I likely owe a great deal of my love of movies to my mama. She wanted me to be as interested in them as she was. She threw her discarded movie magazines on my bed and would take the time to tell me there was a great article on Taylor and/or a super picture... in color!!! She thought he was not only the best actor on the screen, but the best-looking.
I think she was wrong. Oh, he was a handsome dude, alright, but even before I was supposed to be concerned about such things, I found him to be rather sexless. Handsome is noted but to fall all over oneself as my mama did... well, as she would say, to each their own. He was famous for his widow's peak which actually was created in a barber's chair and honed to perfection with various treatments. And there was that voice, that masculine, mellifluous voice that charmed the birds out of the trees.
Sorry, Ma, but I never found him to be the best actor on the screen either. He wasn't horrible by any means. I wasn't embarrassed to tell anyone I saw a Robert Taylor movie. He managed quite serviceable, often engaging performances. But he was rather wooden, wasn't he? For much of his career he appeared to me to phone in his performances in rather mediocre films.
His real name is rather famous in some circles. You serious trivia buffs probably know it's Arlington Spangler Brugh. It had that blue-blooded aura but was a bit too long and prissy by Hollywood's standards (schizophrenic as they were). But as A.S. Brugh he came to life in 1911 in Nebraska as the son of a doctor. He was always very close to his mother, listening intently to what she had to say and usually following advice. In high school he was not only a star athlete but also played the cello.
College found him more immersed in the cello and he attracted the attention of a professor who thought he was very talented. Brugh, in turn, always considered the professor one of his most cherished friends. When the professor left Nebraska to teach in Pomona, California, the young man followed him. In those days he was fairly shy and throughout his entire life people found him to be not too deep. The professor tried to draw him out and get a personality to match what others thought was a beautiful face.
Too beautiful perhaps. He was picked on a great deal, taunted about his looks and accused of being a sissy. There were those who thought he needed to butch it up some despite his jock interests. Perhaps the cello didn't help him in this regard. And whose to say how taking up drama added to his woes, but certainly the good news is that MGM discovered him in 1934 and signed him to a contract.
Taylor's best work came early in his career. L.B. Mayer thought he'd stuck gold in hiring Taylor and knew those looks would boost the receipts at his studio. I have never cared much for the movies in the1930s or not at least until 1939. But I do know Taylor started in two wildly popular films... the weepy Magnificent Obsession with Irene Dunne in 1935 and the following year with the romantic Camille costarring Greta Garbo. I am unaware of how Dunne felt about him but Garbo didn't feel the earth shake. Some of his female costars were clearly chagrined to find he got more attention than they did. He was perfect opposite Jean Harlow in Personal Property in 1937 but made two unsuccessful films with Barbara Stanwyck... His Brother's Wife in 1936 and This Is My Affair in 1937.
Somewhere in the late thirties, Papa Mayer started hearing some rumors about his golden goose. They troubled the old man because all he could see was profits tapering off. He may have been drawn to Taylor and others, but they had to remain in the black. The rumors were that Taylor needed to man up. No one doubted that he was a nice guy, but maybe he was too nice. He was always respectful, always a bit timid, always compliant. Maybe the dreamy looks were sending out the wrong message. Whatever, he needed an image change. He needed war films. He needed, perhaps, to play a bad guy. They're usually always pretty butch. Hey, better yet, he needs a wife.
Barbara Stanwyck had been in a terrible marriage to comic Frank Fay and rumor had it she'd been pretty taken with a man that was clearly prettier than she was. She scarcely cared that their films together were turkeys. Taylor was ordered to put the moves on her and ever obedient, he did. In 1939 they were married. Why he chose to marry a lesbian actress may be known only to him, but I have a guess or two. There were always rumors about him in those days. Perhaps the stories were apocryphal but Taylor was often quite guarded about his personal life but would go along with MGM's publicity machine. He never wanted his name sullied in any way. Ten years later that would see a change.
His beauty quite matched the young Vivien Leigh in 1938 for A Yank at Oxford. Their pairing was so successful that after her skyrocketing fame in Gone With the Wind, she and Taylor were together again in 1940's super romantic tear-jerker, Waterloo Bridge.
|T and T in "Johnny Eager"|
He got butched up for the forties. He joined the military in Flight Command, Stand by for Action and the highly-praised Bataan. He climbed on a horse for Billy the Kid. He was the best, however, when he was bad. He actually had to emote somewhat as he ventured into villainy. Arguably his finest film was 1941's Johnny Eager. Starring opposite his female equivalent, Lana Turner, didn't hurt. He is a gangster who falls in love with the daughter of a district attorney who's trying to put him away. Damn, if he'd only done more films like this. I thought he was wonderfully creepy as Katharine Hepburn's husband in the under-rated Undercurrent.
When he wasn't off on hunting trips (that always seemed to include a photographer... why is that?) with Gary Cooper, Clark Gable and others, he was hopping in bed with Ava Gardner, his costar in The Bribe (1949). He would work with her again in Ride Vaquero and Knights of the Round Table, both 1953. Their relationship became public and Stanwyck was none too pleased. Isn't it a bit of Hollywood irony that in this very year, Stanwyck and Gardner appeared together in East Side, West Side, in which Gardner was sleeping with Stanwyck's husband. You probably think I make these things up.
|The famous "Quo Vadis" profile|
It seemed a stroke of good fortune that he was tapped to play Marcus Vinicius in 1951's Quo Vadis, a much anticipated historical drama about a Roman general's love for a Christian hostage. Deborah Kerr never looked more beautiful. I suppose acting opposite Robert Taylor did that. His looks had, in fact, matured by this point, and he was as handsome as ever.
Quo Vadis also meant the end of his marriage. In Italy, far away from MGM and Stanwyck, the actor engaged in another affair... with an extra. Stanwyck divorced him. Despite their problems (and they're richly detailed in at least two great books on her), she would never truly recover from the divorce. She admitted to loving him always. He always liked her as a friend more than a wife and so he had no problem being her friend afterwards and she hung on to whatever she could get. She never remarried.
That sullying of his name that he so assiduously tried to avoid happened when life-long Republican Taylor named names in the dark days of the Hollywood Witch Hunts. He became very public about his hatred for Communists. The liberal side of Hollywood turned its back on Taylor but it didn't seem to effect his work in terms of output. Of course, my mother loved him even more.
In 1952 he made the first of three films with Eleanor Parker, Above and Beyond, the story of Lt. Col. Paul Tibbets who was the pilot of the Enola Gay, that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. By their third film together, they were thisclose. He was quite good in 1954's Rogue Cop and 1956's colorful buffalo epic, The Last Hunt. He was a bad guy in both and again did some of his best work.
In 1954 he married German actress Ursula Thiess who gained some fame in seven American films. In 1958 he left MGM after 24 years. It is considered the longest tie to any one studio for a big star in Hollywood history. He never made a lot of money... at least by Tinseltown standards.
After MGM he still made a number of films but none were outstanding, some were fine with that buttered popcorn and a few were just embarrassing. One of the latter was 1964's The Night Walker, with a hokey plot about dreams but it did costar him with Stanwyck. She was the one who got him to sign on and in that regard it was fun for their fans.
|At the time they made "The Night Walker"|
The year before he made a film I quite liked, Disney's The Miracle of the White Stallions. Hey, I'm a fool for horse movies and this was about the famous Lipizzaner's. Please. Let's have a moment of silence.
There was no silence in the car around this same time for my mother and me. I was trying to dodge other cars while she shrieked like a young girl. We were rounding a church on San Vicente in Brentwood, driving slowly enough for her to scream STOP and whom did we see on the steps of the church but Robert Taylor AND Ronald Reagan (and wives). It turned out to be one of the happiest moments of her life. A twofer. She clutched her U.S. flag pin all the way home.
Taylor ventured into television, starting with a successful stint on The Detectives and eventually replacing his pal Reagan as the host of Death Valley Days.
He had a magnificent ranch in the Mandeville Canyon section of Brentwood and apparently enjoyed his years there with Thiess, who was, by all accounts, devoted to him. He was a life-long, heavy smoker and the ensuing lung cancer killed the actor at age 59 in 1969.
An Unusual Star