"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Friday, January 11, 2013

Robert Taylor

A surprisingly good Western actor

Robert Taylor (1911 – 1969)
Robert Taylor was not one the great Western leads nor even one of the first who springs to mind but considering his unpromising start for MGM in the 1940s, he made a good fist of it. He was unconvincing as Billy the Kid in 1941 but matured in the 1950s and became a good tough guy or hero with a murky past. He was often a rancher who used to be a gunfighter, something like that.

His dark looks and strong face helped. He loved horses even as a child and rode very well (watch his horsemanship in Billy the Kid, it’s pretty impressive) and that helped too. He was a Westerner: his family lived in Oklahoma, Missouri and Nebraska, where he was born.

I like Robert Taylor in Westerns. He was tough and gritty. So I thought I’d do a brief survey of his career. Speaking as a person of 5 foot 11 and a half inches who plays the cello, likes flying, is devilishly handsome and keen on Westerns, I would say that Robert and I have a lot in common.

He said, modestly.

Although it is true that I have not been inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.


Later Westerns

Taylor died (of lung cancer – he was a lifelong chain smoker) tragically young in 1969 but from a Western point of view it must be said that the best was already behind him by then. The last good Western he made was The Law and Jake Wade in 1958.

I did consider giving this movie three revolvers out of five but in the end I thought it deserved two. John Sturges (1910 – 1992) directed 13 Westerns (14 if you count Bad Day at Black Rock) and they were workmanlike, watchable pictures. He was no John Ford, though, and The Law and Jake Wade will stand as a typical Sturges Western. It’s OK and it has its merits. Richard Widmark was never my favorite, although he plays the badman rather better than he does the goody and he is cunning and malicious here.

The movie had one huge advantage: it was photographed by Robert Surtees. His lens captures the Lone Pine and, especially, the Death Valley locations magnificently well. Visually, this film is splendid.

The biggest weakness was the writing (William Bowers from a Marvin H Albert novel). It is full of clichés and the actors have to struggle to say the words with any semblance of conviction. It’s the old ‘disputed robbery loot buried in the ghost town’ plot. Deadly Comanches attack as well but are cannon fodder for the party’s Winchesters. Of course Taylor’s girlfriend (Patricia Owens) has to be taken along.

Taylor (Jake Wade) was 47 and no longer the screen matinée idol but did a good job as the reformed bank robber, now lawman. He wears a great shirt. There are some reliable character actors in Widmark’s gang: Robert Middleton, DeForrest Kelly and Henry Silva. They dig up the gold and Jake disarms Widmark. He could then leave the bandit there and depart with Patricia, as she, indeed, urges him to do. But of course a man’s gotta do what a man's gotta do and all that and so there’s a 1:1 showdown gunfight in the ruined town. Who wins? I’ll leave you to guess… Anyway, it was one of Taylor’s better efforts and, as I say, the last decent oater he starred in.

There were four more: in The Hangman (1959, unusually made for Paramount) Taylor is a sour unbending lawman. There’s Loyal Griggs photography and a Dudley Nichols screenplay from a Luke Short story, so potentially it was a good Western but Michael Curtiz, director of one of my all-time favorite films (Casablanca) couldn’t direct Westerns. Fess Parker (Davy Crockett) co-starred. It was OK but not much more.

Cattle King, aka Cattle King of Wyoming or Guns of Wyoming, was a bit dull. Taylor (by then 52 years old) is a tough rancher humanized by love in a Wyoming range war. He’s good but the movie is so-so.

Savage Pampas, an Independent 1966 South American picture, was a flat, dull remake of the Argentine Pampa Barbara in which Taylor is an officer fighting off renegades. A bit of a clunker, honestly.

And then, in 1967, again for MGM, he did a typical Taylor Western in a way: Return of the Gunfighter shows us Ana Martin’s family murdered by Mexican baddies. She appeals to ex-gunman Taylor and they set out to even the score. Brian Garfield says that an “ordinary yarn is fairly well handled.”


After that Taylor did TV.

Hondo was based on the very good 1953 movie from a Louis L’Amour novel, one of John Wayne’s better performances, and his company Batjac then syndicated a TV series based on it. It didn’t do that well and only lasted 17 episodes but it wasn’t at all bad.

The first two episodes, Hondo and the War Cry (1967) and Hondo and the Eagle Claw (1967), were edited together to form the feature film Hondo and the Apaches, which was released theatrically outside the US. Taylor (by then 56) was in these.

Death Valley Days was by far the most successful and long-running syndicated TV Western. The stories used in the series were based on actual events. The 451 television episodes were introduced by a host: the longest-running, from 1952 to 1965, was "The Old Ranger" (Stanley Andrews). Following the departure of Andrews, Ronald Reagan became the host, his last professional work as an actor before he entered politics. The role then went to Robert Taylor.

But Taylor became gravely ill in 1969, aged 58, and was replaced by Dale Robertson.  Reagan and Taylor also frequently appeared in the show as actors.

Reagan liked Taylor very much in fact (it must be said that their politics were quite close too) and gave the eulogy at Taylor's funeral at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, in Glendale, California.

The 1950s

But the heyday, as far as Robert Taylor’s Western career is concerned, was the Fifties.

His first effort, Stand Up and Fight for MGM in 1939, was big-budget. Taylor is a young railroad engineer up against Wallace Beery’s stagecoach boss. The budget didn’t help though and this Western is eminently missable. Then came Billy the Kid which we reviewed the other day. He wasn’t bad in that, just miscast. At 30 and looking older, he just wasn’t right for the juvenile killer. And after Billy there was in fact a hiatus. Taylor didn’t do his next Western until 1950.

There were seven before Jake Wade:

In Ambush (an MGM black & white, 1950) directed by Sam Wood (his last movie), Taylor (aged 39) is a civilian scout riding reluctantly for the Cavalry. Two love triangles take up too much time but it’s a Luke Short story (always quality) and there are quite good Indian chases. It's a classy Western and Taylor is very good in it.

Also in 1950 came Devil’s Doorway, directed by Anthony Mann (his first Western), and probably Taylor's best. Taylor is an Indian returning to Wyoming after fighting in the Civil War to find white men plotting to deprive the Indians of their land. It’s a splendid movie which tried to put the Indian side of the case for once but it suffered at the hands of critics (and box-office) by comparison to Fox's Delmer Daves-directed Broken Arrow of the same year which had a similar message.

Westward the Women (MGM, 1951) was a classy Frank Capra-written black & white comedy about two California ranchers (Taylor and the excellent John McIntire) sent to Chicago to accompany a wagon train of mail order brides. It was a bit of a departure for Taylor, Westernwise, and succeeded rather well.

In 1953 Robert starred in Ride, Vaquero!, a heavy-breathing period romance. Howard Keel, MGM’s tame singing star, loves a stunning Ava Gardner but tall, dark and handsome Robert comes along all in black. Maybe he used his Billy the Kid costume again. It’s not that good, really, but Taylor is quite impressive in it. It also has Robert Surtees cinematography.

Many Rivers to Cross (MGM, 1955) was an amusing outdoor adventure comedy with an Indian-fighting climax. Taylor (45) is a trapper won by Eleanor Parker. It’s OK if you like trapper comedy westerns…

His best Westerns

But the Fifties drew to a close with the three best Taylor Westerns of all: The Law and Jake Wade which we’ve already looked at above, The Last Hunt (MGM, 1956) and Saddle the Wind (MGM, 1958).

We reviewed The Last Hunt back in 2011. Taylor's character is a good case-study for Psychology 101 students working this week on paranoia and also displays symptoms useful for next week’s course on schizoid psychosis. Boy, he is mean. Debra Paget is thrown in for the love interest and to give Taylor and Stewart Granger something to fight over. She does her Broken Arrow act. But it’s a good, gritty Western and probably shows Taylor at his toughest.

Possibly Taylor’s second-best Western was Saddle the Wind. In this, our hero is a onetime gunfighter now rancher (classic Taylor stuff) with a wild kid brother (John Cassavetes). They are rivals for Julie London's hand and also quarrel over the right of homesteaders (Royal Dano is magnificent as their patriarch) to squat on grazing land. The movie has its weaknesses: Donald Crisp was unconvincing (again) as Taylor’s mentor and Cassavetes was a bit over the top. Robert Parrish was not really not much good as a Western director (apart from The Lusty Men). But all in all Saddle the Wind is a good strong Western and Taylor is excellent.

Thanks, Bob

So farewell to Robert Taylor and thanks. I hear your Mandeville Canyon ranch home in LA went for $ 56 million in 2010. Drat, if I’d known I could have bid for it. Though you were married to Barbara Stanwyck, you escaped being in the dreadful Westerns she did (you would have improved them - you might even have made Forty Guns watchable, though between Fuller and Stanwyck I doubt it). You overcame your birth name (Spangler Arlington Brugh) and became a good, solid Western actor, just as you wanted. It took you some time but in the end you were a convincing tough-guy lead. You certainly did better than Tyrone Power over in Fox.

And readers of this blog will enjoy most if not all of the Westerns you did.


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