Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Happy Birthday, Robert Taylor!

Robert Taylor, also known as "the man with the perfect profile," was born with the outstanding name of Spangler Arlington Brugh on August 5, 1911 in Filley, Nebraska. He was the only child of Spangler Andrew Brugh, a farmer turned country doctor, and Ruth Adela Stanhope, daughter of the local grain elevator. In 1917, the family moved to Beatrice, the fifth largest city in Nebraska at the time, where Arly as Taylor was called spent his formative years, ruled and cuddled by his overprotective mother. Ruth would dress her young son in Lord Fauntleroy suits (short black velvet trousers and a white silk blouse), attire he wore through the sixth grade. Arly was often ridiculed by his classmates because of his "immaculate dress," but he was still a normal schoolboy for his time. He played basebal and football, rolled skated and participated in games of jacks, marbles and hop scotch on the school playground. In addition, Arly was a member of the Boy Scouts of America, played tennis and enjoyed swimming, long bicycle rides and horseback riding. "I preferred being alone on the prairie or in the woods, to playing football with the gang," Taylor later said. "After the school I didn't play with the other kids. I liked to be alone by myself. [...] I read a lot. I wasn't at all the dreamy sort. I had my horse. I had my bike. I always had a flock of animals to care for. I just had enough to do on my own and that's how I preferred to do and be."

String quartet at Beatrice High School in 1925-26 (left to
right): Herbert Jackson, music instructor B. P. Osborn,
Spangler Arlington Brugh, Don Abbott, Gerhart Wiebe.
When not in school, Arly would spend much of his time in his father's office, accompaning him in some of his rounds and even assisting once during an emergency operation on a snow-bound settler. At twelve, he decided he wanted to be a doctor  a surgeon if possible and to specialize in childhood diseases. In 1925, however, he discovered a passion for classical music, which led him to start taking cello lessons from Professor Herbert E. Gray, a man whom he admired and idolized. When he enrolled at Beatrice High School, Arly joined the string quartet and participated in several music contests, in addition to providing the soundtrack for plays, banquets and other social engagements. In between, he also developed an interest in drama and acted in a few plays during his senior year, including the comedy Nothing But the Truth and the operetta Captain Crossbones.

After graduating from Beatrice High School in the spring of 1929 with an excellent academic record Arly did not know what career he might pursue, but he decided to attend Doane College, a liberal arts institution in Crete, Nebraska. He attended Doane because Professor Gray would be a part-time faculty member there and also because he wanted to remain with his best friend from Beatrice, Gerhart Wiebe. Registering with the Department of Music, Arly joined the Iota Delta Chi fraternity and took part in many activities during his freshman year, including track competitions and oratorical contests, in addition to serving as class president. But Arly's most significant activity as a freshman was participation in a music trio formed in the fall of 1929, which comprised of himself on the cello; his friend Gerhart on the violin; and fellow student Russell Gibson, a pianist who also played the trumpet and French horn. Calling themselves "The Harmony Boys," the group had their own fifteen-minute program at the local radio station in the summers of 1930 and 1931.

The Harmony Boys: Spangler Arlington Brugh,
Russell Gibson and Gerhart Wiebe.
Meanwhile, Arly began dedicating more of his time to dramatics, gaining valuable experience as a member of the Doane Players. His first public performance as an actor at Doane was on December 1929, in Ida L. Ehrlich's Helena's Boys. At the close of his freshman year, he had the lead role in The House Divided, a comedy-drama in three acts written by Kenneth Keller, a member of the Players. In his sophomore year, he appeared in Philip Barry's Holiday and Alias, the Kid, penned by fellow Player William Harkins. His cello teacher felt a great deal of frustation when Arly devoted time to acting at Doane. As Taylor recalled in 1937, "Professor Gray [...] wanted to know why I 'fiddled about with such nonsense.' He said that I should concentrate on the cello, that I had the makings of a concert artist, what had I to do with 'playacting'? I couldn't tell him. I didn't know myself. I don't know now. I only know that there was something in the musty smell of backstage that I liked."

In May 1931, Professor Gray announced that he was leaving Nebraska to accept a teaching job at Pomona College in California. His enthusiasm for the school and for Arly's prospects of becoming a prominent cellist led to Mr. and Mrs. Brugh suggesting that their son should transfer to Pomona also. Arly agreed and made the move that fall, oblivious to the proximity of Hollywood to campus. "When I went to college at Pomona, California, I still had no clear idea as to what I wanted to do," Taylor later remembered. "The operation on the settler must have made some sort of imprint on my mind, for I remember playing about with the idea of studying medicine. But I soon changed my mind, and, throwing overboard all intentions of wielding a scalpel, I took up economics! Sounds strange, doesn't it? And, from economics, I drifted to psychology, where, for the first time, I 'took root.' The subject interested me, and, in a very short time, I found myself studying it pretty deeply. But fate was already mapping out a different sort of career for me."

With Mary Carlisle in Handy Andy
In addition to continuing his association with Gray, Arly appeared in several plays during his senior year at Pomona. In December 1932, while apperaring in the campus production of R. C. Sheriff's World War I drama Journey's End, he was spotted by MGM talent scout Ben Piazza, who soon offered him a screen test. Although the test was disappointing, MGM invited Arly to enroll in the studio's dramatic school under the coaching of Oliver Hindsell. He attended classes there two times a week for about a month, then decided to complete his coursework at Pomona College, from where he graduated in June 1933 with a bachelor's degree in business.

After graduation, Arly moved to Hollywood to take a dramatics course at the Neely Dixon Dramatic School. He had told his parents "that he would try acting for a year and then, if it did not pan out, he would make use of his business degree." However, his lessons were interrupted in August 1933, when his father underwent major surgery in Beatrice, causing Arly to return home for a month. Following the death of his father in October, Arly considered staying in Beatrice to help his mother, but he eventually decided to take Ruth with him to Hollywood in late November, where he re-enrolled in the MGM dramatic school.

With striking good looks that photographed beautifully, Arly signed a long-term contract with MGM in February 1934. A short time later, studio chief Louis B. Mayer changed the young actor's name to Robert Taylor, which Arly thought was "terribly common" for someone called Spangler Arlington Brugh. For his motion picture debut, Taylor was loaned out to 20th Century Fox for a small role as Mary Carlisle's boyfriend in the Will Rogers vehicle Handy Andy (1934). Next, he went to Universal Pictures for There's Always Tomorrow (1934), a melodrama based on the novel by Ursula Parrott, starring Frank Morgan and Binnie Barnes. Returning to Metro, Taylor was cast in a string of low-budget films, including Society Doctor (1935) and Times Square Lady (1935), until the studio finally allowed him a chance to shine in Roy Del Ruth's hit musical Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935), with Jack Benny and Eleanor Powell.

With Irene Dunne in Magnificent Obsession
Taylor's well-bred, clean-cut persona soon caught the attention of Academy Award-nominated actress Irenne Dunne, who personally selected him to be her leading man in John M. Stahl's drama Magnificent Obsession (1935), based on the best-selling novel by Lloyd C. Douglas. The film was a massive success upon its release, making Taylor a favorite among female moviegoers. In the first magazine assessment of the handsome 24-year-old actor, Adela Rogers St. Johns described him as a "prince charming." Magnificent Obsession also catapulted him to international fame, with the London Observer declaring that "1936 will go down as the year of Edward VIII, the Spanish war and Robert Taylor."

After playing the doctor he had once wanted to be in William A. Wellman's Small Town Girl (1936), Taylor was paired with Barbara Stanwyck in W. S. Van Dyke's His Brother's Wife (1936). Shortly before they were scheduled to start shooting the film, Taylor and Stanwyck met for the first time at a dinner party at the newly-opened Café Trocadero, on the Sunset Strip. Although they came from different backgrounds Taylor from a sheltered upbringing in the country, Stanwyck from a showgirl street life they found that they were alike in many ways and a romance soon began. Taylor admired Stanwyck's long years of experience as an actress, while she became his greatest influence for improvement, giving him the confidence to trust his impulses. They eventually married in a small ceremony in San Diego in May 1939 and remained together for nearly twelve years, until their divorce in February 1951. Besides His Brother's Wife, Taylor and Stanwyck co-starred in This Is My Affair (1937) and The Night Walker (1964).

With Joan Crawford in a publicity still
for The Gorgeous Hussy
Taylor followed His Brother's Wife with Clarence Brown's period drama The Gorgeous Hussy (1936), a fictionalized account of the Petticoat Affair, a 1830-1831 scandal involving members of President Andrew Jackson's Cabinet and their wives, who ostracized Secretary of War John Eaton and his wife Margaret "Peggy" O'Neill over disapproval of the circumstances surrounding their marriage. Taylor's castmates included Joan Crawford, Lionel Barrymore, Franchot Tone and newcomer James Stewart.

After The Gorgeous Hussy, Irving Thalberg, head of the production at MGM, handpicked Taylor to appear opposite Greta Garbo in George Cukor's lavish costume drama Camille (1936), based on Alexander Dumas, fils.' famed 1848 novel La Dame aux Camelias. Although many feared that Taylor was too unseasoned to match Garbo the studio's highest paid star at the time the film was a tremendous critical and commercial success, turning the young actor into MGM's "most admired matinee idol since the late Rudolph Valentino."

As a follow-up to Camille, MGM paired Taylor with Jean Harlow another top female star at the studio in Personal Property (1937), based on the play The Man in Possession H. M. Harwood. By the time he was cast in Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937), which reunited him with Eleanor Powell, Taylor's "pretty boy" image had led to his being perceived as "effeminate." To quench rumors about his ambiguous sexuality, MGM put him in a series of films designed to give him a more masculine screen persona. Initially, he was sent to England to play a brash American college student in MGM's first British production, Jack Conway's A Yank at Oxford (1938), wherein he demonstrated his running and rowing skills. Thereafter, he portrayed a German soldier in Three Comrades (1938), baring at one point his manly hairy chest; a prizefighter in The Crowd Roars (1938); and a dishonorable Southern aristocrat in Stand Up and Fight (1939), in which he engaged in a physical fight with Wallace Beery. As the decade came to an end, however, Taylor returned to his "pretty boy" leading roles in Lady of the Tropics (1939), Remember? (1939) and Lucky Night (1939), all of which were critical and commercial failures.

In a publicity still for Bataan
The 1940s opened with a much-needed hit for the 29-year-old actor: Mervyn LeRoy's World War I drama Waterloo Bridge (1940). Co-starring Vivien Leigh, who had previously played a small role in A Yank at Oxfordthe film allowed Taylor to portray a complex, mature romantic lead for the first time in his career. In fact, Waterloo Bridge became his personal favorite of all his pictures. Later that year, he appeared with Ruth Hussey and Walter Pidgeon in the successful aviation drama Flight Command (1940), which introduced him to an exciting new hobby: flying.

The following year, Taylor was assigned to his first Technicolor feature film, Billy the Kid (1941), in which he performed all of his own riding, even in the long shots. Two days before the Los Angeles premiere of the noir Johnny Eager (1941), the United States entered World War II; like many of his friends and colleagues, Taylor was willing to contribute to the war effort. After playing a tough sergeant in Tay Garnett's Bataan (1943), he enlisted in the U.S. Naval Air Corps, where he served from 1943 to 1945 under his given name of Spangler Arlington Brugh. Commissioned as a Lieutenant, he became a flight instructor for the Naval Air Transport division and directed several instructional films, in addition to narrating the documentary The Fighting Lady (1944), which received an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the 17th Academy Awards.

Taylor's first picture after the war was Vincente Minnelli's noir Undercurrent (1946), in which he played Katharine Hepburn's possibly homicidal husband. Shortly before the release of High Wall (1947), Taylor reluctantly testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) regarding his knowledge of "subversives" in the film industry. A staunch Republican, Taylor had been one of the founders of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals and labeled screenwriter Lester Cole "reputedly a Communist." Cole, who had penned High Wall, subsequently became one of the Hollywood Ten a group of directors and screenwriters who refused to answer any questions before the HUAC about their association with the American Communist Party. As a result, Cole was cited for contempt of Congress and sentenced to one year in prison. Because of his blacklist status, Cole was never able to write under his own name again.

With Deborah Kerr in Quo Vadis
Following a series of "weak-to-medium attractions" like Conspirator (1949) and Devil's Doorway (1950), Louis B. Mayer gave Taylor the male lead opposite Deborah Kerr in "goddamn MGM's biggest picture ever," Mervyn LeRoy's colossal Technicolor epic Quo Vadis (1951). Shot entirely on location in Rome, the film became Metro's highest grossing picture since Gone with the Wind (1939) and the biggest moneymaker of the year, garnering eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. The success of Quo Vadis turned Taylor into MGM's hottest male star and he stayed on top for the next two years with the blockbuster hits Ivanhoe (1952), which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and Knights of the Round Table (1953). In the meantime, he also portrayed Lieutenant Colonel Paul W. Tibbetts, the pilot of the aircraft that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945, in the biopic Above and Beyond (1952), at the time considered "the finest performance of his career to date."

In May 1954, two years after his divorce from Barbara Stanwyck, Taylor married 30-year-old German actress Ursula Thiess; together, they had two children, son Terrence (born 1955) and daughter Tessa (born 1959). Although received some attention for his work in the Westerns Many Rivers to Cross (1955) and The Last Hunt (1956), Taylor's career began to fade in the late 1950s, appearing in such disappointing productions as Tip on a Dead Jockey (1957) and Saddle the Wind (1958).  Following a role in Nicholas Ray's Party Girl (1958), he decided to end his 24-year partnership with MGM. Taylor holds the Hollywood records for longest contract with one studio and lowest contract salary (initially $35 a week in 1934).

In The Detectives
Upon leaving MGM, Taylor found success on television, starring in the crime drama series The Detectives (1959-1962), which ran on ABC during its first two seasons and on NBC during its third and final season. Taylor played Detective Captain Matt Holbrook, the hard-bitten head of an elite police investigative in a major (and unnamed) U.S. city. In season two, his wife joined the cast as a newspaper reporter and Holbrook's love interest. Taylor reportedly did not want his character to have a romantic relationship; when fans asked for a girlfriend for Holbrook, he consented only if Thiess would play her. After The Detectives was cancelled, Taylor filmed four episodes of what was to have been The Robert Taylor Show, a series based on case files from the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare, but the project never aired.

The remainder of the 1960s saw Taylor appear in a series of poorly-received films, including Miracle of the White Stallions (1963), with Lilli Palmer and Eddie Albert; A House is Not a Home (1964), with Shelley Winters and Cesar Romero; Johnny Tiger (1966), with Chad Everett and Geraldine Brooks; and Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows (1968), with Rosalind Russell. In 1966, he was hired as the narrator in the syndicated anthology series Death Valley Days (1952-1970), which featured true stories of the old American West. Taylor was replacing his long-time friend Ronald Reagan, who had left the show to pursue a career in politics.

In October 1968, Taylor underwent surgery to remove a portion of his right lung after doctors suspected that he had contracted coccidioidomycosis, commonly known as Valley fever. During the operation, it was discovered that he had lung cancer, derived from the three packs of cigarettes he had been smoking everyday since his early teens. During the final months of his life, he was hospitalized seven times due to infections and complications related to the disease. Taylor eventually died on June 8, 1969, at Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. He was 57 years old and left behind a remarkable legacy that proves "pretty boys" can act too.

(August 5, 1911 June 8, 1969)
Looks are good or bad, according to taste. My appearance doesn't fascinates me. But I'm not the one who had to be pleased either. It's a big help to an actor if people like to look at him but it has nothing to do with acting.

A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940 by Victoria Wilson (2013) | Stanwyck: A Biography by Axel Madsen (2001) | The Encyclopedia of Hollywood, Second Edition by Scott Siegel and Barbara Siegel (2004) | Robert Taylor's biography at IMDb | "Robert Taylor of Beatrice: The Nebraska Roots of a Hollywood Star" by E. A. Kral (1994)

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