Tuesday, July 19

Tormented: Robert Walker

I basically felt inadequate, unwanted and unloved since I was born. I was always trying to make an escape from life.  I was an aggressive little character but what nobody knew but me was that my badness was only a cover-up for a basic lack of self-confidence, that I was really more afraid than frightening.

In some ways, he just really never had much of a chance and could never seem to catch much of a break.  He was the fourth son of a gloomy set of Mormon parents. When Robert Walker was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1918, he was not wanted.  It might have helped a bit had he been a girl, but another boy?  He found the perfect parental prescription to mess up a boy's head... the distant, uninvolved father and the over-protective mother who tries too hard to take on the job of both parents.  In young Bobby's case, his mother was also unreasonably harsh.

One of his lifelong traits was to run away from life.  To his discredit as an adult, far beyond the time, in my opinion, that anyone should be blaming mommy and daddy, he was still running away.  He had bouts of therapy all his life but he acted through most of the sessions.  One childhood shrink said that he was quite a normal boy who simply wanted to grow up too fast.  That hardly covered it.  He had an ability as an adult to talk pretty straight about his problems, usually aided by booze, but he never had that inner strength or resolve to make the leap to sanity.

It would not be unfair or inaccurate to say that he was a lost boy who grew into a lost man and sadly, so sadly, he never got found.

On his first day of kindergarten he was not only sent to the principal's office for a number of infractions, but when asked why he did whatever it was, he said because I want to.  When told a behavior was unacceptable, he laughed and said he would do it again.  He became a bully.

He had a difficult time understanding why he was so disliked and why nobody trusted him. When he was about 12, and in a relatively stable period, he approached an older neighbor about cutting his grass and he was told to go ahead and the agreement was he would be paid 50 cents. The man did not pay him and would not even come to his door when Bobby knocked.  Walker said he never forgot that and believed the incident formed a lifelong distrust of people and older men in particular.

Problems at home got worse and his mother was at wit's end.  She had stopped hitting him because she saw that corporal punishment was not working but nor was anything else. On a trip to New York City, while staying in a high-rise hotel, Bobby went out on a ledge and threatened to jump if his mother didn't do what he wanted her to do regarding sightseeing. 

This incident prompted her to contact her rich sister (an aunt who adored her nephew) and asked her if she would pay for him to go to military school to get himself straightened out.  Auntie paid for him to go to a school in San Diego, California.  He was embarrassed by his wiry frame and a hellacious case of acne. He got his usual Ds and Fs in most courses, refused to participate in athletics and was downright surly to fellow pupils and most of the staff.  It's a wonder they kept him as long as they did.

There was good news, too.  One day he discovered drums. Ultimately he became quite proficient and perhaps for the first time in his life he was good at something and just as importantly, recognized for it. Then he made the acquaintance of a female teacher who took a special interest in him.  She taught drama.

Playing the drums made Walker feel like he was finally good at something but acting revved him up as never before.  He went from school plays to some community theater and caught raves from nearly everyone who saw him.  His grades even improved.

With a newfound confidence and some good notices he headed to New York and got accepted at the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts. There he met and fell head over heels in love with Phylis Isley who had not yet been rechristened Jennifer Jones. They were both young (she was 19, he was 20), unsteady on their feet, not a penny to their names but they got married.  Quickly having two sons whom they both adored, they were already talking about becoming the hot couple of The Great White Way and when that didn't work out, they headed to her hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, to nurse their even more wounded egos.  The truth is they were both emotionally adrift young people, both greatly in need of deep therapy.  In Tulsa they got some radio gigs but they weren't exactly what they were looking for.

Through her family's help the young family headed to Hollywood where she appeared in a couple of bad movies under her real name. Walker wasn't so fortunate and Jones began seeing some temperament she wasn't too wild about.  He could be as loving and thoughtful as a person could be.  His boyishly handsome face, an appealing vulnerability and a breathless, syrupy voice is what won Jones over but belligerence and psycho rages helped drive her away.  Oh yes, David O. Selznick helped as well.  If you have not read my piece on Jones, perhaps you should. It fills in more of the story.

Selznick was besotted with Jones.  He didn't care that she was married; he didn't even care that he was married.  He had to have her.  She was yet to make an important film but he saw in her the making of filmdom's most respected actress ever and he would be the man behind such an actress.  It was a strong brew and he was dizzy from the intoxication.  Jones, never strong in the best of circumstances, simply allowed herself to be manipulated by Selznick and soon the producer moved her and her sons out of Walker's life.  Or almost.

Walker, for his part, and to his credit, always knew he was a pain in the ass although he stopped short of calling himself ill.  He knew he had fits and that they left Jones scared and bewildered but he felt it was all just part of being young and crazy and in love... and in Hollywood. It wasn't a good scene but it wasn't something they couldn't work through. He thought they were doing just that.  

Although Walker knew Selznick was lurking about, Jones kept mum about most things so her husband didn't quite know how the odds were stacked against him.  She brought up the idea of a trial separation as much as anything so she could get out of the house. Walker later said he felt like a hoodwinked schnook when he realized the extent to which he'd been conned, but the effects were far worse than that.

The truth is Walker had been playing on the edge of sanity all his brief life.  To him the end of his marriage was certainly one more betrayal, one further example of how unlovable he was and how unworthy.  All who knew him said he never recovered.  He was as obsessed with Jones as Selznick was and the loss of her devastated him, truly devastated him. He said he didn't know if he'd ever get over the loss of his boys. Even though his movie career was ready to take off, his life was already on its way toward total destruction.

Sadly, Walker discovered the bottle and faster than you could Robert Walker Red, he was a full-blown alcoholic, although, oddly, it only took a couple of drinks to get him there. At one time or another, he exhibited the traits those of us who have lived with alcoholics know well.  In the beginning he usually fell asleep when he got drunk.  He might think he was a Don Juan at others.  Being an actor, he thought he was perfectly entertaining and amusing while smashed. But his usual venue was rage.  This man lashed out at everything and everyone who crossed his path.  He was genuinely frightening.  Toward the end, his rages could end with him passing out.

He was still looking for work and miserable over his marital woes when Jones won an Oscar for her first film with her new name.  It couldn't have helped his melancholy.  But then he heard that MGM was looking for someone to play a cocky sailor in Bataan (1943) and perhaps they would hire an unknown.  He was an actor, wasn't he?  He was a newcomer, wasn't he?  He wasn't half-bad looking, he reasoned. And he knew a little something about cocky, didn't he?

Well, that's how MGM saw it, too, and his film debut (discounting three walk-on parts) was sensational.  One could not take one's eyes off him.  It wasn't the looks as much as observing the sunny optimism getting covered by a dark cloud.  There was frequently something about his characters that made one suspect he was capable of imploding.  Of course this was displayed perfectly in his most famous film.

He was on his way... everybody said so... when one of the most bizarre and destructive Hollywood tales unfolded.  David O. Selznick hired Robert Walker to play a young, unsteady soldier in Since You Went Away (1945).  It was a small role but Walker would be the love interest of one of the leading ladies and the actress playing her was none other than his estranged wife, Jennifer Jones. Their most tender love scene would take place on bales of hay.  I think a wtf would work here, don't you? 

With Jennifer Jones, a difficult scene

It's lost on me why Walker would put himself through such an ordeal or maybe his sad puppy-dog ways needed one more chance with Jones.  Whatever, it proved a disaster off-screen and Walker lost his grip a little more.  On a good note, he and Jones, the entire cast and the film were all terrific.

MGM signed him to a contract and I have always thought he turned in some good work for them.  He was such an earnest actor, a bit wholesome, inquisitive, often adorable, with a wry sense of astonishment.  He made me smile.  As an employee, he didn't make MGM smile.  He was an unusual choice for the MGM family.  It was a fussy place.  Their contracts were loaded with little nuggets on behavior, morals, drinking, embarrassing public spectacles and the like.  The studio tried to turn a deaf ear to Walker's antics but it always held its collective breath.

While I must say I always enjoyed seeing him on the screen, most of his MGM films were little more than fuzzy-wuzzy little concoctions designed to tickle the funny bone and make one forget the war for 90 minutes.  He made some high-profile films, too, but then he seemed a bit out of his league.  His ascendancy was assured with one of those fuzzy-wuzzy things, See Here, Private Hargrove (1944), a military romance-comedy with Donna Reed.  It was wildly popular and spawned a sequel. 

With Judy Garland in The Clock

In real life, Walker avoided the service due to his poor eyesight, but he played a soldier again in The Clock (1945), one of his most respected films.  To watch him and Judy Garland playing two lost souls who meet briefly is heartbreaking when one realizes the two tortured people playing them.

His private life is far more interesting than examining his performances in films with titles such as Her Highness and the Bellboy, The Sailor Takes a Wife or The Skipper Surprises His Wife

The studio had been treating him as a prince, which of course he didn't fully trust, so he began acting out.  He voiced objections about being used and abused and while true, he gave it back in spades. He figured out what they wanted from him and then would not give it. He created major dramas over salary.  He loved pulling pranks, some of which were funny and many of which were cruel. He didn't see it as another form of bullying.  He would come to work drunk or get drunk after arriving.  And then there was something that he did that drove them all really mad... he disappeared, sometimes for days, right in the middle of filming. Not only did the studio not know where he was, nobody did.  I have some ideas, but we won't go there.

One of my favorite Walker films was 1948s romantic-comedy fantasy, One Touch of Venus.  Walker played a department store employee who falls in love with a store mannequin of the famed goddess, particularly after she comes to life.  I loved singer Dick Haymes, who had the second male lead, and all films were better with Eve Arden in them, but it was Ava Gardner who affected me much the same way as she did Walker's character.

Later that same year he married director John Ford's daughter, Barbara.  They didn't know one another very well and she certainly couldn't have been any more together than he was, and the marriage lasted about five months.  She had it annulled.

Fist clenched at the police station

Public drunkenness became the news of the week for Walker.  It was one blistering account after another, but only a few were concerned with only that.  Walker at one time or another added such behaviors as running off while having to walk the line or taking a poke at a cop or getting into a scuffle with several cops or breaking every window he could get to at a police station.

MGM sat him down one day and presented him with a choice. They could either amicably agree to end their contract and he could go on to be a service station attendant as he threatened or he could go to the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, and get well.  As added incentive to choose the clinic, the studio would foot the bill. While Walker still tended to think he was little more than a rascal, he agreed to go.  The deal was he would sign over his rights to leave when he chose.  It would be solely the clinic's decision.

He was there for nearly a year.  The public was unaware but that changed one day when Walker was out on the streets of Topeka on a scheduled visit and became disorderly and was jailed for a short time before being returned to the clinic.  By 1949 he was back in Hollywood.  With the rules being what they were, his departure must have come with doctor approval.  Had he really gotten better or had he fooled the professionals again?  

His last MGM-based film was an ordinary oater called Vengeance Valley (1951) but Walker was part of a yummy cast including Burt Lancaster as his stepbrother and Joanne Dru as Walker's wife. Walker was the wastrel brother, completely without conscience and mentally disturbed.  Perfect casting.

Then he was loaned out to Warner Bros to make not only the best film he ever made but a performance that Premier Magazine would one day hail as the 86th greatest performance (out of 100) of all time.  The film was Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951) and the role was as psychopath Bruno Antony.  With ample dollops of charming and creepy, Bruno wanted his father murdered and not only knew he'd be suspected of the deed, but philosophized that murderers generally know their prey.  Therefore, he would befriend another man (Farley Granger) who wanted out of a relationship and they would swap murder duties and avoid detection.  Walker provided an electrifying, chill-inducing performance.  It is the film that keeps his fame alive.

Working Farley Granger in Strangers on a Train

My Son, John (1952) I did not like when I first saw it at the time of its release. I was too young to see, much less understand something about a long-absent son who returns to the family home and begins espousing philosophies that sound like communism.  Of course, it was the hot topic of the day and the decade.  Seeing it years later, I could hardly believe what an outstanding job Walker and his fellow cast members, Helen Hayes, Van Heflin and Dean Jagger, did.

But what I shall always remember about My Son, John, was that Robert Walker had died by the time the films was released and I could not wrap my little starter brain around that in 1952. 

His death reminds one of some more recent celebrity deaths where a doctor is at the home and administers a drug to (in this case) an enraged patient to help calm him down... and he dies.

It was 1951 and Robert Walker was just 32 years old.

I suspect he was at the point that a whole new career could have opened for him.  His work in Strangers on a Train alone should have done the trick.  But would it have? We'll never know.  The tortured and tormented roles were his best work, which obviously he knew something about.

Next posting:
Movie review


  1. What a wonderful piece you wrote and what a sensitiveness you possess. I could never imagine that the shy lovely soldier in Since You Went Away might have had such a sad, tormented life since childhood. And what a s.o.a.b.Selznick must have been.
    It certainly is, in my opinion, one of your best posts. Thanks.

  2. Thank you, dear Carlo. I had the same feeling for him that I did for Marilyn Monroe... two terribly troubled souls that I would have loved to have comforted.