Robert Walker: Actor who conveyed boy-next-door charms, psychoses
At least on screen, I’ve always found the underrated actor Robert Walker to be everything his fellow – and more famous – MGM contract player James Stewart only pretended to be: shy, amiable, naive. The one thing that made Walker look less like an idealized “Average Joe” than Stewart was that the former did not have a vacuous look. Walker’s intelligence shone clearly through his bright (in black and white) grey eyes.
As part of its “Summer Under the Stars” programming, Turner Classic Movies is dedicating today, Aug. 9, ’15, to Robert Walker, who was featured in 20 films between 1943 and his untimely death at age 32 in 1951.
Time Warner (via Ted Turner) owns the pre-1986 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer library (and almost got to buy the studio outright in 2009), so most of Walker’s movies have been shown countless times on TCM. One exception is the 1949 Paramount release My Own True Love, directed by Compton Bennett, and co-starring Phyllis Calvert and Melvyn Douglas. Unfortunately, this romantic drama is nowhere to be found on the TCM schedule.
Right now, TCM is showing Vincente Minnelli’s The Clock (1945), one of the better romantic melos made during the war years. Judy Garland, quite effective in a dramatic role, plays the young woman G.I. Walker meets while on leave in New York City as he waits to be sent overseas.
‘Strangers on a Train’
Next in line is Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), which some consider the director’s best film. Whether or not you agree with that assessment, chances are you will agree that Robert Walker delivers the best performance of his career as the antithesis of his MGM heroes: a gay psychopath who proposes that he and fellow train rider Farley Granger (instead of Hitchcock first choice William Holden) exchange murders.
Rolling eyes, breathless speech, cunning looks, Walker’s Bruno Anthony is a masterful creation – one of cinema’s greatest villains and quite a disturbing portrayal of what lies behind the shy and innocent façades of the sweetest boys next door. (As for the pure and virginal girls next door, think Anne Baxter in both John Brahm’s Guest in the House and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve.)
From private to corporal
Robert Walker made two wartime comedies in which he played real-life soldier Marion Hargrove: Wesley Ruggles’ See Here, Private Hargrove (1944), opposite Donna Reed and Keenan Wynn, and Richard Thorpe’s What Next, Corporal Hargrove? (1945), opposite Wynn and Jean Porter.
I’ve seen only the second one – despite fierce competition, surely one of the very worst movies to have been nominated for an Academy Award in the Writing categories. (Best Original Screenplay, Harry Kurnitz; the surprising winner was Richard Schweizer for the Swiss drama Marie-Louise.)
Radioactive movies: ‘The Beginning or the End’ and ‘Madame Curie’
More interesting – for a variety of wrong reasons – is Norman Taurog’s The Beginning or the End (1947), about the top-secret Manhattan Project and the making of the first atomic bombs that would pulverize the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the latter, destroyed 70 years ago today. Its ominous title notwithstanding, the MGM release presented the “facts” while making sure that the sensibilities of American moviegoers were spared the horrific consequences of what is seen on screen.
Indeed, whenever history inconveniently threatens to raise its ugly, bloody head, the filmmakers make sure that reality is slightly distorted here, not so slightly distorted there in order to showcase mostly pristine (and bland) heroes and heroines making some tough decisions. Poorly received upon its release, The Beginning or the End was a major box office flop.
While watching the movie, see if you can spot future filmmaker Blake Edwards (Julie Andrews’ husband and director of Darling Lili, Victor Victoria), future Zorro and Lost in Space star Guy Williams, and 1950s leading lady Patricia Medina (Botany Bay, Mr. Arkadin) in bit roles. (More on the Hiroshima bombing and ‘The Beginning or the End.’)
In Mervyn LeRoy’s Madame Curie (1943), the very British Greer Garson has the title role as the Polish-French scientist who discovered radium. A miscast Walter Pidgeon plays her husband, Pierre. Both actors were nominated for Academy Awards, and so was the film itself, an MGM concoction – along the lines of Warners’ The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) and Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940) – that is as good-looking (cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg; art direction by Cedric Gibbons and Paul Groesse; interior decoration by Edwin B. Willis and Hugh Hunt) as it is artificial.
Robert Walker death
“I know you will understand what I mean,” Robert Walker, according to friend Jim Henaghan, told Ida Lupino. “I am thrilled about my work in Strangers on a Train and My Son John, with Helen Hayes. My career has never been as stimulating. I think this is going to be my best year!”
Robert Walker died on Aug. 28, 1951, from an adverse reaction to prescription drugs. Walker had been battling alcoholism for some time, which had led to at least a couple of car accidents and an array of embarrassing headlines. (In 1946, he was sentenced to 180 days in prison following a hit-and-run; the sentence was eventually suspended.) Additionally, he suffered from psychotic episodes; at one point in the late ’40s, he spent time at the renowned Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas.
Walker’s sudden death left uncompleted Leo McCarey’s My Son John (1952) – about the dangers of communist infiltration in the U.S. and one of the must-see movies of the ’50s. For the film’s climax, Paramount had to use scenes lifted from Warners’ Strangers on a Train.
According to the Robert Walker Tribute website, at Walker’s funeral in his hometown of Ogden, Utah, “only his business manager, Charles Trezona, was there to represent Hollywood and to serve as a pallbearer.”
From 1939-1945, Robert Walker was married to Phyllis Isley, best known as Jennifer Jones, who left him for Gone with the Wind producer David O. Selznick. Jones became a major star after taking home the 1943 Best Actress Oscar for her performance as St. Bernadette in Henry King’s blockbuster The Song of Bernadette – thus beating Greer Garson’s Marie Curie.
She became Selznick’s muse (Since You Went Away, Duel in the Sun, Portrait of Jennie) and, later in the decade, his wife – from 1949 until his death in 1965. Jennifer Jones died at age 90 in 2009.
As found in Otto Friedrich’s book City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s, sometime in the ’40s Robert Walker confided to his Her Highness and the Bellboy co-star June Allyson: “My personal life has been completely wrecked by David Selznick’s obsession for my wife. What can you do to fight such a powerful man? My life has been hell.”
Cedric Gibbons’ countless credits
 Cedric Gibbons’ contract reportedly stipulated that he should be credited for every MGM film released in the United States; as found on the IMDb, Gibbons has more than 1,000 film credits. Edwin B. Willis may have had the same clause in his contract, as he is credited in more than 600 movies. I don’t know how much work – if any – they actually performed on Madame Curie, which did receive a Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration (Black and White) Academy Award nomination.
Robert Walker movies: TCM schedule (PT)
3:00 AM BATAAN (1943). Dir.: Tay Garnett. Cast: Robert Taylor. George Murphy. Thomas Mitchell. Robert Walker. B&W. 115 mins.
5:00 AM VENGEANCE VALLEY (1951). Dir.: Richard Thorpe. Cast: Burt Lancaster. Robert Walker. Joanne Dru. Color. 83 mins.
6:45 AM THE SKIPPER SURPRISED HIS WIFE (1950). Dir.: Elliott Nugent. Cast: Robert Walker. Joan Leslie. Edward Arnold. Spring Byington. Leon Ames. Jan Sterling. Anthony Ross. Kathryn Card. Paul Harvey. Uncredited: Mae Clarke. Irene Ryan. B&W. 85 mins.
11:00 AM HER HIGHNESS AND THE BELLBOY (1945). Dir.: Richard Thorpe. Cast: Hedy Lamarr. June Allyson. Robert Walker. B&W. 111 mins.
3:15 PM THE CLOCK (1945). Dir.: Vincente Minnelli. Cast: Judy Garland. Robert Walker. James Gleason. B&W. 90 mins.
5:00 PM STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951). Dir.: Alfred Hitchcock. Cast: Farley Granger. Ruth Roman. Robert Walker. B&W. 101 mins.
7:00 PM SEE HERE, PRIVATE HARGROVE (1944). Dir.: Wesley Ruggles. Cast: Robert Walker. Donna Reed. Keenan Wynn. B&W. 101 mins.
9:00 PM WHAT NEXT, CORPORAL HARGROVE? (1945). Dir.: Richard Thorpe. Cast: Robert Walker. Keenan Wynn. Jean Porter. B&W. 95 mins.
10:45 PM THE BEGINNING OR THE END (1947). Dir.: Norman Taurog. Cast: Robert Walker. Brian Donlevy. Tom Drake. Beverly Tyler. Audrey Totter. Hurd Hatfield. Hume Cronyn. Ludwig Stössel. Art Baker. Barry Nelson. Godfrey Tearle. Joseph Calleia. Victor Francen. Richard Haydn. Jonathan Hale. John Litel. Warner Anderson. Henry O’Neill. John Hamilton. Nella Walker. Jim Davis. Moroni Olsen. Paul Harvey. Robert Emmett Keane. Uncredited: Blake Edwards. Martin Kosleck. Russell Hicks. Paul Kruger. Richard Loo. Chris-Pin Martin. Patricia Medina. Guy Williams. Wedgwood Nowell. B&W. 112 mins.
12:45 AM MADAME CURIE (1943). Dir.: Mervyn LeRoy. Cast: Greer Garson. Walter Pidgeon. Henry Travers. Albert Bassermann. Robert Walker. C. Aubrey Smith. Dame May Whitty. Victor Francen. Elsa Bassermann. Reginald Owen. Van Johnson. Margaret O’Brien. Narrator: James Hilton. Uncredited: Ray Collins. Howard Freeman. Al Ferguson. Edward Fielding. James Kirkwood. Lumsden Hare. Gene Lockhart. Miles Mander. Alan Napier. Moroni Olsen. Arthur Shields. Gigi Perreau. Wyndham Standing. Ray Teal. B&W. 124 mins.
Robert Walker movie schedule via the TCM website.
Robert Walker movies’ cast list via the IMDb.
Robert Walker and Jennifer Jones Since You Went Away image: Selznick International Pictures / United Artists.
Donna Reed and Robert Walker See Here, Private Hargrove image: MGM, via Doctor Macro.
Ruth Roman and Robert Walker Strangers on a Train image: Warner Bros.