Vintage Hunk: Robert Taylor

By: Mike McCrann

Robert Taylor was a huge movie star for over twenty years but he never became a cult figure like Bogart or even Tyrone Power. There are several reasons for this obscurity. Taylor never had that one great role like many of his contemporaries, a role that would propel him into cinema immortality. Taylor was also not popular in his later years due to his testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and he died almost 40 years ago at the early age of 57.

But Taylor was not only one of the great beauties of American movies, but two or three of his films are true classics; his performances in these and other films deserve critical revaluation. He was also married to one of the great movie stars of all time - Barbara Stanwyck.

Robert Taylor was born Spangler Arlington Brugh (How could they change this marquee name?) in Filley, Nebraska in 1911. Growing up mostly in Beatrice, Nebraska, young Spangler was a track star and played the cello. He attended Doane College to study music, but when his college cello teacher moved to Pomona College in Los Angles, Spangler went too. He joined the campus theater group, was spotted by an MGM scout, and signed to a $35 a week contract where his name was mercifully changed to Robert Taylor.

In the 1935 version of Magnificent Obsession, Taylor starred opposite Irene Dunne and became quite popular. He was then given the great supporting role of Armand in the Greta Garbo classic Camille. Directed by openly gay George Cukor, Taylor held his own with the great Garbo and created a touching portrayal of a young man in love.

While women loved Taylor, men were starting to think he was too pretty— with all the connotations that implies. MGM decided to butch him up via a trip to England where he played a spoiled American athlete in A Yank at Oxford. We got to see Taylor shirtless in rowing scenes and his masculinity was duly noted by the press as he had a hairy chest.

In 1940 Taylor got the greatest role of his career, opposite the now-famous Vivien Leigh, in Waterloo Bridge. Fresh from her Gone with the Wind Oscar-winning triumph, Leigh was cast as a ballet dancer who meets Taylor during the first World War. They fall in love, but when Leigh thinks Taylor has been killed she takes to the streets. (Apparently no other jobs were available!) As melodramatic and schmaltzy as all this sounds, Waterloo Bridge is a great film. It contains Leigh's greatest performance as the doomed Myra, and Taylor is excellent as the man who loves her. With his now-permanent mustache, Taylor was more handsome than ever. The callow young man of Camille was now a fine, sexy actor. More importantly, Taylor was a great leading man and gave the performance of his career. It is no wonder why this film would always be his favorite.

On the personal front, Taylor married Stanwyck in 1939 and the marriage lasted until 1951, when Taylor was accused of romancing a starlet in Rome during the making of Quo Vadis. (For years there was speculation that both Stanwyck and Taylor were gay and that this was a marriage of convenience. As Taylor married again and Stanwyck did not, we will not weigh in with an opinion on this rumor as nothing has really been substantiated.)

Before he enlisted in the Navy Air Corps, Taylor had a number of hits including Escape with Norma Shearer and Johnny Eager with rising MGM sexpot Lana Turner. Playing a sexy crook, Taylor was a very believable tough guy. The ads screamed TNT! (Taylor and Turner) and the film was a huge hit. (Incidentally, there were rumors that Taylor and Turner were an item during the filming, and Stanwyck never forgave Turner for it.)

When Taylor returned from the war MGM had no idea what to do with him. They cast him in a series of bomb movies including Undercurrent, where he played the murdering husband of Katharine Hepburn. A few other turkeys followed as well. What was MGM thinking? Their romantic stud leading man was now playing mental patients (High Wall) and sleazes (The Bribe with Ava Gardner.) The nadir came in 1949 when Taylor, 38, played the communist husband of 16-year-old Elizabeth Taylor in one of the decade's biggest bombs: The Conspirator. This was a totally insane move.

Robert Taylor had voluntarily appeared before the infamous House Un-American Activities committee naming actors he thought were communist, so playing a communist was a huge disconnect for audiences. Likewise, his testimony would follow him for years and liberal Hollywood would never forgive him for this tainted behavior.

Back in the movie making business, execs at MGM finally came to their senses and cast Taylor in the biblical epic Quo Vadis with Deborah Kerr. This wretched spectacle made a fortune and Taylor was a big star again. He followed up this kitsch with Ivanhoe, but the rest of his career was pretty second rate. So-so movies, a fairly successfully TV series, and a second successful marriage to German actress Ursula Thiess, with whom he had two children. He died of lung cancer in 1969.

While Taylor's career has never been given its due, you can check out Three Comrades with the great Margaret Sullavan, Camille with Garbo, and especially Waterloo Bridge with Leigh (right). These films reveal not only a gorgeous leading man but an actor who really was excellent with first rate material.

On a personal note, my mother was raised in Nebraska and she used to tell me the story of how she and her girlfriends from tiny Tobias, Nebraska would drive over to neighboring Beatrice to see a gorgeous young man named Spangler play his cello. She said he was the most beautiful boy she had ever seen... He was soon-to-be movie idol Robert Taylor.