The Strange Case of Robert Taylor

The Pittsburgh Press
July 26, 1936
The Strange Case of Robert Taylor and the Movie Mania About Him
By Florence Fisher Parry

Robert Taylor in the mid 1930s

There isn’t such a thing, such a place, such a state of mind as Hollywood! There ISN’T such a thing as the mania that generates in the imagination of movie goers about certain screen favorites. It’s all too preposterous, too fantastical, to be real. Yet it IS. IT HAPPENS. We only gape with our mouths wide open, and strive to brush the bats away from our poor bedazed belfries.

Take the case of Robert Taylor. I actually pity that young man. He makes me think of the plight of Rudolph Valentino, one time Hollywood sheik. That poor fellow was catapulted into fame overnight, and was at a loss how to “take” it. He was beautiful to look at and had a sluggish charm. But the boy himself was very young, very immature, dazed by this sudden glory, and terribly worried, all of his short screen career, for fear the public would discover what a limited actor he actually was.

Greta Garbo with Mr. Taylor in “Camille,” 1936.

I remember being on the set while Alla Nazimova was making “Camille.” She had, with unerring judgment, selected Rudolph Valentino for her Armand, just as Robert Taylor is now the inevitable choice of Greta Garbo for the same role in the forthcoming Metro picture. He was just as “new” to the screen and its exacting technique as Taylor is now.

They were shooting a scene, I remember, under an apple tree laden with blossoms. The boy did a beautiful piece of work, and all hands applauded with the most spontaneous burst of approval I have ever seen manifested on a studio stage. The director asked for a retake of the same action (for in those days every shot had to be duplicated in three “perfect” shots, one for the U.S., one for South America and one for Europe. The young star tried to duplicate the scene, and miserably failed time after time. Finally he stopped and said: “I am sorry. I can’t do it again. I was able to do it once under the strain of inspiration. But that must have been an accident.” No one knew his limitations better than Valentino himself.

Robert Taylor, possibly the first young man who has appeared since Valentino to stir the public imagination to the same excessive idolatry, has certain advantages over Valentino. His education and his social background are far sounder. He is much more the American ideal. He has, frankly, far more intelligence and acting ability. Acting standards are higher now than in Valentino’s day, the screen is audible instead of silent, and the movie audience expects far, far more of its favorites.Perhaps Wallace Reid compares more closely with Taylor than Valentino, although even he did not cause the instantaneous flutter that the debut of Taylor won for him.

Eleanor Powell and June Knight with Mr. Taylor in “Broadway Melody of 1936”

But of the three, Robert Taylor has the decided edge in ability, looks and class. If he does not lose his head he stands to gain the greatest following of any young male star in Hollywood. Already the exhibitors are saying that his name on their marquee means top box-office, regardless of the vehicle.

This is all the more remarkable when it is remembered that a year ago Robert Taylor was a nobody. No one, even in Hollywood, knew him outside the studio executives and the few actors he worked with. I went out in June, 1935, and when I was working out a list of interviews with MGM players, I remember that my requests were looked upon as most unique. For my list was headed with these three names: Nelson Eddy, Robert Taylor and Jean Harlow. I was told that I was the first person from the East, out there to get interviews, who had asked to meet Nelson Eddy and Robert Taylor. Neither was known. And it plainly delighted the office that there actually was a woman columnist approved Jean Harlow, and understood that there was something far more to her than her seductive looks and locks.

Mr. Taylor during the making of “The Gorgeous Hussy,” 1936

But getting back to Robert Taylor. Just the week before I had arrived there I happened to see a film in which this young man’s work had been of such a fine quality, and his appearance so clean cut and wholly American, that it seemed to be that MGM had found the coming “matinee idol.” So I met him, we lunched together, and he proved to be every bit as good-looking, natural, “common-sense” and gravely boyish as he was in his screen role. I didn’t tell him what I already had written about him, but here it is, in a column dated Feb. 14, 1935, and headed “Wherein We Are Pleasantly Surprised With a Young ‘Society Doctor.'”

“…..But by far the most exciting feature of the picture–there’s a new fellow in the films, Robert Taylor by name, and he simply carries the show off on his own handsome, upstanding shoulders. I never saw a screen actor so completely a triumph as that of this young man. And he is the nicest fellow! Awfully good-looking in that nice, clean, clear-cut way that makes Americans, when they ARE good looking, the best looking men on earth. And you’d swear he wasn’t giving a thought to acting; he’s so natural. He has about as much charm as I ever saw in a juvenile; and take it from me, he is going to be rated the SMASH HIT OF THE YEAR.

Robert Taylor and girlfriend Irene Hervey ca. 1936. She dumped him when the studio wouldn’t let him marry her.

It has been less than a year and a half–no, not that long, since that review was written. Since then I have seen this young man of Nebraska in every part he has played on the screen; yet not since that first big role in “Society Doctor” has he done any work that has been better.

In “The Magnificent Obsession” he played a far more exacting and important role, but there was to be detected a slight self-consciousness disturbing to anyone who saw his original effort in “Society Doctor.” And in his last picture, “Private Number,” with Loretta Young, I had the uncomfortable feeling all through watching Taylor’s performance that here was a fellow trying his darndest to live up to a reputation that had been thrust upon him too soon.

The Elegant Man about Town, ca. 1936

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About giraffe44

I became a Robert Taylor fan at the age of 15 when his TV show, "The Detectives" premiered. My mother wanted to watch it because she remembered Mr. Taylor from the thirties. I took one look and that was it. I spent the rest of my high school career watching Robert Taylor movies on late night TV, buying photos of him, making scrapbooks and being a typical teenager. College, marriage and career intervened. I remember being sad when Mr. Taylor died. I mailed two huge scrapbooks to Ursula Thiess. I hope she got them. Time passed, retirement, moving to Florida. Then in 2012 my husband Fred pointed that there were two Robert Taylor movies that evening on Turner Classic Movies--"Ivanhoe" and "Quentin Durward." I watched both and it happened all over again. I started this blog both for fans and for people who didn't know about Robert Taylor. As the blog passes 200,000 views I'm delighted that so many people have come by and hope it will help preserve the legacy of this fine actor and equally good man.
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