Robert Taylor The “Perfect Star”
by Margaret Hinxman
February 4, 1956
In a little over twenty-two years, no star has given M-G-M better cause to thank its lucky stars than a lean, dark, perennially young, young man named Robert Taylor. Practically the first words Louis Mayer said to him when he signed his contract in 1934 were:” Actors and actresses belong to the public.”
Taylor took those words to heart. So much so that, from his first “bit” appearance in a Crime Does Not Pay short to his star portrayal in Quentin Durward (in London next week), he has been, impeccably, the “perfect star.” He has never been known to give an indiscreet interview. He has never been caught out in public in an indiscreet act. He has never been suspended for talking back to the studio. Other stars have given M-G-M a rough time during the past few years—Gable, Gardner, Turner, Garson, Tracy—but not Taylor. Study his record…..and see how perfect a paragon star can be.
He began the right way. With Taylor, it was Hollywood’s favorite “Cinderella” story—from a masculine viewpoint. No family theatrical background. Young man from the “sticks”–a small town in Nebraska. Born in 1911. Real name: Spangler Arlington Brugh. Discovered by talent scout in college play. Signed to a contract at thirty five dollars a week. Sudden, blinding success. Nice, open-air American childhood, about which the publicity boys spread the word.
First screen test, with Evelyn Knapp in 1934, a wow! Not much acting ability, but plenty of personality. Even then he had poise: was casual on top, nervy as a kitten underneath.
First important role, in Society Doctor, cast him as a surgeon, which gave the studio the chance to point out that Taylor’s father was a doctor and Taylor, too, had vague ambitions that way. When, after an operating scene in the film, he turned to the heroine and said: “I have felt the fluttering of wings—it may be that I am a surgeon now,” picture goers had found a new idol.
Off-screen he was built up as a staggeringly handsome young man, who loved life, but wasn’t a rake. First he confided to a fan magazine that he’d just go over his first “college girl” love. Sentimental, but strategic—it showed the girls that he was a free agent. Then he was “seen around town” with Janet Gaynor, his co-star in Small Town Girl. Later he was dating Irene Hervey—who also happened to be an M-G-M contract artist.
But the legend of a sound, solid young man who loved his mother and was kind to animals was successfully fostered. No scandal was allowed to clutter up those early beginnings of Robert Taylor,
He gets the right publicity. As a youngster of twenty-five in Hollywood, he lived in a small apartment with his mother. Every evening, after his studio work, he came home for a long heart-to-heart talk with her. It was just the stuff to help along the studio build-up. He was the first co-star—so the studio said—to “draw out” Garbo, when he played opposite her in Camille. He won her over to listening to “pop” music between takes.
He never “played the field” romantically. When he first met Barbara Stanwyck, he admitted: “She’s the only girl for me.”
When he first went to New York in 1937, the female admirers beat a path to his door and cooed: “There he is—isn’t he lovely,” every time he put his nose outside. Taylor kept smiling throughout. On a flight from Kansas, a “love thief” crept on the plane. She turned out to be a girl reporter assigned to give readers the dope on what it was like to kiss Taylor. Embarrassed, he kept on smiling.
As he left New York for his first British film (remember-A Yank at Oxford (?), in 1937, legions of women stormed the police barrier at Grand Central Station. And, when he arrived in Britain, a hundred police were sent to hold back his admirers at Waterloo Station, London.
Back in Britain with wife Barbara Stanwyck in 1947, he turned up at a big London premiere of hers. He told waiting admirers: “My proudest title is to be known as Mr. Barbara Stanwyck.” Throughout a hysterical reception, he kept calm. Leaving Britain in 1947, he paid tribute to the London police force.
No scandal still—even when he and Barbara were divorced. Taylor and Stanwyck behaved impeccably. Said Taylor nobly: “Believe me, whatever happened between us was certainly not her fault.”
In 1954, Taylor said: “I don’t like the idea of staying single—you grow spoiled and crotchety. I suspect I’m both. Then he announced his engagement—during a lunch break in the studio canteen. A few weeks later, he and Ursula were married.
He does the right thing. He’s an athlete: boxing, riding, swimming, fishing, tennis. He likes early rising. He never complains. He’s very co-operative. He’s never late for a studio call or business conference. Although he dislikes making personal appearances, he’ll do them with a smile if the studio says so.
In 1940, with war talk everywhere, he bought an aeroplane and learned to fly. In 1943, he joined the Navy.
Although he needs publicity the way that Lady Docker** needs a new mink coat, he’s unfailingly polite to reporters. In Britain on location, he ignored the gay parties, phoned his wife three times a week and wrote a letter to her every day.
He looks right. He started off, in the looks line, with everything on his side, including the cutest “widow’s peak” ever seen in Hollywood. His boss, Mayer, said; “One should dress well. A great deal may depend on it.” Taylor remembered that. He is always impeccably groomed and tailored.
His screen test required him to look good in evening clothes. He did. Perfect. When he started to wear a mustache in films, it suited him and even added to his good looks. When he wore a beard, he didn’t look a face emerging from behind a cactus. When M-G-M decided to “toughen him up” on the screen, he showed he was a beefcake boy as well as a clothes-horse.
He switched to Westerns—and wore a Stetson with style. He wore a toga in Quo Vadis [not a toga] and no one giggled. In period pictures, he still looked manly. In Hollywood, off-set, he looks carefully ruffled-nothing flamboyant. In Britain, off-set, he dresses with the Savile Row restraint of a bank manager.
He toes the right line. So far as the studio is concerned, this is the toughest trick of all. He fell in with every move in the studio build-up. From “pretty boy” (The Gorgeous Hussy) to “tough guy” (The Crowd Roars) to “Westerner” (Billy the Kid) to “dramatic actor” (Undercurrent, High Wall) to “bolsterer up of spectacles” (Quo Vadis, Ivanhoe, Quentin Durward).
In 1937 he admitted: “Any old story is good enough for me. If I dislike the whole set-up of a picture, I may protest. Otherwise, I don’t much mind what I play.” Quizzed on any fancy ambitions to turn director or producer, as so many other top stars were doing, he said: “I never know anything that’s going on in the way of studio plans and I never pay any attention to any part of the business except my own job.”Before joining he Navy, he fell in with M-G-M’s plans to give a boost to ally Russia in Song in Russia. In 1947 he testified before an Un-American Activities Committee that he was forced to finish the picture—at State Department urging—before he could join up. Back from the Navy, he played in Undercurrent. He wasn’t happy with it. “It was a woman’s picture, but I did it anyway.”
He agrees to publicity-stunts, but gracefully makes fun of them if they appear to ridiculous. Once he returned from a game-hunting expedition, was met at the airport by the studio boys who wheeled on stuffed birds as props for a picture story. He posed happily. Then apologized to the airport staff for the phoney-ness of the stunt.
In 1953, he signed a new six-year contract with M-G-M. That makes twenty-two years with the same studio. Only Bing Crosby—twenty-three years with Paramount—has a longer, or more cooperative record.
He says the right thing. His boyhood creed, often repeated” “Tisn’t life that matters–’tis the courage you put into it.” On his first staggering success, he told his mother: “I’m lucky, Mother. I got the breaks. Don’t worry—you’ll never have to be ashamed of me.”
After two years of stardom, he said at a press conference: “I like working in pictures. We have some fine talent out in California—and, with them around, pictures can’t help getting better all the time. (The purr you hear is Leo lauding its well-behaved star.)”
About the glamorous women with whom he’s played in so many pictures, (Gaynor, Eleanor Powell, Irene Dunne, Loretta Young) he said tactfully in 1937: Looking back over those short, crowded and thrilling years, I realize that my great happiness in Hollywood is tied up inextricably with the downright fellowship and sportsmanship of the charming women with whom I have worked.”
In Britain in 1937, he said: “I’m not interested in London and the gay life. But I’m interested in all the countryside outside London. I plan an historical tour.” When his visit in 1947 coincided with the birth of quadruplets to a father, also called Robert Taylor, he told reporters gaily: “There’s a guy who’s done something really deserving congratulations.”
To a clothes-conscious London columnist, he admitted he always bought his shoes in Britain because they were “the finest.” The puppy he bought here had also grown into “a fine animal.” Exit glowing columnist.
When the Harvard University “Lampoon”–a satirical magazine voted him “The worst actor of the year” for Quo Vadis, he didn’t get shirty. In fact, he showed exactly the right sense of humor in his counter-attack. His comment, “By golly, I’ve finally won an award—and I never worked harder for one in my life.” demolished the magazine and boosted Taylor in the eyes of the press.*
Hearing, in 1955, he was to become a father, Taylor in Britain purred: “I shall be so anxious. I shall want to swim the Atlantic if I can’t make it any other way.”
*I don’t know how this story got started. I’ve seen it many times. It’s the Hasty Pudding Club, not The Lampoon that gives the (satirical) man and woman of the year awards. They’ve only awarded it to men since 1967.
**Norah Docker, Lady Docker (born Norah Royce Turner, 1905–1983) was an English socialite. A dance hostess at a club in her youth, she married three times, on each occasion to an executive of a business that sold luxury goods. Her third marriage, to Sir Bernard Docker, chairman of Birmingham Small Arms and its subsidiary, Daimler Company, was notable for the couple’s excessive behavior. This was often funded by tax write-offs and company expenditure that could not be legitimately defended, which led to Sir Bernard’s removal from BSA’s board of directors. She was also banned from the French Riviera by Prince Rainier after an incident in which she tore up a Monacan flag. (Wikipedia)