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By Susan M. Kelly

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1936 Robert Montgomery R-95 8x10 Linen Premium Photo 1938 Robert Montgomery Hamilton Gum Trading CardBorn into a life of privilege, Robert Montgomery approached Hollywood with a businessman’s sense and a gentleman’s style.  He would carve out a niche for himself over four decades with dedication, hard work, and class and he left behind a living legacy in the person of his equally famous daughter, Elizabeth Montgomery.

Henry Montgomery, Jr. came into the world on May 21, 1904 in Beacon, NY.  His father, Henry Sr., was the president of the New York Rubber Co. and the family was quite well off.  When his father died, young Henry found that the family fortune had been depleted and so he took a series of jobs to make ends meet, eventually venturing to New York City to become a writer.  While plying his trade, a friend suggested that he try acting and he soon took to the stage where he worked with the renowned director George Cukor. 

In 1929 he followed Cukor to Hollywood where he was promptly cast in his first film, “So This Was College”, for MGM.  His handsome looks and polished style caught the eye of actress Norma Shearer, who chose him to be her leading man in “Private Lives” (1931).  By now he was being billed as Robert Montgomery and with the release of the film, a light romantic comedy about former spouses being reacquainted on the eve of remarrying, he became a legitimate star.

The next few years saw him tackling a number of roles, usually likable fellows and covering the spectrum from rich to poor.  In 1935, he began his first tenure as President of the Screen Actor’s Guild.  The decade was good to him personally as well, as he settled into marriage with Elizabeth Bryan Allen and they welcomed three children – Martha (who died of spinal meningitis at 14 months), Elizabeth, and Robert Jr.  In 1937, he went against type playing a psychopath in “Night Must Fall” and the performance earned him his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.  He was nominated a second time for his work in “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” (1942).

With the onset of World War II, he experienced the only gap in his 16 year run at MGM, when he enlisted in the navy and served both in Europe and the Pacific, eventually achieving the rank of Lieutenant Commander.   Upon his return from the war, he resumed his career and in 1945, he starred opposite John Wayne in the John Ford war film “They Were Expendable”.  When Ford briefly fell ill during production, Montgomery filled in for him behind the camera, directing a couple of the film’s PT boat scenes.  He wasn’t credited for his directing work, but it did plant a spark of interest and he made his directorial debut two years later with “Lady In The Lake” (1947).

1934 Robert Montgomery 9x12 Lux Promotional PhotoHaving turned to off-screen work, he began his second tenure as president of SAG in 1946 and testified as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947.    He began to expand his creative interests as well, taking advantage of his polished image to lend his voice as host of CBS Radio’s “Suspense” series for six months in 1948 and as host of the Academy Awards in the same year.  In 1950, he branched into television with his own show “Robert Montgomery Presents”.  It would win the Emmy for Best Dramatic Program in 1953 and would serve as the launching pad for the career of his daughter, Elizabeth.

He also continued to exercise his enthusiasm for directing and in 1955 he won the Tony Award for Best Director for “The Desperate Hours”.   By this time, he much preferred life off-camera and he even began to use his influence as a “style advisor” as the political world began to take notice of the advantages of television in campaigning.  Montgomery helped President Dwight D. Eisenhower to effectively present himself to TV audiences and Eisenhower was so impressed that he later suggested that presidential candidate Richard Nixon could’ve benefited from Montgomery’s advice in his televised debates with John F. Kennedy.

By the 1960’s, Montgomery’s career had slowed almost to a halt, but he took little notice, preferring instead to serve on the board of directors of several major corporations including R.H. Macy and the Milwaukee Telephone Company.  In 1968, he wrote a book entitled “An Open Letter from a Television Viewer” which offered a scathing viewpoint of the television industry.

He lived out the remainder of his days in quiet dignity until finally succumbing to cancer on September 27, 1981 at the age of 77.   He had approached his career as a business and, as always, he was the ultimate businessman.  He left behind a body of work which spoke well of him and a talented daughter who would carry on the family name with grace and class, and, no doubt, with the approval of her very proud father.
Susan M. Kelly is a freelance writer who lives and works in Dunellen, New Jersey. Watch for her profiles in The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.

Other Robert Montgomery Pages:

The Earl of Hollywood - Robert Montgomery -- Wow, this site is everything that a site dedicated to a classic star should be!  From their home page: "This website is intended to be an archive and documentation of the life and career of actor/director Robert Montgomery, whose contribution to the world of film is often forgotten."