Movie Stars, World War II and Robert Taylor

St. Petersburg (FL) Times March 7, 1943
Litvinoff Gets Robert Taylor Released for Movie on Russia
By Drew Pearson

Hollywood–Hollywood’s Gregory Ratoff called on Soviet Ambassador Litvinoff the other day in connection with a film on Russia which he is directing. Ratoff complained that he had hoped to get Robert Taylor to play the leading role in the picture, but Taylor was now in the Navy.

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Robert Taylor and Susan Peters in “Song of Russia.”

“I don’t understand this country,” observed Litvinoff. “You take the men who can do most for morale and send them off to shoot a rifle. In my country we exempt leading actors from military service.”

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Gable and Taylor in uniform with MGM executive Eddie Mannix.

Whereupon the Russian ambassador picked up the phone, called War Information Chief Elmer Davis. Davis in turn, telephoned Secretary of the Navy Knox, who readily released Robert Taylor for the Russian picture.

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Receiving his Navy flier’s wings. Left: Commander Paul E. Gillespie; Center Captain Dixie Kiefen, hero of the Battle of Midway. January, 1944.

This has brought to the front again the whole question of Hollywood draft deferments. In the last war, key actors were deferred on the ground that they were important for morale. Britain formerly called up movie actors, but has now realized its mistake and has decided to defer them. In the United States, a start was made toward deferment, there was a certain amount public resentment, several actors volunteered, and the whole thing has been in a jumble ever since.

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Lt. Taylor with James Cagney, Judy Garland, Kay Kyser, Fred Astaire and Harpo Marx.

Result is that the army has a handful of soldiers who turn the troops into autograph seekers, while the country is minus stars who could do a great job for morale.

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Robert Taylor (second from right) and Jack Dempsey (fourth from left) during a War Bonds tour. Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson is seated at his desk.

At present, for instance, the Army doesn’t want Mickey Rooney, first because he is too short, second because he would disrupt any army camp. Everybody would be watching him instead of the commanding officer. Likewise Clark Gable. President Roosevelt himself wrote Gable a letter asking him not to enlist. Gable patriotically enlisted, however, and is now a bombardier. Only trouble is that a 43-year-old bombardier doesn’t have the quick reflexes of a younger man and might endanger the entire crew of the bomber.

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Robert Taylor in class  in the Navy.

So the Army is up against what to do with Patriotic Clark Gable, and unofficially, they think he could do a better job entertaining troops via the screen in Hollywood.

The movie industry would like to see the whole question decided one way or the other by the government. Then there would be no stigma on an actor for sticking to the job he knows best.

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Jan. 27, 1944. Robert Taylor confers with Lt. Gordon F. Chamberlain, chief flight instructor at the Naval Air Station, Livermore, Ca. Taylor reported at Livermore earlier this week for duty as a flight instructor.

Gen. Eisenhower has just cabled from North Africa emphasizing the importance of motion pictures for morale building.

Commentary:

Paragraph 3:  It’s astonishing to me that the Soviet ambassador could just call up the United States government and tell them what he wanted. Given that we were in a temporary alliance with the Soviets, it still is very odd for the American government to take instructions from the bloodiest regime of the twentieth century.

Song of Russia caused enormous problems for both MGM and Robert Taylor after the war. Both Louis B. Mayer and Mr. Taylor were subpoenaed to testify in front of the House unAmerican Activities Comittee.  Linda J. Alexander presents a detailed account of the entire HUAC situation in her book Reluctant Witness: Robert Taylor, Hollywood and Communism.  I have also discussed it in the HUAC entries on this blog.

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Mr. Taylor testifying (reluctantly) before the HUAC. October 1947.

Paragraphs 4 through 7: On the subject of stars being disruptive in the military, this was true of some of them, including Clark Gable.  Through no fault of his own, Gable was very distracting to his fellow soldiers.  Robert Taylor, on the other hand, got a lot of attention especially from the women on the bases he was assigned to, but he wasn’t a disruption.  This was, I think, because Mr. Taylor planned for his Navy assignment the same careful way he did for film roles.  He shaved off his mustache, got a very short haircut and bought an old car to arrive in.  This must have disarmed his peers, showing as it did, the lack of Taylor pretension and the desire to fit in.

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Lt. Taylor and friends.

This is from Memories of Training” by Captain Matt Portz, USNR (Ret.)

Several Hollywood luminaries were at Livermore. The biggest was then reigning matinee idol Robert Taylor. As a lieutenant junior grade and a flight instructor, he came from NAS (Naval Air Station) New Orleans a few weeks after me. His arrival, however, caused much larger fanfare: most of the Waves, newspaper reporters and even the skipper assembled to greet him.

Taylor flew cadets like the rest of us and seemed to enjoy the flight and ready room routine. He was accepted by his peers, but orders soon moved him from from the cockpit into movie-making for the Navy.

This does not, of course, mean that people weren’t impressed by the presence of a movie star.  The following is from “A Dentist’s Brush with Fame,” Dr. Robert E. Horseman, DDS, 1999. (The entire article was published earlier on this blog.)

Lt.  Robert Taylor Sitting in Navy Fighter

Lt. Robert Taylor Sitting in Navy Fighter

My God! My instructor today is Spangler Arlington Brugh! That’s right, Spangler Arlington Brugh, a.k.a. Robert Taylor, movie star, matinee idol, billed as “The Man With the Perfect Profile” and husband of Barbara Stanwyck. Only the fact that I’m securely pinioned in my seat prevents me from making a perfect fool of myself by leaping out to kiss the hem of his garment. We are going flying, me and a movie star. Alone, in an airplane, Bob and Bob.

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Lt. Robert Taylor USNR

Taylor doesn’t seem to notice my absence of cool. He tells me via the gosport tube that connects his mouthpiece to my earphones to taxi out, take off and climb to 2,000 feet south of the field. That voice! The same plummy baritone that knocked ‘em dead in the 1935 version of “Magnificent Obsession,” caused Vivien Leigh to swoon in “Waterloo Bridge,” broke the heart of Deborah Kerr in “Quo Vadis,” and inflamed both Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Fontaine in “Ivanhoe.” That same voice is telling me to turn right 30 degrees. I could die!

Mr. Taylor also contributed to the war effort by making 17 Navy pilot training films, some of which are still in use today.

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Lt. Taylor leading a class, from the training film, “Keep It Flying.”

The question of whether movie stars are more useful to a war effort in the military or as morale boosters remains unresolved.  No one can deny the enormous contribution to morale made by Bob Hope and his troupe during several wars.  Carole Lombard lost her life in a plane crash during a War Bond tour in 1942.  Films such as The Fighting Lady (narrated by Lt. Taylor) were important in keeping up the spirits of civilians.

Yet there are those who feel uncomfortable letting others do the fighting.  During World War II this included  Eddie Albert, Bea Arthur, Gene Autry, Art Carney, Ernest Borgnine, Walter Brennan, Julia Child, Chuck Connors, Sammy Davis, Jr., Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Henry Fonda, Glenn Ford, Clark Gable, Van Heflin, Charlton Heston, William Holden, Robert Montgomery, Sidney Poitier, Tyrone Power, Ronald Reagan, James Stewart, Robert Taylor and many others.

Today there is a huge divide between the armed forces and the Hollywood liberal elite.  A few stars, like Gary Sinise, are working hard for the military.  Whether in or out of uniform, there is more that today’s movie stars could do.

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Bob Hope entertaining the troops in England, July 27, 1945.

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About giraffe44

I'm a long time Robert Taylor fan and I now have time to do his so I am.
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4 Responses to Movie Stars, World War II and Robert Taylor

  1. June says:

    Again another informative blog so well put together. Your research for new information is just so impressive. Perhaps you would the only one who could find the whereabouts of a doco made by NBC-TV in 1965 with Robert Taylor and his family touring Washington DC called “Star Spangled City”. Over the years I have tried everything to get a copy, even asking Terry Taylor when I met him at the 100th year Birthday Celebration, but alas he did not remember the event. It became a search akin to the Holy Grail for me. I think, from my limited research tools, that the NBC may have resused the film or it deteriorated over time. So much early film history was lost because studios and TV networks failed to appreciate the significance of its value to future generations. Anyway, I do appreciate all your blogs.

    • giraffe44 says:

      <td style="text-align: left;" align="left"; width="350" height="178" colspan="1" background="cid:top@7064aa93c3e5a8f38bfaa3db13a00f39"Hi, June.  Thanks again for your kind words.  I know the documentary you mention and I saw it once in eBay as a film, not a VHS or DVD.  It would depend on who owns the rights.  I’ll take a look around.  All the best, JudithJudith Evans Hanhisalo

  2. DIETRA DAVIS says:

    I AM LOOKING FOR THE WASH DC DOC FOR MANY REASONS,HOPE TO SEE OR OWN IT.
    I TEACH LIVING HISTORY TO CHILDREN IN VT. PLEASE LET ME KNOW MORE. THANK YOU
    DIETRA DAVIS SORRY MY COMPUTER SKILLS ARE SO BAD.

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