Celebrating Robert Taylor with Author Gillian Kelly
After dedicating 10 years to researching and writing about Robert Taylor, I was delighted to be asked to be a guest speaker at Gage County Classic Film Institute’s 110th birthday celebration for the actor taking place in his home state of Nebraska this August.
My book Robert Taylor: Male Beauty, Masculinity and Stardom in Hollywood is based on my PhD thesis exploring Taylor’s on- and off-screen star personae through close textual analysis of both his films and extrafilmic material, like magazine articles, while explored his position as a dominant ‘lost’ or forgotten star of Classical Hollywood. During his career, Taylor was one of MGM’s top male stars, starring opposite the likes of Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and his wife of 12-years, Barbara Stanwyck. However, today he is certainly not as readily remembered as his counterparts Clark Gable, James Stewart, Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney.
I discovered Taylor merely by chance while watching TCM one day after school. As I entered double digits, I became a huge fan of classic Hollywood cinema, in particular its stars, after finding I Love Lucy on television and my movie buff brother lending me his copies of The Family Jewels starring Jerry Lewis and Anchors Aweigh with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. From then, I was hooked. The more I watched TCM, the more films, directors and stars I discovered while also realizing that there were specific genres, decades and performers that greatly appealed to me, including Ginger Rogers, Doris Day and James Stewart. Stars were, and remain, the main focus of my interest in cinema, and while indulging myself in a James Mason season around the age of 14, I settled down to watch what I thought was the 1937 film Fire Over England starring Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, and featuring Mason in a small part, only to find that the film being shown was actually another Leigh vehicle: Waterloo Bridge which saw the actress fresh from her role as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind paired with an actor I was yet to discover: Robert Taylor. He instantly intrigued me and fortunately, since TCM owned MGM’s archives, the studio where Taylor spent most of his career, I was able to access most of his catalog relatively quickly and easily since the channel was screening two to three of his films daily. After seeing his early comedies, A Yank at Oxford and Personal Property, I was hooked and wanted to find out all I could about this star. Later, as an undergraduate in media studies, I found that most movie fans and even film scholars that I spoke to had also never heard of him. Those that I interviewed knew most of his co-stars, even some of his films, but had never heard of Taylor. While some males in their 50s and 60s said they knew him through his westerns and historical epics, several women in the same age group told me that their mothers had loved him and thought him very handsome. My own mother told me she only knew him because he had been my great aunt’s favorite actor. Some even told me that their favorite film star was Barbara Stanwyck, and were shocked to learn that she had been married to Taylor for over a decade and yet they had never heard of him. All of this fascinated me and led to my dedicating my PhD research to this dominant ‘lost’ star.
The only child of a grain-merchant-turned-doctor and his sickly wife who was advised against having any children, Robert Taylor was born Spangler Arlington Brugh in Filley, Nebraska on August 5th, 1911. A cellist who wanted to either pursue music or to become a doctor like his father, Taylor graduated from Pomona College around the time he was spotted by an MGM talent scout and given a screen test. Acting was not something he had ever considered, but in 1934 he was given his first bit part in the Will Rogers vehicle Handy Andy, with Mary Carlisle as his first on-screen love interest. Taylor was kept extremely busy in these first few years, and in 1935 alone he appeared in an impressive six feature films. Although an extremely handsome newcomer, MGM was not quite sure what to do with him, and at the end of 1935 they loaned him out to Universal to appear opposite Irene Dunne in John Stahl’s melodrama Magnificent Obsession, which was remade almost two decades later with Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman. The film turned Taylor into a star overnight, and he would never again play bit parts or supporting roles for the rest of his lengthy career. Remaining at MGM until 1958, and the breakdown of the studio system, Taylor holds the record as having the longest-running contract in Hollywood history, just ahead of Bing Crosby.
Throughout the 1930s, Taylor developed a cocky all-American persona, but one that was more wholesome than his counterpart Clark Gable, whose own career had begun in the pre-Code era and which had a more dangerous masculine appeal attached to it. By the 1940s and the outbreak of World War II, however, a new tougher and more manly persona was created for Taylor, and he left Hollywood to undertake active war duty, as did several of his contemporaries at MGM and beyond, including Gable, Robert Montgomery, James Stewart and Tyrone Power. In this decade Taylor portrayed a tough army sergeant in Hollywood’s first World War II combat film, the still shocking Bataan, as well as his first anti-hero in the crime thriller Johnny Eager. Returning to the screen after the war had ended, and like his contemporaries Stewart and Power, his characters became much darker and included murderous husbands in Undercurrent and Conspirator.
The 1950s saw somewhat of a reinvention and revival of Taylor’s career when he was cast as a hypermasculine Roman soldier in the historical epic Quo Vadis, as well as the romantic hero in a trio of medieval British films: Knights of the Round Table, Quentin Durward and Ivanhoe. This decade also saw him reinvented as a western hero, although one whose characters often had a dubious past, such as in The Law and Jake Wade, where his dark good looks as a thief-turned-honest-sheriff contrast with his blond co-star Richard Widmark as his psychotic best-friend-turned-enemy. Westerns also allowed Taylor to present moviegoers with a more masculine, mature persona befitting a man now in his 40s.
The 1960s was not only the final decade of Taylor’s career, but also his life, but he worked until his death of lung cancer at the age of 57 in 1969. Once the studio system had broken down, bringing an end to what is now known as Hollywood’s classic or golden era, Taylor became an independent agent for the rest of his career. He was one of the first major film stars to move into television with the weekly crime series The Detectives; he also appeared on many other television shows, starred in several made-for-television movies and continued to perform in the occasional cinematic release, although many of his roles in this decade seemed to have a sense of nostalgia for days gone by attached to them, suggesting that he was handing over the reins the next generation. This is perhaps most obvious in his very last on-screen appearance in The Day the Hot Line Got Hot when he shakes hands with his also now-aged contemporary Charles Boyer before the pair walk away from the camera and the film’s young couple, played by Marie Dubois and George Chakiris, are shown walking into their future.
Taylor’s on-screen career consisted of 80 films and around 200 television appearances across several genres and four separate decades. Off-screen, he was half of a celebrity couple during his 12-year marriage to fellow Hollywood star Barbara Stanwyck, before becoming the breadwinner during his second marriage to former model and actress Ursula Thiess and their children. Throughout his career Taylor appeared on and within numerous international magazines and enjoyed a long and successful career as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, and yet he is not as well-remembered today as he should be. My work on Taylor reappraises his long and rich career, discussing his on- and off-screen star personae in detail, exploring individual films as key case studies and examining the performance skills and abilities of this talented actor, which have long been overlooked in favor of his good looks when he is remembered at all. My keen interest in ‘lost’ stars led to the writing of my second book on Tyrone Power, who may be seen as Twentieth-Century Fox’s answer to Taylor, and another male star whose extreme good looks outweighed his acting ability throughout his lifetime and beyond. My main concern is that, if only a select few stars continue to be written about and remain in the public eye, talented but ‘lost’ stars such as Taylor and Power will remain forgotten, and I hope my work can address this one star at a time.
–Gillian Kelly for Classic Movie Hub
Gillian Kelly received a PhD in Theatre, Film and Television Studies from the University of Glasgow in Scotland and has contributed to several journals including Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Celebrity Studies, Alphaville and Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly. She has chapters in the edited collections Lasting Screen Stars (2018) and Exploring the Spiritual in Popular Music (2021) and her first book, Robert Taylor: Male Beauty, Masculinity and Stardom in Hollywood (2019) was shortlisted for best monograph by the prestigious British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies (BAFTSS) in 2020. Her second book, Tyrone Power: Gender, Genre and Image in Classical Hollywood Cinema was released by Edinburgh University Press in February 2021 while her current research is on Ray Milland and Ida Lupino.
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