Robert Taylor, a star at MGM for close to a quarter of a century, was one of Hollywood's best-loved actors, popular with moviegoers and colleagues alike.
Taylor was born in Nebraska on August 5, 1911. As a young man he was interested in both medicine and music; he ultimately selected music and was headed toward a career as a professional cellist when he followed a favorite professor to Pomona College in California. Once in California, Taylor fell into acting and a career at MGM; he was initially carried along by his handsome good looks, but over the years he also became a very fine actor.
In particular, the films Taylor made after his wartime service show a more rugged Taylor very capably playing complex roles in diverse films such as the film noir High Wall (1947), the Western Devil’s Doorway (1950), and Above and Beyond (1952), about the dropping of the atomic bomb during World War II. Like the similarly striking Tyrone Power, Taylor was underrated for years in part due to his exceptional good looks, but the availability of Taylor's films on Turner Classic Movies and Warner Archive DVDs in recent years has led many to take a fresh look at his work.
An avid outdoorsman, Taylor was a natural in Westerns and was considered one of Hollywood's top horsemen. Taylor's friend and fellow Pomona College alum, Joel McCrea, was another of Hollywood's best movie horsemen, and in fact McCrea cared for Taylor's horse on his ranch while Taylor was serving during WWII. Taylor's post-WWII films were largely divided among Westerns, film noir, and epics, and he excelled in all three genres.
Off-screen Taylor was married for many years to Barbara Stanwyck; they were from very different backgrounds, and eventually the marriage fell apart. Taylor enjoyed a happy second marriage to actress Ursula Thiess, the mother of his two children.
Taylor was extremely well-liked in Hollywood and beyond. Director William Wellman said in an installment of the documentary The Men Who Made the Movies that Taylor was 'one of the finest men I've ever known.' Rosemary DeCamp wrote in her memoirs that Taylor was 'the kindest and least troublesome star on the MGM roster...a dear and gentle man.' The director of the Historical Society in Gage County, Nebraska, said on the occasion of Taylor's 2011 centennial 'He was just a good man all the way around. He really cared about the fans watching the movies and was careful about what he did.'
In 1969 Taylor died of cancer far too young, at the age of 57. Barbara Stanwyck, who had never remarried, was among those who attended the funeral. The eulogy was given by Taylor's closest friend, Governor Ronald Reagan.
There are a couple good biographies of Robert Taylor currently in print; Reluctant Witness: Robert Taylor, Hollywood, and Communism, by Linda Alexander, focuses on Taylor's personal life and also sets the story straight on Taylor's testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Robert Taylor: A Biography by Charles Tranberg fills in considerably more information about Taylor's career. Both books include a great deal of primary source research; they make a fine set for any Taylor fan to own.
(Taylor and Deborah Kerr in Quo Vadis)
Here are just a few of Robert Taylor's most highly regarded films, all available on DVD:
(1935) Taylor had starred in several minor films and the musical Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935) when MGM lent him to Universal to star opposite Irene Dunne in Magnificent Obsession, directed by John Stahl. From that point on Taylor was a major star whose work included starring opposite Garbo in Camille (1936) the following year.
(1940) Considered by many to be one of the great tragic romances, it was also one of Taylor's personal favorites. His leading lady was Vivien Leigh, who had recently starred in Gone With the Wind (1939). Mervyn LeRoy directed.
(1941) An unusually hardboiled role for Taylor at this stage of his career, playing a gangster opposite Lana Turner and Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Van Heflin. Like Waterloo Bridge, this was also directed by Mervyn LeRoy.
(1947) This noir was uncharacteristically tough for an MGM film, perhaps in part as it was directed by Curtis Bernhardt, previously a Warner Bros. director. Viewers won't soon forget the opening scene with Taylor driving at top speed with a wide-eyed corpse at his side! Taylor plays a veteran tormented with amnesia who has been accused of murder; Audrey Totter and Herbert Marshall costar.
(1949) This film noir is a personal favorite, with Taylor as a federal agent hunting down stolen military plane engines in steamy South America. The film was directed by Robert Z. Leonard, with a spectacular fireworks finale rumored to have been directed by the stylish Vincente Minnelli. The knockout cast includes Ava Gardner, Vincent Price, John Hodiak, and Charles Laughton.
(1950) Taylor's performance as an American Indian Civil War hero who returns home only to confront racism is widely considered one of his best performances. Directed by Anthony Mann.
(1951) The first of several epics Taylor starred in in the '50s, depicting the persecution of Christians under Nero. Deborah Kerr and Peter Ustinov costarred. The next year saw the release of another of Taylor's best-loved costume dramas, Ivanhoe (1952), opposite Joan Fontaine and Elizabeth Taylor.
Westward the Women
(1951) My favorite Robert Taylor movie. This film directed by William Wellman is one of the great unsung Hollywood Westerns, finally starting to receive its due from critics and classic film fans. In this tough, gritty movie, largely filmed on location in Utah, Taylor heads a wagon train bringing a group of women to a new life -- and husbands -- in California. The excellent DVD release includes a commentary by film historian Scott Eyman.
Above and Beyond
(1952) Taylor plays Col. Paul W. Tibbets, the pilot of the Enola Gay. The film depicts the preparation for dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and the difficult mission itself, as well as the personal toll the top-secret job took on Tibbets and his marriage. Eleanor Parker plays Tibbets' wife, in the first of three films Parker and Taylor would make together.
(1958) A superb 'color noir' directed by Nicholas Ray, with Taylor as a crippled mob lawyer who wants to go straight. Cyd Charisse plays the title role, as the beautiful woman whose support encourages him to put both his physical issues and his unsavory job behind him.
Laura Grieve is a lifelong film enthusiast whose thoughts on classic films, Disney, and other topics can be found at Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, established in 2005.