George Montgomery is perhaps best remembered today as a '50s Western star, but he could truly do it all. His career progressed from stuntman and bit player to actor and then on to a new creative field, becoming a highly respected artist and craftsman.
Montgomery was born August 27, 1916, in Brady, Montana. One of a large family, he grew up as a rancher's son, gaining the riding skills which would help him get a toehold in Hollywood as a stuntman and later stand him in good stead as a cowboy star.
Before he was 20 Montgomery headed for Hollywood, and as he told the Los Angeles Times in a 1985 interview, 'I was real lucky. You know, I was just a farm boy from Montana when I arrived there...Two days later, I was in a...movie at MGM, getting 5 a day doing some stunt work.'
Montgomery worked as a stuntman for a few years until signing a contract with Fox in 1939. After a series of supporting parts and some leads in 'B' pictures he finally had significant roles in the 1942 releases Roxie Hart, Orchestra Wives, and Ten Gentlemen from West Point, followed by China Girl (1943) with Gene Tierney and Coney Island (1943) with Betty Grable. His career ascent was interrupted by three years of service in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. After the war, like many actors of his era, Montgomery seemed most at home in Westerns, a genre in which he was a star throughout the '50s. In 1958 he also starred in a Western TV series, Cimarron City.
In the '60s Montgomery's acting roles slowed, and by the mid '70s Montgomery's that part of his career had come to an end, other than a couple projects in the mid '80s. He had long been interested in woodworking and increasingly devoted more time to art, where he proved to be a multitalented and highly respected wood craftsman, painter, and sculptor.
An early supporter of the Autry Museum in Los Angeles, there is an exhibition gallery at the Autry named in his honor. In 1991 the Autry hosted an exhibit of his sculptures, furniture and paintings, an honor he would enjoy at several other museums over the years. His work was also displayed at the U.S. embassy in London. Montgomery wrote of his careers in both acting and art in the 1981 book The Years of George Montgomery.
Off the screen Montgomery was rumored to have been briefly engaged to Hedy Lamarr in the early '40s. When that romance fell through he then married singer Dinah Shore in 1943. They had two children, Melissa and Jody. The marriage ended two decades later, in 1963. Montgomery and Shore are said to have remained friendly, and Montgomery created a statue of Shore, an avid golfer, which stands at the 18th hole at the Mission Hills Country Club golf course in Rancho Mirage, California.
Montgomery passed away in Rancho Mirage in December 2000; he was 84 years old. His gravestone reads 'Actor, Artist, Renaissance Man - Loved by Many, Admired By All.'
Some key Montgomery films which are available to be enjoyed via DVD:
Roxie Hart (1942) - Montgomery plays lovestruck reporter Homer Howard opposite Ginger Rogers in the title role; it's a version of the story which would later be known as the musical Chicago, directed by William A. Wellman.
Orchestra Wives (1942) - Montgomery stars as the trumpet player in Glenn Miller's orchestra, who has a whirlwind courtship and marriage with a young fan (Ann Rutherford). The sequence where she swoons over him as the orchestra plays 'At Last' is one of my favorite scenes in '40s films.
Three Little Girls in Blue (1946) - This is an absolutely charming Fox musical which reworks the studio's earlier Three Blind Mice (1938) and Moon Over Miami (1941). Montgomery stars with June Haver, Vera-Ellen, Vivian Blaine, and Celeste Holm. It's a lesser-known musical but truly delightful entertainment.
The Brasher Doubloon (1947) - Montgomery played Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe in this mystery, and while he received digs from some quarters for not being Bogart or Dick Powell, I liked this film a lot. I found Montgomery quite personable, and the movie has a nice mood to it, with superb cinematography by Lloyd Ahern capturing the shadows of trees rustled by the warm Santa Ana winds.
Gun Belt (1953) - Montgomery stars as Billy Ringo, who has gone straight and plans to settle down with Arlene (Helen Westcott) and his nephew (Tab Hunter). Billy's brother (John Dehner) escapes from jail and frames him for a bank robbery. Montgomery as Billy exhibits a grace and determination under stressful conditions which is very appealing. Favorite '50s Western actor James Millican has a nice turn as Wyatt Earp.
The Lone Gun (1954) - Montgomery becomes sheriff in a town overrun with a trio of bad, bad brothers, played by some great '50s Western villains, Douglas Kennedy, Robert J. Wilke, and Neville Brand. Frank Faylen is terrific as the sheriff's friendly enemy, a gambler who always seems to come through when it counts; Faylen helps elevate the movie to an above-average Western. Dorothy Malone is the leading lady.
Robbers' Roost (1955) - I really like this take on the Zane Grey story, with Montgomery playing a mysterious black-hatted stranger hired to help on a ranch. The sterling cast includes Richard Boone, Peter Graves, Leo Gordon, Warren Stevens, and Bruce Bennett. This is one of the films which first hooked me on Montgomery Westerns.
Canyon River (1956) - This is one of my favorite Montgomery Westerns, with Montgomery losing a friend (Peter Graves) but finding a family (Marcia Henderson and Richard Eyer) during a unique cattle drive, moving a herd from Oregon back to Wyoming before winter weather sets in. Beautifully filmed in Cinemascope, which is shown off to good effect on the Warner Archive DVD.
Gun Duel in Durango (1957) - Another 'found family' story, with Montgomery playing a former outlaw who wants to go straight, especially as he would like to settle down with his patient fiancee (Ann Robinson) and an orphaned boy (Bobby Clark). Character actor Frank Ferguson has a nice role as a sheriff who keeps a wary eye on Montgomery but is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. The bad buys are played by Steve Brodie and Don 'Red' Barry. This is one of those films which isn't a classic but has a cast of pros who overcome a low budget to provide solid Western entertainment.
Toughest Gun in Tombstone (1958) - Another enjoyable low-budget Western with Montgomery as a widowed Arizona Ranger whose undercover job is complicated with the man who murdered his wife goes after his little boy. Beverly Tyler is the woman who takes a shine to the little boy (Scotty Morrow) and pledges to care for him if anything happens to his father. Once again, Montgomery's earnest, plainspoken appeal carries the film, with a solid supporting cast. Jim Davis (Jock Ewing of Dallas) is the chief villain.
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.