Spangler Arlington Brugh renamed Robert Taylor by MGM upon signing for them in 1934, was one of the most famous movie stars of his time. He is probably best known as a romantic lead, or riding through Hollywood's idea of the Middle Ages with a sword, but he was brought up on the plains of Nebraska, rode well and always wanted to be in Westerns. He was excellent with a Stetson and six-gun, projecting that right blend of toughness and decency to convince as a hero of the West.
He made fourteen big-screen Westerns in his relatively short career (a chain smoker, he died of lung cancer in 1969 aged 57), and he hosted the long-running TV show Death Valley Days from 1966 to 1969.
Many people think of Billy the Kid in 1941 as Taylor's first outing in the genre. But in fact a movie three years earlier has a better claim to that honor, Stand Up and Fight, in which Taylor was second billed to that old ham Wallace Beery. Though it starts in a rather un-Western way, with posh people at a foxhunt in Maryland in 1844, it soon develops into a classic Western with much ridin' and shootin', and a plot about a stage line's rivalry with a new railroad, making for an enjoyable picture.
Billy the Kid was Taylor's first Western lead, and one of his best known oaters. It was darker and more somber than many of Taylor's previous pictures had been and marked a departure for him, and indeed the majority of his Westerns had him as a 'man with a past,' not always on the right side of the law, with hints of angst and pain. He often wore black. Billy was not the greatest picture, being a weak color remake of the King Vidor-directed Billy the Kid of 1930 with Johnny Mack Brown as Billy and Wallace Beery as Pat Garrett. The Taylor version is wildly inaccurate historically (most Billy movies were, but this one is especially so), there's no Pat Garrett and the nearest to a Garrett figure is a miscast Brian Donlevy. Still, it was a hit and established Taylor as a Western star.
Through the '40s Taylor busied himself with noirs and war films, and served as a flying instructor. But in 1950 he returned to the saddle with two outstanding Westerns, Ambush, released in January, a gripping Apache story written by Luke Short, co-starring John Hodiak and Arlene Dahl, and then Devil's Doorway, which came out in September, directed by Anthony Mann. In Devil's Doorway Taylor played a Shoshone war veteran returning after the Civil War with the Medal of Honor only to find himself ousted from his land because he is not American. Mann's story was a powerful statement about racism and Taylor is superb in it.
The following year he appeared in another top-class Western, the underrated Westward the Women, directed by William A. Wellman. Westward the Women is a hymn to the courage and fortitude of the pioneer woman. Taylor plays a misogynistic wagon train boss who comes to admire and respect the party of mail-order brides he is taking out to California. It's a great performance in a fine film.
A later Western (or semi-Western anyway), also dedicated to the women pioneers, Many Rivers to Cross (1955) was a disappointment after the Wellman picture, being a not-very-funny comedy similar in tone to MGM's successful Seven Brides for Seven Brothers of the year before, but the humor falls flat. Neither Seven Brides nor Many Rivers was a Western in any true sense; they just used the West (in the case of Many Rivers, 1798 Kentucky) as a backdrop for foolishness.
Between the women Westerns came the more traditional Ride, Vaquero! in 1953. This was rather a torrid affair, with Ava Gardner loved by Howard Keel (they are Texas ranchers) and Taylor appearing, rather overly made up and in a dudish black costume, to upset the equilibrium. It's classily written and Taylor has some great lines as he comes across as a quasi-Lassiter figure from Zane Grey.
In 1956 came The Last Hunt. Here Taylor co-starred with British actor Stewart Granger who was very good in Westerns. Taylor plays a paranoid buffalo hunter and it was his most uncompromising role so far. It's an excellent picture and Taylor appeared to emphasize his badman Western credentials.
Two Westerns followed in 1958, Taylor's last as MGM contract player, Saddle the Wind, released in March and The Law and Jake Wade in September. In the first Taylor is a tough rancher, again a 'man with a past' (formerly a gunslinger) and the story is one of sibling rivalry, with John Cassavetes overplaying it as Taylor's younger and angrier brother. In the second, a visually fine picture with Robert Surtees' cinematography of Death Valley locations, Taylor plays against Richard Widmark, rather good as the bad guy, in a John Sturges-directed tale of stolen gold. Both these pictures were good, solid Westerns, quite edgy, and Taylor is more than competent in them.
Regardless, Taylor's contract with MGM was not renewed. Now 48, he was showing his age. His face was craggy and lined. But that suited certain Western roles and he did not abandon the genre. Taylor formed his own company, Robert Taylor Productions, and its first Western was for Paramount in 1959, The Hangman. Taylor plays a tough bounty hunter who has earned his nickname for always delivering his quarry to the executioner and his rope. The project had a star line-up, being once again (like Ambush) written by Luke Short, directed by Michael Curtiz and photographed by Loyal Griggs, who had won an Oscar for Shane.
Taylor devoted the rest of the '50s and the early '60s to his TV show The Detectives, but in 1963, now 52, he climbed back in the saddle with Cattle King. Hollywood liked cattle barons (or baronesses) and in this one Taylor is a rich rancher, a little like the character he played in Saddle the Wind. But unlike most cattle barons in movies, Taylor's is a good guy, with more than a little sympathy for the homesteaders. The villain of the piece is a splendidly malevolent Robert Middleton. Though a '60s Western, the picture has the air of a '50s one, and is played straight with no frills.
In 1966 Taylor, rather as Rory Calhoun had done with Way of a Gaucho in '52, did a semi-Western set in Argentina, though Taylor's was shot in Spain, Savage Pampas. The movie has poor English dubbing of the international cast and, directed by Hugo Fregonese, is too slow and plodding. It was not a noble addition to Robert Taylor's Western career.
His last big-screen Western came out in 1967, Return of the Gunfighter. For the actor it was a return in another sense, too, because he made it back at MGM. This is a gritty '60s Western directed by James Neilson with a story by Burt Kennedy. It also benefits from smoothie Lyle Bettger as the bad guy. As a B-Western it could just as well have starred Audie Murphy, say, or, a decade before, Randolph Scott. Taylor, frankly, looks old and ill. But it has its points and was by no means his worst.
The same year as Return of the Gunfighter, Robert Taylor appeared in a small part as a guest star in two episodes of the ABC TV Western show Hondo which were then combined to make a TV movie, Hondo and the Apaches. His biggest contribution to the TV Western was as host of the long-running Death Valley Days, when his friend Ronald Reagan gave it up to run for governor (Rosemary DeCamp filled in for short time). Like Reagan, Taylor also appeared in a few of the episodes, playing the characters Porter Stockman, Horace King and Shanghai Kelly. When Taylor became gravely ill he was succeeded as host by Dale Robertson.
The majority of Robert Taylor's Westerns are good, and he has a certain authority in them. The best were the trio he made in 1950 and '51, with the possible exception of the gaucho one. You can watch any Bob Taylor oater and not be disappointed. He was one of the better Western actors.
Jeff Arnold is the author of the blog Jeff Arnold's West as well as several Western short stories and novels, researching the subject extensively for many years. A traveler of the American West, Jeff currently resides in France.