For some reason Turner Classic Movies likes to celebrate Robert Taylor on June 5, which is neither his birthday (August 5) or the date of his death (June 8). So here’s a terrific opportunity to see Mr. Taylor in many of his best films.
6:00 a.m. est. Westward the Women, 1951.
John McIntire approaches wagonmaster Robert Taylor with an interesting job and challenge. He wants to bring brides west to the settlement he’s founded in [California]. Taylor hires on a bunch of hands to escort the women and issues a no fraternization policy. When one of them tries to rape [a woman], [Taylor] shoots him out of hand. It’s the unsettled frontier and as wagonmaster he’s the law on that train as much as a captain on a ship at sea. Of course the hands mutiny and strand Taylor, McIntire, cook Henry Nakamura and the women.
This was a perfect western film for the post Rosie the Riveter generation. No reason at all why women couldn’t deal with the rigors of a wagon train. Of course it helped to have the formidable Hope Emerson along.
Of course men and women will be men and women and Taylor breaks his own no fraternization policy with Denise Darcel. Of course this is away from the train when Darcel runs off.
William Wellman delivers us a no frills unsentimental western with gritty performances by Robert Taylor and the rest of the cast. In a bow to his colleague John Ford, Wellman does have a courtship dance at the settlement. I liked the use of the fiddle music playing “Believe Me With All Those Endearing Young Charms” and “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes.”: Ford couldn’t have staged it better.
Henry Nakamura had made a big hit in MGM’s “Go For Broke” about the Nisei division in Italy. He was a funny little guy, I’m not sure he was even five feet tall. I loved the scene when he and Taylor find a stash of buried liquor and proceed [to go] on a toot. This was his last film though, roles for Oriental players were hard to come by. I wonder whatever happened to him.
If you like traditional cowboy films, this one ain’t for you, but given the constraints of 19th century society for the role of woman Westward the Women is quite a revelation. Review by bkoganbing from Buffalo, New York for the IMDb.
8:00 a.m. est. A Wicked Woman, 1934. Closed Captioned. Very early Taylor, rarely shown.
A Wicked Woman (1934) was Robert Taylor’s first feature film for MGM. Previously he had played a small part in Will Rogers’ Handy Andy (1934) for Twentieth-Century Fox. This was followed by the lead in an MGM short, Buried Loot.
In A Wicked Woman Mr. Taylor plays Bill Renton, the local cad. He is overly made up as was the fashion at the time and his hair is slicked flat against his skull. He has only three scenes in the film, all of them with Jean Parker. First he is trying to arrange an assignation with Ms. Parker against her mother’s wishes. Second, he and she wake up in Mr. Taylor’s car and realize it is four a.m. She tries to sneak in the house and is caught by her mother.
Third, Ms.Parker has left home and gone to be with Mr. Taylor. He, unfortunately, was only looking for fun, not a relationship. A fight starts between Mr. Taylor and Ms. Parker’s brother (William Henry). The brother gets the worst of it and Mr. Taylor exits.
The following is the review of A Wicked Woman I wrote for the imdB:
A Wicked Woman hit the screens in 1934. It is a melodrama with a solid core of morality. Nono Trice (Mady Christians) is a young woman living in extreme poverty with her moonshiner husband. On the run from the sheriff, the husband is going to dump Nono and take the eldest boy with him. She can’t allow this and ends up shooting the drunken husband and dumping his body in the bayou. The next day she gives birth to her fourth child, a boy with a deformed leg.
The young mother leaves town with the children and begins to turn herself into a different woman through education. She is an extremely strict disciplinarian–so harsh that a modern viewer would disapprove. She changes her name to Naomi Stroud and eventually becomes a high end dressmaker.
When the children grow up, Naomi cannot let go of them, trying to hold them in childhood for their own protection. They, naturally, rebel– discovering alcohol, dancing and dating. Naomi herself acquires a boyfriend in the person of a local newspaper editor (Charles Bickford). The youngest girl (Jean Peters) is dating a young, sleek and villainous Robert Taylor. Taylor is a louse who ends up injuring Curt (William Henry), the oldest boy. Naomi bargains with God (for the second time) that if Curt lives she will go back and turn herself in for murder.
Naomi’s defense is that she was protecting her children but she produces no children in court and is about to be convicted. At the last moment her whole family arrives, with her boyfriend, and she goes free and marries the boyfriend. The cast also includes Betty Furness as the older daughter and Sterling Holloway as her boyfriend.
So why is this more than a soap opera? Because Naomi is self-sacrificing (perhaps a bit much so) but she is determined to better herself and bring her children up to be responsible citizens. In our current era of anything goes, this message probably seems laughable to many viewers. Education, honesty, propriety and courage may seem out of date, but they are not.
Note: At this point MGM did not know what to do with Robert Taylor. No one anticipated that he would eventually earn the studio well over $150,000,000.
9:15 a.m. est. High Wall, 1947. Not closed captioned.
I highly recommend this film. Robert Taylor is playing totally against type as an injured war veteran who has a haematoma on his brain that is causing him to act irrationally. This is so far from the glamorous Taylor we know and love and demonstrates his amazing range as an actor.
High Wall is a departure for Robert Taylor. In the 30’s he portrayed mostly handsome society boys. In 1941 he toughened up his image with Johnny Eager. This is an entirely different path. The lead character, Steven Kenet, has returned from a job flying freight in Asia after his service in WW II. He’s eager to see his wife and displeased to find out she has a job. Kenet is even more displeased when he discovers she is having an affair with her boss. To complicate matters, he has a brain injury and is suffering blackouts and other symptoms. Seeing his wife in her lover’s apartment triggers rage and violence. The wife is dead and Kenet is the only suspect. He confesses and is committed to a mental institution for psychiatric evaluation. The unique thing about the film to me is Taylor’s ability to play vulnerability. Kenet is neither a pretty boy nor a villain. He is a man in torment.
Taylor uses his shoulders beautifully to portray hopelessness. They droop in the scenes where the character is locked in solitary confinement. After his operation they are straight. The confusion on his face when he’s offered an opportunity to see his son at the hospital is masterful as he passes through a range of emotions moving from delight to doubt to anger to confusion. There is a remarkable sequence in which Kenet is dragged off after attacking a visitor. Taylor’s body positions change constantly–this is hardly the “wooden” acting for which he is so often condemned. Another great sequence is his walk up the stairs at the end to see his son. Kenet’s face radiates joy. The camera work is stylish and the chiaroscuro is masterful. This movie was apparently not well received in its time probably because it isn’t the “Robert Taylor” people expected and it is largely forgotten now. It deserves to be remembered. Review by me for the IMDb.
1100:00 a.m. est. Conspirator, 1949. Closed Captioned
Most of the anti-Communist films of the 1940s – 1950s are crap. No doubt about that. Thrown together they had preposterous plots emanating from the Kremlin to sap our national resources or strength. For example one film has Lee Marvin heading a major atomic spy ring outside a missile range from a hamburger/hash stand! The best films of the period dealing with communist threats were the science fiction films like The Thing or Them wherein the monster was a symbol for the threat to Americans (from an “alien” source). Occasionally a semi-documentary might attract attention, but not much.
Oddly enough this early movie was somewhat above average. First it correctly looked at our wartime friend and partner England as a possible source of leakage. This turned out to be somewhat true (but the Rosenberg Case would soon show homegrown spy rings existed as well). Secondly it showed something usually ignored or rendered minor in most of these films. Here it is developed into the issue: who are you going to show greater loyalty to, the Communist Party or your naive spouse?
What I really like about Conspirator is that Robert Taylor plays the central figure. He had tackled a few ambiguous characters before World War II, most notably William Bonney in Billy the Kid (but that screenplay, like Darryl Zanuck’s film of Jessie James, whitewashed a great deal of the bad out of the central character). But after the war MGM treated Taylor (now a seasoned leading star of theirs) to a wider variety of parts, including more villainous characters. Think of him in the somewhat earlier Undercurrent with Kate Hepburn and Robert Mitchum. Both of these films could not have been made with Taylor in the 1930s.
I also sort of enjoy the idea that Taylor, a friendly [No-this has been disproved, see my posts here under HUAC], but sincere witness for the H.U.A.C subcommittee against Communist infiltration into the movie industry actually did this film. It is his only chance to show what he thought of a Communist agent, and his interpretation (and the screenplay’s) show he saw them as naive fools.
Also it is the first time in his career that Taylor starred with the only female star of his rank with the same last name: Elizabeth Taylor. Just leaving such films as National Velvet, Little Women and Life with Father, she finally came of age here as a young bride. In some ways I have always felt that Ms Taylor’s glorious beauty was at a pristine height in films of the early 1950s like this one or Father of the Bride. Here she is in love with her dashing wartime hero husband, whom she gradually realizes is not as heroic (for England) as she thought (though he would disagree – witness his scene telling her about how he has joined one of the great causes of all time!).
The film follows their courtship, their marriage, and the discovery of his treason by her. The issue of course is whether or not he will be turned in by her, or will he love her enough to withstand pressure by his Kremlin bosses to (errr)…eradicate his error totally.
The film (as mentioned in another recent review) is above average. Taylor does play this English “Col. Redl” (of an earlier war, in a different country – but serving another Russia) as a man torn apart, but refusing to acknowledge his error of judgment. In fact his final decision puts to stop to any type of acknowledgment. The one flaw in this film is similar to the later, wretched Rogue’s March with Peter Lawford and Leo G. Carroll. The omnipotence of the British Secret Service in ferreting out traitors is shown at the tale-end. I may add that in 1949 that Secret Service (MR5) contained such “patriots” as Burgess, McClean, and Philby. Yeah they really would have been watching Taylor closely! Review by Theo Winthrop for the IMDb, 2009.
12:30 p.m. est. Undercurrent, 1946. Closed Captioned.
Director Vincente Minneli said of Undercurrent : He [Robert Taylor] out acted her [Katharine Hepburn] and stole the picture as the demanding and sadistic husband. It was Kate who was miscast. (Charles Tranberg, Robert Taylor: a Biography, BearManor Media, 2011, pages 176-177.)
All of the criticisms of this movie might well be flushed down the loo. This is one powerhouse of an interesting movie. Call it Film-Noir. Call it Mystery/Suspense. Call it Psychological Thriller. Call it what you may…I call it: absorbing drama. It moves very deliberately…and the facts are revealed one by one, in true mystery fashion, until the fantastic, thrilling ending.
Those who say that Hepburn and Mitchum were miscast are just so wrong. Hepburn wasn’t playing Hepburn here…she wasn’t Tracy Lord here. She wasn’t a know-it-all New England uppity snob here. Not a worldly character at all. She played a different character than I’ve ever seen her do. Hepburn doesn’t rely on her stable of clichés to capture our imagination here. She does it with imagination and as few of the Hepburn cornerstone mannerisms as possible. Good result!
Robert Taylor is fascinating to watch. He has so many secrets in this role. And they reside behind his facade for us to watch and enjoy. He slowly swirls into controlled mania and desperate determination. Very fine, indeed. He should have been nominated for this one.
And then there’s Mitchum! What can one say about Mitchum without gushing foolishly. Gee whiz…the first time you see him…he shows us a side of him we have hardly ever seen! He seems at peace, mild in character, mellow in mood…pensive…other worldly. Likable even! Never gruff or abrasive like we’ve seen him so many times before.
What is unique about this story is that we really do not know what is going to happen next. We spend most of the movie residing in Hepburn’s character’s mind. Her wondering, her confusion, her search for the truth — at all costs.
I was expecting not to like this movie. I was expecting it to be another formulaic Hepburn vehicle about high society. But this is where this movie takes a left turn into an underrated mystery. I enjoyed the use of the theme to the Third Movement of Johannes Brahms’ Third Symphony throughout the movie. It lent a delicious air of mystery, love and luscious pastoral passion to the whole affair.
And to say that Vincente Minnelli was WRONG for this movie? Gee whiz! He was perfect! Why compare him to Hitchcock? Minnelli has manufactured a mystery world all his own. Sure there are devices. All movies have devices. But they are handled so deftly…we don’t rely on them to make us aware of the story — they don’t get in our way. They heighten our interest and this very absorbing plot.
Well done. I wish it had been a longer movie…it was THAT kind of movie. I recommend this one…Review by Enrique Sanchez, Miami, FL for the IMDB.
2:30 p.m. est. Johnny Eager, 1942. Closed captioned.
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Cast: Robert Taylor, Lana Turner, Edward Arnold, Van Heflin, Robert Sterling, Patricia Dane, Glenda Farrell, Barry Nelson. Slick MGM melodrama with convoluted plot about sociology student (and daughter of D.A. Arnold) Turner falling in love with unscrupulous racketeer Taylor. Heflin won Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Taylor’s alcoholic friend.(TCM)
Having only been familiar with Robert Taylor’s body of forgettable [humpf!] work from the thirties (The Broadway Melodies, Camille, etc), seeing him in the title role of Johnny Eager was stunning. Tom Hanks’s 180 degree turn from silly comedies to Philadelphia might be a modern day equivalent. Taylor steps into a role that would seem tailor made for Bogart, Cagney or Robinson, and does an arguably better job than any of them could have. Yes, Lana Turner is present, and yes, Van Heflin won a supporting Oscar, but Taylor owns this film.
Johnny Eager is one of the best films of the 40s, as well as one of the all time greats.
(Taken from a review by Justin Behnke on the IMDB).
4:30 p.m. Escape, 1940. Closed captioned
This relatively unknown star vehicle is unusual for a number of different reasons. Although top billed, MGM Studio Queen, Norma Shearer’s role is substantially smaller than co-star Robert Taylor’s heroic turn as an American son desperately attempting to save his mother from a German Concentration camp. His mother is wonderfully played (and occasionally overplayed) by Nazimova, one of the great theatrical legends of the early 20th century. It’s an interesting footnote, that it was Irving Thalberg who helped cut short the meretricious Nazimova’s strange film career while his widow, Shearer, graciously allowed the former star to appear to great advantage in one of Shearer’s last screen appearances. Conrad Veidt plays Shearer’s Nazi lover and while he appears as icy and unyielding as he would two years later in “Casablanca”, his character is softened somewhat by his un-disclosed illness and by Shearer’s devotion to him. This film was one of the few made in Hollywood prior to the war which was openly critical of the Nazis (although they do hedge their bets by having a sympathetic German doctor, which gives the impression that more than a few intelligent German’s disagreed with the Nazis. Significantly, this character does appear in full Nazi drag towards the end of the picture). Robert Taylor is given a very tricky part to play as a man determined to save his mother against all odds. With his masculine demeanor and his controlled sensitivity he gives a performance of great passion and conviction. Norma Shearer, looking regally beautiful and every bit the Countess, manages to convey the situation of a woman who desperately wants to help Taylor and leave her adopted country, but realizes that she must stay out of duty to Veidt, in spite of her true feelings. Felix Bressart also appears as the Nazimova’s frightened but faithful servant, who helps Taylor escape. Bressart, who made a career of playing befuddled foreigners, is best known as one of the three Russian Communists in Ninotchka. Interesting casting was Bonita Granville, best known as the screen’s all-American girl detective, Nancy Drew, here playing the role of a pro-Nazi student at Miss Shearer’s finishing school (she would play a similar role in 1943’s wartime propaganda film, “Hitler’s Children”). The film was sumptuously mounted and stylishly directed by Mervyn Leroy the same year as he directed “Waterloo Bridge” also starring Taylor with Vivien Leigh. “Escape” is effective, at times shocking, but always vastly entertaining. Interesting footnote: Norma Shearer would turn down “Pride & Prejudice” and “Mrs. Miniver” both of which would turn Greer Garson into an MGM star much in the the same vein as Miss Shearer. Norma Shearer’s last film, “Her Cardboard Lover” would also be opposite Robert Taylor. Review by brisky from Glendale, CA for the IMDB.
6:15 p.m. A Yank at Oxford, 1938. Closed Captioned.
A Yank at Oxford is one of several films intended to “toughen up” Robert Taylor’s image after his success in a number of boudoir romances. Taylor plays Lee Sheridan, a college boy who has been spoiled rotten by his newspaper owner father, played by Lionel Barrymore. Father Sheridan’s habit of holding the presses for Lee’s latest athletic triumph has only contributed to the boy’s swollen head.
Despite his lack of academic focus, Taylor is offered a place at Oxford. Upon his arrival, he immediately encounters a group of his fellow students, who begin a campaign to humiliate him. He also meets the leading lady, Maureen O’Sullivan.
The rest of the delightful and humorous picture focuses on the relationships among three people: Taylor and O’Sullivan, boyfriend and girlfriend; Taylor and Griffith Jones, his leading tormentor; O’Sullivan and Jones, brother and sister. A nymphomaniac Vivien Leigh adds spice to the mix.
A Yank at Oxford allows Robert Taylor to show that he is not only a fine actor but also a fine athlete. Granted that the script specified that he would always win, Taylor is believable as a runner and as a rower. He can also swim.
O’Sullivan is a charming coed torn between her boyfriend and her loyalty to her brother. Jones and Taylor cover up for one other for different peccadilloes. They evolve from antagonists to teammates to friends. A remarkable scene that deserves special mention concerns the venerable English tradition of “debagging.”
The cast is uniformly good. Taylor looks and acts younger than his twenty-seven years. Jones is one of a fine contingent of British actors including Edmund Gwenn, Robert Coote and Edward Rigby. Lionel Barrymore shines as the older Sheridan. A pre-Scarlett Vivien Leigh is lovely and engaging.
A Yank at Oxford was MGM’s first British-made film. Jack Conway, the American director keeps things moving at a brisk pace. Harold Rosson’s photography has a newsreel-like immediacy. And Oxford, of course, looks wonderful. Review by me for the IMDB.