“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 new biography of Robert Taylor (Robert Taylor: A Biography) presents a good opportunity to take another look at the career of one of the brightest stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The magnetic film star made his first screen test for Sam Goldwyn in 1933 which was reportedly unmemorable, but MGM saw enough promise to groom him as a screen presence.
After memorable leading roles in Society Doctor (1935) and 1936’s Camille (which is 33 on the American Film Institute list of Best Romances), Taylor was named ‘Second King of Hollywood’ by columnist Adela Rogers St. Johns 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). Taylor’s flair for comedy was allowed escape when in 1938 he co-starred with Vivien Leigh in A Yank in Oxford. The pair appeared again in both actors’ favorite title: Waterloo Bridge. 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.
According to Victoria Wilson (who has recently published the new Stanwyck biography Steel True: 1907-1940), Taylor and Stanwyck 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. A divorce was granted in 1952 (by Superior Judge Thurmond Clarke), allowing her to collect 15 percent of Taylor’s earnings until he died. While filming The Night Walker (with ex-wife Barbara Stanwyck) Taylor confessed: “It felt like we had never been married.”
One the most excruciating experiences of Taylor’s career came during the infamous House Un-American 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. According to Linda J. Alexander, Taylor had written a letter to the Committee begging not to be commanded to the witness stand. He had always considered himself an “unfriendly” witness, calling the hearings a “circus”. Although he would eventually name three people: Howard Da Silva, Karen Morley and Lester Cole, he never explicitly called them Communists.
Taylor rarely discussed this difficult period. “It was a closed book,” said his secretary Ivy Pearson-Mooring (interview by Charles Tranberg, 2010). 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.”
Besides an amorous interlude with Ava Gardner (she wrote about their dalliance in her autobiography Ava, My Story), 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 – observing that Taylor was Eleanor’s favorite leading man. 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 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 ’60s decade. Although his film career wasn’t flourishing anymore, Taylor had found his ideal woman in Ursula Thiess -a German actress tagged by Photoplay “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World” whom he married in 1954- and his personal life had blossomed into a pure family bliss (according to Terry Taylor and Manuela Thiess).
“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 her father as a genuine 1950s family man: “He played Santa Claus at Christmas. He barbecued with friends, 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. Ursula always stood by her dying husband, not totally believing in his inescapable fate until the last days. 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 1990 fifty Lorimar Telepictures’ writers petitioned to have the Lion’s Building (former MGM studio lot) stripped of the name “The Robert Taylor Building” and changed it for “The George Cukor Building.” According to Judy Chaikin (who had directed the Emmy nominated PBS documentary Legacy of the Hollywood Blacklist in 1987), the reason was the days of the blacklist and the belief that “Taylor was the only one on film actually naming names.” Ironically, in 1983 George Cukor had commented: “Robert Taylor was my favorite actor. He was a gentleman -that is rare in Hollywood.” 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, “Robert Taylor: Reluctant Witness” by Linda J. Alexander, and “Robert Taylor: A Biography” by Charles Tranberg.