eager’s brash charm. Their early relationship is defined when they are in a nightclub. Eager asks Bard where her coat is. She replies and instead of getting it, he tells her “go get it and wait for me at the front door.” She does. To Eager’s amazement, Bard is the stepdaughter of the prosecutor (Edward Arnold) who sent him to prison. He uses her love to arrange for her to think she has killed a man to gain control over her stepfather.
In one sequence, Eager is playing poker with a gangster and a bunch of local politicians. He pretends to be drunk and goes to lie down. In reality he heads out of the window to confront Lew Rankin (Barry Nelson), a boyhood friend and fellow crook who is holding out on money he owes to Eager. The sequence concludes with Eager murdering the man and driving his car off a viaduct in front of an approaching train. Johnny then returns calmly to the poker game and laughs when the news of the Rankin’s death is brought. Mr. Taylor never misses a beat.
Lisabeth, meanwhile is suffering terribly from her guilt over the supposed murder. She won’t let herself sleep in case she talks in her sleep. When Johnny finally goes to see her, he is astonished that her concern isn’t for herself but for him. He is on parole and being present at a crime would send him back to prison. It is his first experience of true unselfishness.
At first Eager is bewildered. He keeps asking “What’s her angle?” Jeff tries to explain but can’t get through. Gradually Johnny Eager realizes that it’s all his fault and he has to help her. This is a remarkable turn of events for the previously stone hearted gangster. Taylor is perfect as he shows Eager’s slow epiphany and his final decision to act.
Throughout the film, the character of Johnny Eager undergoes multiple twists and turns. A cold blooded, reptilian, yet incredibly handsome sociopath discovers his humanity. No one could have done it better and Robert Taylor deserved at least an Oscar nomination.
Mark Preysing, the protagonist of Escape, is the polar opposite of Johnny Eager. He is a young American painter whose actress mother, Emmy Ritter (Nazimova) is missing in Nazi Germany. Preysing is highly emotional as he travels to Germany to find his mother. He knows what’s going on in Germany and is frightened for his mother. Throughout the film, the seemingly gentle Preysing finds an iron core of courage within him.
Preysing is rebuffed by everyone who might have information about his mother. They are too afraid to talk to him. Waiting for an old servant, Mark takes a walk. He slips and falls on his face on the ice. A woman, Countess von Treck (Norma Shearer), seated nearby cannot help laughing. Preysing offers to do it again for her amusement but she refuses. He asks if he can sit next to her and they eventually discover that they are both Americans although she married a German, now deceased, and has lived there for years. Preysing asks her if she can find out anything about his mother and she reluctantly agrees.
Throughout the film, Mark Preysing is wound tight as a coiled spring. Unlike Johnny Eager’s sharp angles, he wears loose overcoats that make him more rounded. There is an impresssion of softness that is totally misleading. Johnny Eager and Mark Preysing are the same actor, but they are completely different characters. Even Mr. Taylor’s face seems more rounded, his eyes larger, than Eager’s.
Through a number of twists and turns Preysing finds out that his mother is in a concentration camp awaiting execution the following Saturday. With the connivance of the camp’s doctor, Dr. Ditten (Philip Dorn), a fan of Emmy Ritter’s, the woman is drugged and declared dead. Mark and his old servant, Fritz Keller (Felix Bressart), remove her body for burial. Mark is forced to nail down her coffin and wait while the Nazis decide they have the proper paperwork.
Preysing and Keller are forced by circumstances to hide Ritter at the home of the Countess von Treck. She has a Nazi general lover (Conrad Veidt) who drops in at all times of the day and night as well as a number of finishing school pupils, one of whom (Bonita Granville) is a dedicated Nazi.
Mark wants the Countess to escape with them, but she refuses. Mark and his mother make it aboard a plane to freedom just as General von Kolb tries to stop them but is foiled by the Countess.
Escape is from 1940 and Johnny Eager from 1941. The two films illustrate the extraordinary range of Robert Taylor as an actor. From young lover to boxer to gangster to soldier to mental patient to Roman general to Medieval knight to cop to rancher to equestrian, there was nothing he couldn’t handle.
When you think of some actors, a specific image forms in your mind. For instance, John Wayne, tall and commanding with the slow drawl and quick draw. Cary Grant brings to mind a sophisticated urbanite with comic skills. There is no one image for Robert Taylor–he could do them all.