WEIRDLAND: Robert Taylor: The Man with the Perfect Charm

Friday, December 20, 2013

Robert Taylor: The Man with the Perfect Charm

“There was a style of living and making motion pictures which no longer exists. It has been coldly modernized into something very factual … For some of us who were fortunate enough to have been a part of the Golden Age, however, the memory lingers on.” -Robert Taylor (in Variety Magazine, 1966).

Charles Tranberg’s biography of Robert Taylor (available in kindle ebook, 2013) presents a good opportunity to take another look at the career of one of the brightest stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. In the chapter 8 “Post-War Slump,” Tranberg summarizes part of Linda J. Alexander’s revelations exposed in "Reluctant Witness: Robert Taylor, Hollywood & Communism" (2008).

Robert Taylor was born in Filley, Nebraska on August 5, 1911. Son of Spangler Andrew Brugh (a farmer turned osteopath doctor) and his invalid wife Ruth Stanhope, he grew up in Beatrice once the Brughs had settled. At Beatrice High School, he started to take advantage of his magnetism with young ladies, dating a dozen of blue-eyed girls (Helen Rush being his first sweetheart). Later, he enrolled at Doane College under Herbert Grey’s tutelage to become a concert cellist. When Grey was transferred to Pomona College, Taylor followed his steps to the West Coast. After having discarded other options such as medicine, music, psychology and business, Taylor seriously considered a career in acting, joining the Pomona College’s production of ‘Journey’s End’ where he was spotted by a MGM talent scout in 1932.

Taylor made his first screen test for Sam Goldwyn in 1933 which was reportedly unmemorable, but MGM (with Louis B. Mayer at the helm) saw enough promise to groom him as a screen presence. Taylor had his first leading role in "Society Doctor" (1935) with Virginia Bruce (their off-screen affair was stifled by Mayer, adamant that Taylor’s public image continued to be perceived as an eligible bachelor).

In 1936 he starred in "Camille" (which is 33 on the American Film Institute list of Best Romances) with his idolized Greta Garbo. Taylor was named ‘Second King of Hollywood’ after Clark Gable (Taylor remained dubbed ‘The Man with the Perfect Profile’ by MGM’s publicity head Howard Strickling until the demise of the studio system. Holding the record for the longest contract in MGM from 1934-1958, Taylor outlasted ‘The King’ Gable).

Margaret Sullavan was his co-star in Borzage’s classic "Three Comrades" (1938), which includes the only screenwriting credit of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Taylor’s flair for comedy was allowed escape when in 1938 he co-starred with Vivien Leigh in "A Yank at Oxford". The pair appeared again in both actors’ favorite title: "Waterloo Bridge" (1940). Taylor remarked at the time, “I felt surer of myself in scenes with Vivien Leigh in Waterloo Bridge than I have in any dramatic role.”

From 1941 on, Taylor continued to diversify his range of roles, unearthing darker facets in "Billy the Kid" (Taylor just “loved that picture”), "Johnny Eager" (Taylor was enraptured by Lana Turner whilst Johnny toyed with her emotions on-screen) or "High Wall". With Audrey Totter also playing against type, Taylor successfully switched off his suave persona, reinventing himself as a tormented war vet who is confined inside a psychiatric hospital. In "Bataan" he gives a gritty portrayal as Sgt. Bill Dane. Director Tay Garnett recalled: “Bob Taylor was one of the world’s great gentlemen… In spite of his astounding good looks, he was determined to be a fine actor.” "Song of Russia" (1944) was controversial due to its sympathetic portrait of communist peasants, which clashed with Taylor’s traditional Methodist upbringing (Taylor felt the film was blatant communist propaganda). His role as psychotic husband in "Undercurrent" led his leading lady Katharine Hepburn to note Taylor as one of the underrated actors in the business.

Taylor had lost his sexual desire towards his dominant wife Barbara Stanwyck who constantly attacked his masculinity. They got married in 1939, precipitated by the studio’s response to the article “Hollywood’s Unmarried Husbands & Wives” by Sheilah Graham. Although various Stanwyck’s biographers (Axel Madsen, Dan Callahan) have portraited Taylor negatively, Barbara’s priority seemed to be her professional career to the detriment of her relationships.

Taylor’s personality had drastically changed after leaving the US Naval Aircorps in 1945, and Barbara couldn’t tolerate more of his infidelities. A divorce was granted in 1952, allowing her to collect 15 percent of Taylor’s earnings until he died. Despite of numerous interpretations of the Stanwyck marriage as a lavender union, film historian Laura Wagner gives a more plausible explanation: “The simple fact about the Taylor/Stanwyck marriage is that he was henpecked.” While filming "The Night Walker" (with ex-wife Barbara Stanwyck) Taylor observed: “It felt like we had never been married.”

One of Taylor’s most excruciating experiences during the infamous House UnAmerican Activities Committee hearings, during which numerous actors, writers and directors were blacklisted for alleged Communist ties. Although touted as a “friendly witness” by the HUAC’s Chairman J. Parnell Thomas, Taylor would disagree. In fact, he had written a letter to the Committee begging not to be commanded to the witness stand. Taylor always considered himself an “unfriendly” witness, calling the hearings a “circus”. But his subpoenaed appearance was turned into a convenient publicity stunt by the committee. Although he would eventually name three people: Howard Da Silva, Karen Morley and Lester Cole, he never actually called them Communists explicitly. Taylor never talked about that difficult period. “It was a closed book,” said his secretary Ivy Pearson-Mooring. It pained him too much to discuss it.” Blacklisted screenwriter Marguerite Roberts remembered Taylor in a good light: “I had him in quite a few pictures: Escape, Undercurrent, Ambush, Ivanhoe and The Bribe. Robert Taylor was a stiff guy but a nice enough man, a reactionary who didn’t like my politics but he was all right.”

Aside from a magical amorous interlude with Ava Gardner, Robert Taylor was mainly linked romantically to Eleanor Parker. Doug McClelland made an analysis of their relationship (professional and personal) in his book "Woman of a Thousand Faces" – Of his on-set experiences with Ms. Parker, Taylor commented in a letter to his assistant Ivy Pearson-Mooring: “A little ‘location romance’ has developed which will end the minute I get home.” Taylor and Parker showed palpable chemistry in their three films together:

Above & Beyond (featuring one of Taylor’s finest performances), Valley of the Kings, and Many Rivers to Cross. According to Jane Ellen Wayne’s biography, Eleanor Parker was Taylor’s favorite leading lady and “complemented him on the screen more than any other actress”. Taylor dated Virginia Grey (Gable’s former lover) too: “I don’t think Bob liked himself very much and was not a happy man when I knew him. He was a real introvert when it came to a man and woman relationship,” Virginia recounted. Taylor probably felt disoriented in his love life until he met German actress Ursula Thiess -tagged “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World” by Photoplay, 1952-. Taylor married Ursula in 1954.

Taylor excelled at playing shady types during the ’50s: a corrupt cop agonizingly trying to find his way of redemption in "Rogue Cop" (“Taylor handles his tough guy role with ease”, The New York Post reviewed), a sadistic buffalo hunter in "The Last Hunt", and a morally compromised lawyer in "Party Girl" -Nicholas Ray complimented his performance saying: “I saw Taylor working for me like a true Method actor.”- “Bob was an extremely talented artist,” Robert Loggia recalled, “he was also the ultimate gentleman and a true professional… but the critics really never gave him his due.”

In 1958, Robert Taylor founded his production company and launched a TV show for ABC: The Detectives (1959-1962), where he prolonged his tough guy act. “I ain’t proud no more!”, he jokingly complained to his buddy Tom Purvis about the lesser category of the films he was doing during the 60′s decade. Although his film career wasn’t flourishing anymore, Taylor’s personal life had blossomed into a pure family bliss.

Each passing day, his love for Ursula and the kids strengthened more. “My German heritage of celebrating Christmas rather dominated my family, and my husband was beginning to see it through my eyes,” Ursula wrote, “he had looked at it as commercialism… But once he appointed himself Santa Claus to his children, his whole attitude changed.” I recently had a conversation with Tessa Taylor and she remembers his father as a genuine 1950′s family man: “He played Santa Claus at Christmas. He barbecued with friends and percolated coffee in the morning and watched Ralph Story and Jackie Gleason at dinner time on TV trays.” Sadly, Taylor’s long-life habit of smoking took its toll on his health inexorably: he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1968. Robert Taylor uttered his last words -”Mutti, I love you”- in Ursula’s arms on June 8, 1969. Ronald Reagan gave a fine eulogy to his memory defining Taylor as ‘a truly modest man.’ Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin also attended the funeral.

In 1983, George Cukor had commented: “Robert Taylor was my favorite actor. He was a gentleman -that is rare in Hollywood.” Although they stripped Taylor’s name from the MGM Studio Lot (Lion’s Building) and changed it for “The George Cukor Building,” irony is not lost on those who see the big picture. Over the last decades, Taylor’s figure has suffered scorn for his conservative politics, and these prejudices have been somehow detrimental to his popularity in comparison with other more revered classic stars.

Charles Tranberg and Linda J. Alexander's biographies work out as the perfect antidote against these previous notions. We may or may not share Taylor’s obstinate beliefs, but he came to represent and exalt the premier ideals of the American Dream: perseverance, humility and beauty – and those values must be cherished, preserved and shared.

Taylor unfolded his invented on-screen personalities, hiding his natural shyness most of the time. We see in all of his characters a remanent charm that cannot be obscured by any fade-out: his dandyish demeanour in "Magnificent Obsession", tentatively wooing Stanwyck in "This Is My Affair", his romantic despair in "Camille", crying bitter tears after knocking down his best friend in "The Crowd Roars", crazily smitten with Jean Harlow in "Personal Property", waiting for eternity in "Waterloo Bridge", his ruthless suavity in "Johnny Eager", his spirited courage in "Bataan", his disturbing semblant in "High Wall", shooting bullets under a fireworks explosion in "The Bribe", his enigmatic malice in "Conspirator", commanding a battalion of Amazons in "Westward the Women", his staid conversation in "Above & Beyond", his limp gait in "Party Girl", his contemptuous remarks in "The Hangman", his cynical guilt in "Rogue Cop", crying distressed in "Johnny Tiger"…

Inside the star system, Robert Taylor constituted an entire galaxy of emotions. This is sufficient argument to restore his legacy, exemplarily defended by three inspired biographical works: “My Life Before, With, and After Robert Taylor” by Ursula Thiess, “Reluctant Witness: Robert Taylor, Hollywood and Communism” by Linda J. Alexander, and “Robert Taylor: A Biography” by Charles Tranberg. Article first published as Robert Taylor: The Man with the Perfect Charm on Blogcritics.

Robert Taylor (The Object of My Affection) video from Kendra on Vimeo.


Linda J. Alexander said...

Very well done!

~ Linda Alexander, author
"Reluctant Witness: Robert Taylor, Hollywood, & Communism"

Kendra said...

my pleasure, Linda! :)