Robert Montgomery was a multi-talented actor-director and two-time Oscar nominee, and yet for some years he was probably best remembered as the father of Elizabeth Montgomery, the delightful star of the classic TV series Bewitched. As Montgomery's films have become much more available in recent years, thanks to DVDs and Turner Classic Movies, he is today enjoying a resurgence of popularity with classic film fans.
Montgomery was born on May 21, 1904, and his film career began in 1929 with a bit role in The Single Standard. After a small role in Three Live Ghosts (1929), he transitioned to leading man status that very same year and never looked back.
Montgomery worked at MGM for most of his career, starring multiple times opposite Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Madge Evans, and Rosalind Russell. He was equally adept at drama and light comedy, and by the time he took a break from films to serve in World War II, he had received two Oscar nominations as Best Actor.
Montgomery volunteered as an ambulance driver in Europe prior to America's entry into the war, then joined the U.S. Navy, serving as a Lt. Commander in both the Pacific and European theaters.
Like actor-director Dick Powell, Robert Montgomery looked for challenges beyond acting. After the war, Montgomery branched into directing; after doing uncredited work assisting John Ford on They Were Expendable (1945), Montgomery directed all but one of his remaining starring films.
In the late '40s Montgomery also served a second term as President of the Screen Actors Guild, which he had previously headed in the '30s. In 1950 he started the long-running, Emmy-winning TV series Robert Montgomery Presents, and in the mid-'50s Montgomery branched into the theater, winning a Tony for directing The Desperate Hours on Broadway. He also served as media consultant for President Eisenhower.
Off the screen, Montgomery had two long-term marriages. Montgomery and his first wife, Elizabeth Harkness, were the parents of three children: Martha, who died in infancy; actress Elizabeth Montgomery, born in 1933; and Robert Jr., born in 1936. The Montgomerys divorced in 1950, after 22 years, and he then married Elizabeth Allen, to whom he remained married for over three decades, until his passing in September 1981.
I'm still waiting for many favorite Montgomery films to turn up on DVD, but in the meantime, here are a dozen recommended Montgomery titles showcasing both his acting and directing abilities over the span of three decades:
Their Own Desire (1929) - My favorite of the several films Montgomery made with Norma Shearer, a sweet story of young love, filmed at California's spectacular Norconian Resort. Today the Norconian is empty but still standing.
(Their Own Desire, 1929 with Norma Shearer)
The Man in Possession (1931) - A witty comedy with a couple mildly racy moments which proclaim it a definite pre-Code. Lots of fun.
Lovers Courageous (1932) - This is one of five films Montgomery made with his friend Madge Evans. It's a romance which conveys Montgomery's unique strengths as a leading man, vulnerable and connecting with Evans so intimately that the viewer feels that one is peeking in on something private, rather than simply watching a movie.
Three Loves Has Nancy (1938) - Montgomery has great chemistry with Janet Gaynor and Franchot Tone in this romantic comedy about a country girl in the big city. Montgomery's thunderstruck face when Nancy describes how she'd like to care for a prospective husband is marvelous.
Fast and Loose (1939) - Rosalind Russell was another frequent Montgomery costar, and in this mystery they play book dealers turned amateur sleuths Joel and Garda Sloan. They're an appealing team, and one wishes they had played the Sloans again. Curiously the Sloans were played by two other screen teams, Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice, and Franchot Tone and Ann Sothern.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) - This was a rare straight comedy directed by Alfred Hitchcock, teaming Montgomery with Carole Lombard. I wasn't especially taken with it when I first saw the movie while I was growing up, but when I revisited the film as an adult I discovered all sorts of interesting steamy undercurrents I'd been oblivious to on first viewing.
Rage in Heaven (1941) - Montgomery's unusual role as Ingrid Bergman's jealous, psychotic husband makes one wish he'd worked with Alfred Hitchcock in a mystery. He would have been great as a villain in a movie like Strangers on a Train or Dial M For Murder! While Montgomery plays the bad guy, frequent movie villain George Sanders stars as Bergman's knight in shining armor. A very interesting movie on many levels.
Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) - Montgomery received one of his two Best Actor nominations for this marvelous comedy-fantasy; his other nomination was for playing a murderer in Night Must Fall (1937). Montgomery is absolutely superb; a must-see.
They Were Expendable (1945) - Montgomery is outstanding in his first post-war film, directed by John Ford and costarring John Wayne. One of the truly great war films, They Were Expendable was also Montgomery's first opportunity to work behind the camera; he served as one of Ford's second unit directors, and when Ford was indisposed for several days, production continued with Montgomery filling in as director. Ford later paid Montgomery the ultimate compliment, saying he couldn't tell the difference between what Montgomery directed and his own work.
Lady in the Lake (1947) - Montgomery's first credited directing work wasn't just any old movie; he conducted a daring 'first person' experiment, with the camera serving as the eyes for Montgomery's character, P.I. Philip Marlowe. It's not a complete success, but it's a fascinating film, and there's also a unique twist with the murder mystery being set during the Christmas season.
Eye Witness (1950) - Montgomery starred in and directed this courtroom drama and murder mystery, filmed in England. The contrast between the styles of Montgomery's American attorney and the British barrister he works with is fun to watch. It may not be an especially noteworthy film, yet this tale of Montgomery navigating the legal system in postwar Britain is one I really enjoyed.
The Gallant Hours (1960) - Montgomery narrated this film and directed his close friend James Cagney, who stars as Admiral William F. Halsey. This war film without any war footage depicts the five weeks leading up to the U.S. victory at Guadalcanal. It's a superb, underrated documentary-style film, a study in leadership and courage under unfathomable pressures. The a cappella background music by the Roger Wagner Chorale adds to the film's unique feel. Highly recommended.
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.