WEIRDLAND: Story of Robert Taylor & Barbara Stanwyck

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Story of Robert Taylor & Barbara Stanwyck

Robert Taylor (1911-1969), born in Filley, Nebraska (birth name Spangler Arlington Brugh). Nicknames: "The Man with the Perfect Profile" and "The New King".

Private Number (1936) was briskly directed by Roy Del Ruth and has a fastpaced 75-minute running time. It was premiered at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on June 11, 1936, and became another huge hit for Bob. The New York Times critic was astonished by the caliber of acting. “Believe it or not, the picture is well acted throughout,” he wrote. “Mr. Rathbone is as hateful as Miss Young is charming, and Mr. Taylor is manly to a fault.”

Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor in "Camille" (1936) directed by George Cukor

Garbo dismissed most of her leading men to author Antoni Gronowicz. Of Gable she said, “He knew his shortcomings, which I had spotted right away, including a stiffness that was close to the quality of wood.” Robert Montgomery “showed more enthusiasm than talent.” Garbo, on the other hand, seemed to have a soft spot for Bob. “He was a very well brought up young man, a bit shy perhaps,” Garbo recalled. “I was often actually rather ill during filming. He used to have a gramophone with him that he would play because he knew I liked music. It helped distract me.”

“Robert Taylor was most attentive, trying without success to make me respond to his love,” recalled Garbo years later. “I noticed his ardor, and I became especially patient with him in explaining how he must act, since he was young and inexperienced. But I never spent any time with him in the evening after work.” When she heard, more than thirty years later, that Bob had died, at only fifty-seven, Garbo broke down and cried.

Robert Taylor and Jean Harlow in "Personal Property" (1937) directed by W.S. Van Dyke

Following completion of Personal Property Bob and Harlow left almost immediately by train with other stars to attend President Roosevelt’s annual Birthday Ball on behalf of the March of Dimes held in Washington, D.C. on February 12, 1937. At the time Mrs. Roosevelt was quoted as saying that the president didn’t mind playing second fiddle to Robert Taylor. “In fact,” she said, “he admitted romantic appeal is more persuasive than statesmanship. He likes his movies and is a big fan. He told me they do the world just as much good as any politician in the long run.”

Having completed Personal Property, and embarked on this fast-paced trip, both Harlow and Bob returned exhausted and ill. According to Bob’s grandmother, writing to a friend in Nebraska, Bob was, “pretty well tired out. He does not enjoy these trips to the larger cities. They wear him out.” The fatigue Harlow had for so long never faded as she went into her final decline. Years after she died, a book came out on Harlow which portrayed her as an alcoholic slut. Bob was one of several Hollywood stars who knew the real Jean Harlow to come forward and denounce the book as “trash.” Bob further said that she was “not at all the monster some writers have made of her.”

Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor in "This is My Affair" (1937) directed by William A. Seiter

Bob’s arrival in New York on August 19, 1937, in preparation for his leaving for Europe, was met by screaming fans and a sneering press corp. They tried again with, “Would you rather be brainy or beautiful?” in which he replied, “I haven’t much choice in the matter.” He then did something he would do throughout his career: downplay his own talent. “You know I’m really lucky to be where I am. All I play is straight stuff—I’m not much of an actor, you know.” And (as usual) he was asked about Barbara. “She calls me Bob —and I call her Boobs. That’s all I can say about it now.” By the time he returned to the United States in mid-December he was ready to come home. He and other cast members departed on the Queen Mary. When the ship arrived in New York, he met the press wearing candy-striped pajamas and a stubble. One reporter got a little tough. “Come on, Taylor, Let’s get this thing settled. Did you or did you not say you were beautiful?” Bob handled that with aplomb. “I’ll ask you one. Would a man say that about himself? Would you?” Lionel Barrymore, also on board, came to Bob’s defense. “Bob is a fine lad. He has no vanity at all.”

Bob Taylor was in training for The Crowd Roars, an exposĂ© of the fight game, in which he was to play a prizefighter who rises up from the slums, a choir singer who sells his soul to a racketeer to become a contender for the light heavyweight title. It was a story indirectly inspired by Clifford Odets’s hit play Golden Boy, which had opened the Group Theatre’s seventh season in November 1937 and was running on Broadway with Luther Adler, Frances Farmer, Morris Carnovsky, Jules Garfield, Elia Kazan, Lee J. Cobb, and Robert Lewis.

For the part of the young boxer in The Crowd Roars, Bob didn’t want to just go through the motions of being a fighter, the old left right. He wanted to know something about the tricks of being a boxer. Metro arranged for him to be coached by the former fighter Johnny Indrisano. Indrisano had never been a champ, but he’d beaten champions in nontitle matches. Bob was training from nine to six, fourteen days in a row, punching bags, doing roadwork, jumping rope, shadowboxing, and learning to duck, weave, watch his footwork, lead with his left, and take the offensive. He was also training with Patsy Perroni and Mickey McAvoy.

Bob still feared financial insecurity, despite his success with Metro. His new home, which he called a gentleman’s ranch, in the San Fernando Valley near Barbara’s Marwyck, was set up so that ten of the thirty acres were for his house, lawn, and paddocks with the other twenty being used to grow and sell alfalfa. Once Barbara and Bob were married, the plan was to have Bob and his horses move to Marwyck. Bob was selling his eight-room cottage made from rock and his twentyeight-acre ranch, and he was hoping to buy a 160-acre ranch near Chatsworth.

Barbara came to love Bob. He did the things she wanted to do. If she wanted to go to the racetrack, Bob went to the track. If she wanted to go to the newsreel theater, they went to the newsreels. On the rare occasions when she wanted to join friends for a night out at one of the nightclubs, he was willing to go. Barbara enjoyed being on Bob’s arm at Hollywood functions. She took pleasure when Bob got a role and asked her opinion about it and wanted to be coached by her.

Maureen O'Sullivan and Robert Taylor in "The Crowd Roars" (1938) directed by Richard Thorpe

The summer months of 1938 came to a close with Hollywood being targeted by Washington for political fodder, with Bob, among others, at the center of the controversy. Robert Taylor was anything but a Communist supporter, socialist, liberal, or Democrat. A former member of the Boy Scouts of America and the Order of DeMolay, Taylor, foursquare Republican and patriot, like Barbara, was anti-Roosevelt and anti–New Deal, raised a Nebraska heartland Methodist from a long line of Methodists and German Baptists and, like his mother, didn’t trust Catholics, Jews, or Italians. (from "A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940" by Victoria Wilson)

Robert Taylor's father was a German-American doctor. His mother Anglo-American was a beautiful woman with dark hair. Bob had inherited the elegance of his father and his mother’s eyes.

Robert Taylor got married Barbara Stanwyck on May 14, 1939. Bob was said to be nervous while Barbara was the picture of serenity. The wedding ring that Bob gave Barbara was Gold with rubies around it and matched a bracelet that he had given to her the previous Christmas. As a wedding gift Bob gave Barbara a Gold St. Christopher Medal that was inscribed "God Protect Her Because I Love Her". Shortly thereafter, the wedding party returned to Los Angeles and the newlyweds to Barbara’s ranch to spend the rest of the night before going to a midday press reception at the Beverly Hills CafĂ©.

At the reception Bob drew laughs when he told the assembled reporters, “Here I am married today and tomorrow I’ve got to be back at work making love to another woman.” For the longest time MGM had opposed Bob getting married. They believed that it would damage his romantic quality. Bob couldn’t care less; he didn’t care for the screaming fans tearing at his clothes. In some ways he felt that if he did get married it might bring an end to the mob scenes he encountered anytime he stepped outside.

Bob would come to consider Waterloo Bridge his favorite film. He later said that the characters were “real, three-dimensional people— something which by no means always happens on the screen. It was one of those subtle situations in which everything clicks.” He would also say that he “felt surer of myself in scenes with Vivien Leigh in Waterloo Bridge than I have in any dramatic role that I have played.”

Robert Taylor in "Billy The Kid" (1941) directed by David Miller and Frank Borzage

Bob told reporters that he had wanted to make a Western ever since he began working in films. “In fact, if I had my choice I’d never have done anything else. Bill Hart and Tom Mix were my earliest film idols. When I was a kid I would see their films over and over again. One day I took my lunch to the movie theatre and stayed through nine showings of a Mix picture.” He also was so taken with Arizona that he said he is considering buying a ranch there. “I want a practical cattle ranch and the more acreage the better.”

Mervyn LeRoy directed Bob for the third time in two years with Johnny Eager (1941). In it, LeRoy, who also produced, teamed Bob with one of his sexiest leading ladies, Lana Turner. Bob specifically asked to do this film; it was another tough guy role. Taylor’s Johnny Eager is a no-account ruthless bastard— and Bob plays him with gusto. It is one of his finest pre-war screen performances. Turner, too, excels in a part which allowed her to prove she was an actress as well as a sex goddess.

Heflin gives a fine performance and won the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor for his work, but this is Taylor’s picture all the way —and, unfortunately, the Academy decided to overlook him when they made their nominations for Best Actor. Off screen there was TNT too between Taylor and Turner.

Three years into his marriage to Barbara it became increasingly apparent to Bob that while he respected Barbara enormously and felt a kind of love for her, it wasn’t a deep-seated, passionate kind of love. He was also feeling increasingly smothered by her. On screen he and MGM had been taking pains to develop a more masculine screen image while in his private life he often felt overwhelmed by his wife.

Needless to say, Bob found Turner’s fresh sexiness quite alluring. He later admitted that during the filming of Johnny Eager he “couldn’t take my eyes off her... there were times I thought I’d explode.” He found her coquettish. “Lana Turner wasn’t very career-minded, and preferred men and jewelry over anything else.” Just the sound of her voice saying “good morning” made Taylor “melt.” He admitted that he never really went after blondes, but, “Lana was the exception.” He summed up his feelings for Lana crudely, but with perfect honesty: “She was the type of woman for whom a guy would risk five years in jail for rape.”

Turner, in her autobiography, would admit that Bob had the kind of looks “I could fall for,” and that they engaged in a romantic flirtation. Lana didn’t want to be cast as the “other woman” who stole Taylor from Stanwyck. Bob told Lana that he was unhappy at home with Barbara and had fallen in love with her. Furthermore, he was going to tell Barbara about his love for her and wanted a divorce so he could presumably marry Lana. Barbara, feeling betrayed and hurt, left him for several days, staying at the house of her maid, Harriet Coray. From that point forward Turner contends she cooled it with Bob, until he finally understood that they would not have a future together.

Barbara began to assault Bob’s masculinity. Arlene Dahl recalls that the first time she met Bob was at a party shortly before she was to begin filming a movie with him, the Western Ambush. “Barbara would embarrass him and attack his masculinity in front of all of these people,” Miss Dahl recalls. “She would loudly say to him that he was ‘too pretty’ and that his ‘leading ladies couldn’t stand it.’ Bob would just stand quietly by; he never stood up to her. She told him he should grow a beard for the film, so that he looked like a real man—like Joel McCrea.”

If Bob was depressed about his marriage he was equally distressed over his career prospects since coming home from the war. It was as if MGM didn’t know what to do with him. Bob made thirty-six motion pictures in the nine years from 1934–1943, when he joined the Navy.

Audrey Totter and Bob work very well together in The High Wall. In the role of the psychiatrist, Audrey Totter equals Bob in giving a superb performance. One day filming of The High Wall went well into the night, Bob and Totter were famished and went looking for food at the studio commissary, but found it had already closed for the night. They then went looking for a restaurant but found them so crowded that it would take a great deal of time to both get seated and eat their food. Finally, Bob told Totter, “Let me take you to the best restaurant in town.” He took her home where Barbara made them bacon and eggs, “and it was great,” recalled Totter. The High Wall premiered in New York on Christmas Day, 1947, which prompted Bosley Crowther of the New York Times to joke in the opening paragraph of his review, “It simply wouldn’t have been Christmas on the local movie scene without at least one good psychoneurotic spreading comfort and joy..." The High Wall returned a profit, but a meager one.

Actor Robert Taylor on the witness stand as he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, on 22 Oct 1947

Bob’s testimony in October is remembered primarily today because he “named names” of people who he suspected might be Communists. What is forgotten about his testimony is that it differed somewhat from his testimony in Los Angeles the previous May in one important respect. He softened the assertion that he had been pressured to make Song of Russia. Was Bob saying that Howard Da Silva was a Communist? No, he clearly states that he is somebody who "always seems to have something to say at the wrong time."

The bottom line is that Bob did publicly name three people: Howard Da Silva, Karen Morley and Lester Cole. But he didn’t explicitly call them Communists. He clearly says each time that he had no knowledge, but clearly the committee expected names and he provided them—without really knowing for sure if they were or were not Communists. In essence, Bob was just confirming rumors and the Committee clearly wanted him to do so. This is why many people in Hollywood still hold Robert Taylor in contempt for what he did on October 22, 1947. Marsha Hunt had been one of several actors blacklisted (or graylisted) during the Communist witch hunts of the late forties thru mid-fifties. In 1960 she was invited to appear on The Detectives, Bob’s television show. Miss Hunt recalls Bob as being especially gracious and welcoming toward her and she suspects that in a small and very human way he was trying to make amends for what happened on October 22, 1947.”

Bob thought that The Bribe (1949) was nothing special, just a potboiler and he isn’t far from the truth. He told Gardner that he thought that the film was one of the worst films he ever made. Bob and Gardner got along very well during the filming and, as often happened on movie sets, the two indulged in a love affair. According to Gardner, the affair spanned at most about four months, but was very passionate while it lasted. Gardner would refer to it as a “magical little interlude.” Gardner, of course, knew that Bob was married to Barbara Stanwyck, “but the marriage had been on the rocks for a long time.”

Prior to her affair with Bob, Gardner had been seeing movie tough guy Howard Duff, but that had ended just prior to filming on The Bribe. “I was available,” she later recalled. Gardner recalled Bob as a “warm, generous, intelligent human being. “ Bob and Ava couldn’t hold a clandestine affair behind closed dressing room doors at the studio alone, so they had to find somewhere to meet that would be out of the way and where nobody would recognize them —a tall order. Taylor ultimately came up with Ruth’s house. Ruth (Bob's mother) allowed this because she never really took to Barbara, but she still wasn’t happy about it. One night Ava would recall Bob having words with Ruth. “Mother, would you rather I go to a cheap hotel?” The affair ran its course, but Gardner had happy memories of it and Bob.

On December 15, 1950, the bombshell hit the press when Bob and Barbara issued a joint statement announcing that they were separating and that a divorce would soon follow. The press release said that they had come to this decision, “reluctantly and unhappily,” and that the reason was due to the long separations they have endured “professionally” during their eleven-year marriage. "Our sincere and continual efforts to maintain our marriage have failed. We are deeply disappointed that we could not solve our problems." Anthony Quinn asked Bob, over drinks, why he and Stanwyck had divorced. “Ah, Tony,” he said. “That woman, she always wants to run the fuck.” In short, Bob had grown up and no longer required a mother figure looking out for him. For the rest of her life Barbara would receive fifteen percent of all of Bob’s gross earnings until his death or her remarriage.-"Robert Taylor: A Biography" (2011) by Charles Tranberg

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