Robert Taylor and Communism – Aftermath

At the very end of his testimony, Robert Taylor was asked a few somewhat odd questions by Committee member and future President Richard M. Nixon (R-CA). Nixon expresses concern that Mr. Taylor has been the subject of left-wing criticism and ridicule after his testimony the previous May. Taylor agrees that it has happened and adds that he isn’t bothered by it. Nixon continues:

Mr. Nixon. And as the result of your testimony and your appearance before this committee today and the stand you have taken on this issue you will be the subject of additional ridicule and criticism from those quarters, will you not?

Mr. Taylor. I suppose so. However, any time any of the left-wing press or individuals belonging to the left wing or their fellow-traveler groups ridicule me, I take it as a compliment because I really enjoy their displeasure.

Mr. Nixon. And that ridicule and abuse heaped upon you has a much more serious effect than it would have upon a person who does not depend upon public acceptance of what he does? Yet you feel that under the circumstances it is your duty as an American citizen to state your views on this matter?

Mr. Taylor. I most assuredly do, sir.

Nixon seemed to believe that public reaction to Robert Taylor’s testimony would be largely negative and harmful to his career. Mr. Taylor, on the other hand, takes this in stride and reaffirms that speaking out against communism is not a choice, but a duty. Robert Taylor was confident of his place in Hollywood and his ability to handle the rancor of the left. He was one of MGM’s superstars and would continue to be so with such movies as Quo Vadis and Ivanhoe.

AS the HUAC hearings got under way in Washington, some film industry leftists were forming an opposition group in Hollywood. Calling themselves the Committee for the First Amendment, the group supported the unfriendly witnesses who would become known as the Hollywood Ten. The Committee included Myrna Loy, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Henry Fonda, Gene Kelly, John Garfield, Edward G. Robinson, Judy Garland, Katharine Hepburn, Groucho Marx, Lucille Ball, Danny Kaye, Frank Sinatra and others. On October 27, 1947 they flew to Washington and marched in protest. They also held a few public rallies in Los Angeles. The Committee for the First Amendment accomplished nothing of substance and some members like Bogart, Garfield and Robinson fell away when they discovered that the people they were supporting actually were communists.(1)

Robert Taylor leaves the Capitol escorted by police and followed by women.

When Robert Taylor finished testifying, he was escorted from the chamber. The scene is described as follows:

“The hearing room was jammed to capacity. A sixty-five year old woman scrambled up onto a radiator for a better look at the screen star, fell to the floor and struck her head. Several people, in the mad rush to the door when Taylor was preparing to leave, stepped on her. Many had their clothes torn and ripped as half of the audience left their seats to follow their hero.

“Hundreds of women formed a pied-piper-like procession behind him for more than a block down the street to his car.”(2)

“He was accompanied by police officers for his protection and they tailed him for more than a block to where a car awaited him. As he readied to hop into the waiting vehicle, he caught sight of a smiling young blonde-haired girl dressed in blue. She held out a book and asked for an autograph, which he gave her. He asked her for a kiss. She refused, to the shock of the surrounding crowd. He laughed, winked and waved at everyone as he jumped into the car’s back seat and was driven away.”(3)

Is that Mother trying to get into the picture (L)?

Immediate reaction to Robert Taylor’s testimony was divided between strong support from the American people and recrimination from behind the Iron Curtain. Given the violence perpetrated by communists against opponents during the recent CSU strike, there was also concern for his safety. “A congressional secretary said: “He better be careful or he’ll get a bullet in that gorgeous head of his.”(4)

Ordinary Americans were delighted with Robert Taylor’s testimony. “Taylor was mobbed wherever he went. People wanted to touch him, punch him like an old buddy, reach out and shake his hand.

“He was constantly interrupted in public. Drinks were sent over to his table in restaurants and the senders always followed up with a visit to his table. ‘I don’t mind this type of adoration, if that’s what you call it. Folks would come over and talk to me about how they felt concerning world problems or about a relative who had been killed in the war. I sat over many a cold steak, but being admired for just standing up for what I believed was right, seemed normal to me—but a big thing to them.’” (5)

The communists themselves reacted differently. In May 1947, after the Los Angeles hearings, Soviet film director Sergei Gerasimov published an article in Izvestia. It accused Taylor of hypocrisy. “There was a time when in America it was the vogue to sympathize with the Soviet Union. Quite a big business was done on this and Robert Taylor did it also [presumably by making Song of Russia] But other times set in, and under the influence of definite laws, it becomes fashionable to renounce one’s sympathies ‘to expose.’ Robert Taylor has done quite a job. Mr. Taylor is without bravery or stable views.” (6)

The Hungarian Minister of the Interior immediately banned all Taylor films.”(7)

The fans still loved Robert Taylor, here signing autographs with wife Barbara Stanwyck.

In this country, the American Marxist publication The New Masses published a supposedly satirical article called “Song of Hollywood” on June 3, 1947. Its tone prefigured the contempt with which the left would regard Robert Taylor in the future. “Robert Taylor, the MGM clothes-horse, was a star for a day……the portrait of Robert Taylor as a flaming patriot who was dying to get into service and was forced by FDR to act in a film mildly favorable to our ally, the Soviet Union, made banner headlines.”

Robert Taylor’s popularity with both his peers in the film industry and the American public was great enough that the left couldn’t do any real harm to him or his career during his lifetime. After his premature death from lung cancer in 1969, Hollywood’s extreme left-wingers pounced. Their goal was to erase Robert Taylor’s name from Hollywood history, deny his importance as an actor and a movie star, spread false stories about him, and create a lasting negative image of Taylor’s life and work.

The removal of Robert Taylor’s name from a former MGM administration building in 1990 is an example of left wing tactics. Lorimar Studios now owned the old MGM lot and sitcom writer Stan Zimmerman had an ax to grind. William F. Buckley described it:

“A few weeks ago, Hollywood residents discovered that there was no longer a building called the Robert Taylor Building. Disappeared, gone with the wind. Not the building itself, understand. It was still there, with its new owner Lorimar Productions (“Dallas” etc.). It was now the George Cukor building. Was this an attempt to say something about the late Robert Taylor, the glamorous movie idol who died in 1969 after making almost 50 movies for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer?

“Well, yes it was. What happened is that when Lorimar moved in, a petition circulated by writer Stan Zimmerman was deposited on the desk of Lorimar executives, asking that Robert Taylor’s name be expunged on the grounds that he had been a “cooperative” witness when testifying before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947 and had committed that grave sin in the moral bible of anti-anti-communism. He had “named names.” Manifestly, he was unfit to adorn a building in which screenwriters continued to work. Accordingly, 43 years after his testimony, 21 after his death, Robert Taylor was vaporized.(8)

Long-term hater Stan Zimmerman. He attacked Robert Taylor 21 years after the movie star’s death.

“We could not believe it when, in December, 1990, a petition in the form of an advertisement signed by 50 screenwriters and producers appeared in the Hollywood trade papers. The petition demanded that Lorimar Studios remove the name of the late Robert Taylor from a building controlled by their organization on the MGM studio property.

“‘What Taylor did destroyed careers,’ claimed Stan Zimmerman, a Lorimar writer who organized the petition. “The man named names pretty seriously. In this age of Jesse Helms and other right-wing noise makers,” he puttered and stuttered in an interview. ‘We decided to take action.’”(9)

Ironically, the building was renamed for director George Cukor who said in 1983, “Robert Taylor was my favorite actor. He was a gentleman. That’s rare in Hollywood.”(10)

Another leftist tactic is simply to fabricate stories. According to the International Movie Data Base, a highly respected online encyclopedia, “[Robert Taylor’s] affection for the studio would blind him to the fact that boss Louis B. Mayer masterfully manipulated him for nearly two decades, keeping Taylor’s salary the lowest of any major Hollywood star.” I have dealt with this at length in a post on this blog entitled “Lowest Salary?” posted on February 28, 2012. Suffice it to say here that although Taylor’s original salary of $35 a week was indeed low, he later kept pace with Clark Gable and the other top stars financially.

George Cukor directs Robert Taylor and Greta Garbo in “Camille.”

It is a commonly held belief that people who are exceptionally good looking cannot also be intelligent. Robert Taylor was a graduate of a good college, a success in an extremely difficult and competitive field for decades, a top rated Navy flight instructor, a successful horse breeder and businessman. Nevertheless the IMDB states,”He held rigid right-wing political beliefs that he refused to question and when confronted with an opposing viewpoint, would simply reject it outright. He rarely, if ever, felt the need to be introspective.” This totally unsupported statement is, obviously, only the opinion of a left-wing, anonymous writer. Nonetheless, it is passed off as fact and repeated endlessly.

Another fabrication that has had wide distribution is this: “In 1951 [Taylor] had been given the Harvard Lampoon’s award for the worst acting that year in Quo Vadis. He showed up to accept the award and said, “By golly, I finally won an award and I never worked harder in my life.” (11) Unfortunately for the story, the Hasty Pudding Club of Harvard University did not give such awards to men until 1967.

For decades some people have insisted that Taylor was homosexual. I’ve gone over this in detail in my posting “The Gay Thing,’ from March 27, 2012, so I’ll say no more here.

The most pervasive and influential fabrication, however, was that Robert Taylor went before the HUAC and “named names” of communists or was a “snitch” or ruined careers by eagerly turning his colleagues over to the Feds. The truth about this has been discussed exhaustively in part two of this article but the misconceptions are still legion.

The following discussion uses quotes taken from a Turner Classic Movies forum about Robert Taylor. I’m not picking on TCM, they have been extremely fair to Mr. Taylor, even making him their “star of the month” twice. It is simply that these opinions are typical of a great many others.

“I truly believe that Robert Taylor tried to sacrifice the career of Howard Da Silva by back stabbing him to save his own career by his testimony. What he did was a cowards way out and had no trace of scruples on his part.” This is a very typical misconception. Mr. Taylor had no need to save his own career, it wasn’t in jeopardy. To say that Da Silva’s career was sacrificed by anyone’s testimony is misleading. No one except Howard Da Silva made Howard Da Silva a communist or made him stay one at a time when our country was at war with the Soviet Union. He wrecked his own career.

“However, I DO have a problem with anyone who ‘named names’, as that was not just going after communism in general, but after an individual. Ruining someone else’s career is just plain nasty and cruel…and I must admit not being particularly enamored of anyone who named names in those hearings.” “Naming names,” also called being a snitch, is a juvenile reaction. If someone had named names at Penn State, Jerry Sandusky wouldn’t have abused 10 boys. If someone had named names at a flying school in Florida, nearly 3000 people wouldn’t have died on 9/11. If someone had named names, the Unabomber wouldn’t have claimed so many victims, etc. etc. This is a childish and counter-productive attitude carried into adulthood by a lot of people.

The people quoted above and thousands like them are typical of those who’ve been fed a certain line about Robert Taylor and about the HUAC. They are very mild and restrained compared to some of the vitriol you can find online. Perhaps with the declassification of HUAC background documents in 2001, the wide availability of transcripts of Mr. Taylor’s actual testimony online and two fine books –Linda Alexander’s Reluctant Witness; Robert Taylor, Hollywood and Communism and Charles Tranberg’s Robert Taylor: a Biography, Bear Media, 2010, can help replace the lies of the last forty years with the truth about Robert Taylor.

Robert Taylor was one of the most famous successful movie stars of all time. He made, by some accounts over $300,000,000 for MGM((12) Yet today his name is largely unknown or known as the name of a contemporary Australian actor. This is not unintentional. Robert Taylor stood up against communism and the left, both inside and outside of Hollywood, have made a his disappearance a priority.

If Robert Taylor is mentioned at all in books about Hollywood’s Golden Age, it will be in passing or contemptuous. For example, Scott Eyman, in his biography of Louis B. Mayer, says “as an actor [Taylor] couldn’t carry [Laurence] Olivier’s eyebrow pencil” in a discussion of Waterloo Bridge.(13) He also vents his spleen against Robert Taylor in his commentary on the Warner Archive DVD of Westward the Women

Another Taylor hater, Dan Callahan, recently published a biography of Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Taylor’s first wife. This passage is typical:

Taylor and Stanwyck, 1936.

“This is the brief period when Taylor is at least technically good-looking, but there’s already something wolfish and downright nasty about his manner—in close-up, there’s a creepy and even Dracula-esque quality about his face, as if his hooded eyes were wearing eye shadow. Stanwyck plays a mannequin who’s good at gambling, and she looks at Taylor with interest at times—wonderingly, speculatively—while he barely seems to notice her. That’s part of what makes him such an obnoxiously poor actor; he always delivers his lines in a hearty, bluff fashion that often deteriorates into discordant displays of ill-temper, which never seem to merited by the situations in his movie.”(14)

Why was Robert Taylor singled out for such hatred by Eyman, Callahan and many, many others? He was hardly the only person who testified before the HUAC nor the only one who named names although not identifying anyone as a communist. Do they hate Jack Warner (he testified endlessly about specific communists in Hollywood), Louis B. Mayer (who did the same thing); Gary Cooper, Robert Montgomery, George Murphy; director Leo McCarey, or writer Morrie Ryskind as much as they do Robert Taylor? It doesn’t seem so.

I can think of three possible reasons:

1. Robert Taylor was extremely good looking. His looks caused resentment among both critics and male movie-goers. Journalists harassed him about being “beautiful.” This resentment probably still lingers.

2. Robert Taylor didn’t have to work very hard for his initial success. He never pounded the pavements looking for parts. He didn’t work in menial jobs to survive while trying to succeed. There was no obscure little theater work, no walk ons, no stints as an extra. After a few small roles, he rose directly to stardom with Magnificent Obsession. This is the kind of success that breeds envy and resentment among those who consider themselves shortchanged by life.

3. Most importantly, he got away. Robert Taylor was not shunned or ostracized after his testimony before the HUAC. He kept on making movies and the movies kept on making money. Eventually he moved into television with continued success. He lived out his short life happily with his second wife, Ursula Thiess, and their children. It was the communists themselves who were blacklisted, denied work and even jailed. People can disagree today about whether this was just, but it certainly raised hackles in Moscow. For the American far left the HUAC, the Blacklist and the following McCarthy era are still an open wound—and Robert Taylor is part of that wound.

In 1999 the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences made a significant move towards healing the HUAC wound. They awarded an honorary lifetime Oscar to Elia Kazan. Kazan, like Robert Taylor testified before the HUAC as a friendly witness, Kazan in 1952. The same thing should be done now for Robert Taylor, albeit posthumously. Robert Taylor’s lifetime of achievement—77 films, most of them a success, should be recognized. So should his great versatility and his constant growth as an actor.

This is the right time because things are changing for Robert Taylor’s legacy. Many of his films are now widely available, either through the Warner Archive, Turner Classic Movies, the internet or other sources. Two biographies have been published since 2008, both with the cooperation of the Taylor family. Viewers born long after his death have become fans just as their predecessors did 70 years ago. There are web sites and blogs dedicated to him. The quality of his work is being recognized again in pictures from Magnificent Obsession to Camille, Waterloo Bridge, Johnny Eager, Bataan, High Wall, Above and Beyond, Quo Vadis, Ivanhoe, The Last Hunt, Party Girl and many more. That Oscar is way overdue.

Robert Taylor as Ivanhoe, the perfect, gentle knight.

References:

  1. Humphrey Bogart, “I’m No Communist, Photoplay Magazine, March 1948; Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.
  2. Jane Ellen Wayne, Robert Taylor: the Man with the Perfect Face NY, St. Martin’s Press, 1987, pp. 133-134
  3. Linda J. Alexander, Reluctant Witness: Robert Taylor, Hollywood and Communism Swansboro, NC, Tease Publishing, 2008, pp. 233-234
  4. LIFE Magazine, November 24, 1947.
  5. Jane Ellen Wayne, Robert Taylor: the Man with the Perfect Face, NY, St. Martin’s Press, 1987, p. 135
  6. Ibid, p. 134
  7. Ibid
  8. William F. Buckley, “MGM Moles Dig Themselves a Hole.” January 30, 1990.
  9. John Austin Hollywood the Bizarre NY, Shapolsky Publisher, Inc. 1994,
  10. William F. Buckley, “MGM Moles Dig Themselves a Hole.” January 30, 1990.
  11. Jane Ellen Wayne, Leading Men of MGM, Da Capo Press, 2006, p. 186.
  12. John Weitz shirt ad, New York Times, September 18, 1977.
  13. Scott Eyman, Lion of Hollywood Simon & Schuster, 2005. p. 338.
  14. Dan Callahan, Barbara Stanwyck: the Miracle Woman. University Press of Mississippi, 2012, p. 76
  15. “MGM Moles Dig Themselves a Hole.” William F. Buckley, Jr. January 30, 1990
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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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