Robert Taylor is April 2010’s Star of the Month on Turner Classic Movies. The Robert Taylor Tuesday evening has already begun: Camille (1937), in which he co-stars with Greta Garbo, is on right now. The little-seen (in the last several decades) Magnificent Obsession (1935), with Irene Dunne, was shown before that. (The John M. Stahl-directed melodrama is currently available on DVD via The Criterion Collection.) (See Robert Taylor TCM schedule below.)
Robert Taylor has never been one of my favorite actors. However, he wasn’t nearly as ineffectual as some would have you believe. Taylor was quite good in Johnny Eager (1942) and was excellent in the title role in Ivanhoe (1952).
Off-screen, he was married to Barbara Stanwyck until the early ’50s – Stanwyck reportedly took a long time to get over both their divorce and Taylor’s infidelities. He also espoused nationalist, right-wing views, not hesitating to name names – Howard da Silva and Lester Cole were two – during the post-World War II anti-Red hysteria.
Stories about Robert Taylor as a closeted gay man (and Barbara Stanwyck as an equally closeted lesbian) sound spurious to me. I’ve heard plenty of rumors, but I’ve never heard or read a shred of reliable evidence.
Among the Robert Taylor vehicles being shown tonight on TCM, the one I most recommend is Waterloo Bridge (1940). Some find this version too Hollywood; and it is. But I find Mervyn LeRoy’s direction, Joseph Ruttenberg’s cinematography, Herbert Stothart’s music, the “Auld Lang Syne” sequence, and Vivien Leigh’s performance as the ballerina-turned-streetwalker simply irresistible.
Just try not to laugh when Leigh tells Lucile Watson (as Taylor’s mother) that she is “naive.”
Escape (1940), also directed by LeRoy, is a curious anti-Nazi drama made before the US entered World War II. Norma Shearer, in one of her last films for the studio, co-stars, while silent-screen veteran Alla Nazimova plays Taylor’s mom.
When Ladies Meet (1941) isn’t great drama. Its beginning is clunky and slow-paced, but once Joan Crawford and Greer Garson are left on their own playing off of one another, the movie soars. It’s quite obvious that MGM was then pushing Garson, as she’s lovingly photographed in this one, getting the “nicer” role as well. Crawford would be gone from the studio two years later.
I should add that Taylor’s “Tuesday evening” ends on Wednesday afternoon.
9:00pm Waterloo Bridge (1940)
A ballerina turns to prostitution when her fiance is reported killed in World War I.
Cast: Vivien Leigh, Robert Taylor, Lucile Watson, Virginia Field Dir: Mervyn LeRoy BW-109 min.
11:00pm [Western] Billy The Kid (1941)
A misunderstood youngster turns into one of the West’s most notorious outlaws.
Cast: Robert Taylor, Brian Donlevy, Ian Hunter, Mary Howard Dir: David Miller C-94 min.
12:45am When Ladies Meet (1941)
A female novelist doesn’t realize her new friend is the wife whose husband she’s trying to steal.
Cast: Joan Crawford, Robert Taylor, Greer Garson, Herbert Marshall Dir: Robert Z. Leonard BW-105 mins,
4:45am Escape (1940)
A Nazi officer’s mistress helps an American free his mother from a concentration camp.
Cast: Norma Shearer, Robert Taylor, Conrad Veidt, Nazimova Dir: Mervyn LeRoy BW-98 min.
6:30am Stand Up and Fight (1939)
A southern aristocrat clashes with a driver transporting stolen slaves to freedom.
Cast: Wallace Beery, Robert Taylor, Florence Rice, Helen Broderick Dir: W. S. Van Dyke II BW-97 min.
8:15am Remember? (1939)
A bickering couple takes an amnesia potion so they can re-discover each other.
Cast: Robert Taylor, Greer Garson, Lew Ayres, Billie Burke Dir: Norman Z. McLeod BW-83 min.
9:45am [Romance] Lucky Night (1939)
During a drunken night out, an heiress marries a broken-down gambler.
Cast: Myrna Loy, Robert Taylor, Joseph Allen, Henry O’Neill Dir: Norman Taurog BW-82 min.
11:15am Lady Of The Tropics (1939)
An American playboy in Saigon has to fight to get his Eurasian wife out of the country.
Cast: Robert Taylor, Hedy Lamarr, Joseph Schildkraut, Gloria Franklin Dir: Jack Conway BW-92 min.
1:00pm [Musical] Broadway Melody Of 1938 (1937)
Backstage problems jeopardize a Broadway musical.
Cast: Robert Taylor, Eleanor Powell, George Murphy, Binnie Barnes Dir: Roy Del Ruth BW-111 min.
3:00pm [Romance] Gorgeous Hussy, The (1936)
President Andrew Jackson’s friendship with an innkeeper’s daughter spells trouble for them both.
Cast: Joan Crawford, Robert Taylor, Lionel Barrymore, Franchot Tone Eaton Dir: Clarence Brown BW-103 min.
Robert Taylor had some trouble early in his career because he was considered too pretty, with some complaining that he wore more make-up than Greta Garbo in Camille.
As a result, MGM toughened him up in subsequent vehicles such as The Crowd Roars (1938), Billy the Kid (1941) and Johnny Eager (1942). By the 1950s, Taylor, his features now much hardened, had developed into a full-fledged tough guy – steely stare and all.
By then, he’d also matured as an actor. Richard Thorpe’s Ivanhoe (1952), to be shown on Turner Classic Movies this evening, is my favorite among the three dozen or so Robert Taylor movies I’ve seen. In addition to being a rousing adventure tale along the lines of the more famous The Adventures of Robin Hood, Ivanhoe also boasts several excellent performances, including those of Taylor, reaching a career high in the title role, Joan Fontaine, and Finlay Currie. Elizabeth Taylor and George Sanders are also in the cast. (See Robert Taylor TCM schedule below.)
Quo Vadis (1951) was Taylor’s biggest box office hit – and one of Hollywood’s biggest hits of the 1950s, period. In fact, if adjusted for inflation, Quo Vadis remains one of the biggest blockbusters ever.
Quo Vadis was also one of my all-time favorite films when I was five years old or whereabouts. I watched this thing on television and was traumatized for life after witnessing terrified Christians being devoured by hungry lions in living color. No parental guidance could make me get over that kind of stuff. (“Not suitable for children,” warns the poster. They had a point.)
Now, after rewatching Quo Vadis as an adult, my way of relating to it was radically changed. All but ignored were the Christians and their plight; what mattered was a delusional Nero (Peter Ustinov) and a lustful Poppaea (Patricia Laffan; above, with Ustinov), who cares about having one particularly lovely Christian convert torn to pieces.
The movie itself is a hoot straight out of the Cecil B. DeMille School of Christian Piety (though directed by Mervyn LeRoy). It’s hard to imagine how anyone – apart from the most ardent (and humorless) Christian devotee – could take something such as Quo Vadis seriously.
Robert Pirosh’s Valley of the Kings (1954) is just as laughably bad as Quo Vadis, and just as good-looking. Unfortunately, Eleanor Parker is just as wasted as Deborah Kerr in the Ancient Rome epic. Parker has a better – though subordinate – role in Melvin Frank and Norman Panama’s watchable Above and Beyond (1953), which at the time stirred up some controversy because it deals with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
Richard Thorpe was reunited with Taylor for Knights of the Round Table (1953), which tries to be another Ivanhoe. Sadly, it only gets halfway there. Too bad, as that’s my favorite Middle Ages saga. And the movie has Ava Gardner and Mel Ferrer, too. Knights of the Round Table is a handsome production, but I found it dry and not very exciting.
W.S. Van Dyke’s Personal Property (1937) is a disappointingly weak comedy; its only point of interest is that star Jean Harlow died that same year. But Roy del Ruth’s Broadway Melody of 1936 (actually released in 1935) has some surprisingly enjoyable moments chiefly thanks to director del Ruth’s snappy touch (he was a Warners director), superb dancer Eleanor Powell, and some quirky supporting players.
Schedule and synopses from the TCM website:
3:00pm Personal Property (1937)
The bailiff charged with disposing of a financially strapped widow’s estate pretends to be her butler.
Cast: Jean Harlow, Robert Taylor, Reginald Owen, Una O’Connor Dir: W. S. Van Dyke II BW-84 min.
5:00pm Quo Vadis (1951)
A Roman commander falls for a Christian slave girl as Nero intensifies persecution of the new religion.
Cast: Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr, Leo Genn, Peter Ustinov Dir: Mervyn LeRoy C-175 min.
8:00pm Ivanhoe (1952)
Sir Walter Scott’s classic tale of the noble knight torn between his fair lady and a beautiful Jew.
Cast: Robert Taylor, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders. Finlay Currie. Dir: Jack Martin C-107 min.
10:00pm Knights of the Round Table (1953)
Queen Guinevere is torn between love for her husband and Sir Lancelot.
Cast: Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner, Mel Ferrer, Anne Crawford Dir: Richard Thorpe C-116 min.
12:00am All the Brothers Were Valiant (1953)
Brothers on a whaling schooner become romantic rivals.
Cast: Robert Taylor, Stewart Granger, Ann Blyth, Betta St. John Dir: Richard Thorpe C-95 min.
1:45am Quentin Durward (1955)
A gallant Scots knight falls in love with his uncle’s future wife.
Cast: Robert Taylor, Kay Kendall, Robert Morley, George Cole Dir: Richard Thorpe C-101 min.
3:30am Valley of the Kings (1954)
Archaeologists clash with graverobbers during the search for a priceless Egyptian treasure.
Cast: Robert Taylor, Eleanor Parker, Carlos Thompson, Kurt Kasznar Dir: Robert Pirosh C-86 min.
6:45am Above and Beyond (1952)
The pilot who helped drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima struggles with the demands of the dangerous mission.
Cast: Robert Taylor, Eleanor Parker, James Whitmore, Larry Keating Dir: Norman Panama BW-122 min.
9:00am Westward the Women (1951)
A frontiersman leads a wagon train full of mail-order brides.
Cast: Beverly Dennis, Renata Vanni, John McIntire, Julie Bishop Dir: William A. Wellman BW-117 min.
11:00am Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935)
A Broadway columnist tries to use an innocent dancer to frame a producer.
Cast: Jack Benny, Eleanor Powell, Robert Taylor, Una Merkel Dir: Roy Del Ruth BW-101 min.