By Susan M. Kelly
Deep blue eyes, dashing good looks and a
face the camera loved were the hallmarks of the man who would come to be known
as “The Perfect Profile” and, with the departure of Clark Gable, “The New
King”. Such was the legacy of Robert Taylor, but his tremendous good looks
would prove to be a stumbling block which he fought to overcome throughout his
Spangler Arlington Brugh was born on the
plains of Nebraska on August 5, 1911 to a country doctor and his invalid wife.
Young Spangler had an impressive number of accomplishments to match his rather
impressive name. As a teenager he was a talented track star and showed a flair
for public speaking. His real love, however, was music. He played the cello in
his high school orchestra and upon graduation he enrolled at Doane College in
Nebraska to study music.
Inspired by his father, who had become a
doctor with the intent of curing his invalid wife, the younger Brugh
subsequently changed tracks and moved west to study medicine at Pomona College
in Los Angeles. While at Pomona he joined the campus theater group and, aided
by his remarkable good looks, found yet another calling. He considered
continuing on to drama school upon his graduation from Pomona in 1933, but
before he could follow through on the plan an MGM talent scout spotted him and
gave him both a contract and a new name. Robert Taylor was now set to make his
mark on Hollywood, and what a mark it would be!
He made his first screen appearance in
1934’s “Handy Andy” and appeared in a handful of movie shorts to get his feet
wet and then took on his first lead role, opposite Irene Dunne, in 1935’s
“Magnificent Obsession”. The plot of the film hit close to home for Taylor, as
he played a playboy who inadvertently blinds the girl he is trying to impress
then becomes a doctor to cure her. Reminiscent of his own parent’s story, the
movie quickly became a hit and its leading man a full fledged Hollywood star.
While audiences took to his glossy good
looks, the critics were not always as kind, initially writing him
off as yet another “all looks, no substance” type. But Taylor was a true
professional and, undaunted by the critics, he threw himself into his work
determined to prove that there was more to him than a handsome face. He
worked tirelessly throughout 1935, putting together a string of no fewer than
seven films in one year, until he had earned legitimate leading man status.
In 1936 he appeared opposite Greta Garbo in “Camille” and by now he was an
audience favorite, causing legions of female fans to swoon and more than a few
critics to sit up and take notice. Though pinned mostly to romantic leads,
Taylor did his best to bring variety to his roles and before long he had racked
up memorable performances in everything from “A Yank at Oxford” and “The
Crowd Roars” (1938) to “Stand Up and Fight” (1939). With the arrival of
the 40’s, Taylor began taking on some meatier roles such as the title character
in “Billy the Kid” (1941), his first western.
The dawn of World War II brought a
change to Hollywood and Taylor was quick to join in the war effort, first with
roles in two combat movies “Stand by for Action” (1942) and “Bataan” (1943) and
then as a lieutenant in the Naval Air Corps, where he worked as a flight
instructor and directed two flight instruction training films. Later in the
40’s he would become a “friendly witness” for the House Un-American Activities
Taylor returned to Hollywood after the
war and quickly took up where he had left off, with a string of action roles.
By the early 1950’s his handsome face was already beginning to show signs of
age, and the roles were harder to come by. Still, he managed to make his mark
in what would become one of his best known roles, as General Marcus Vinicius in
“Quo Vadis” (1951), opposite the lovely Deborah Kerr. The following year, he
starred opposite a much younger Elizabeth Taylor in the film version of Walter
Scott’s classic “Ivanhoe”. The movie proved to be a smash hit and MGM quickly
followed it up with 1953’s “Knights of the Round Table”.
As the 50’s wore on, Taylor continued to
fight his “pretty boy” image and pushed for more challenging dramatic roles. He
effortlessly moved from westerns, to swashbucklers, even taking on the lead in
another of Scott’s works, “The Adventures of Quentin Durward” (1955), a
character much younger than the actor himself. He took on each role with
panache and his audience continued to respond in kind. His twenty year contract
with MGM, one of the longest in studio history, expired in 1958 and with it his
film career dwindled.
The same year he founded Robert Taylor
Productions and made the segue into TV work. From 1959-1962 he starred on the
series “The Detectives” and he took over as host of the popular western “Death
Valley Days” when his friend Ronald Reagan stepped down to pursue a political
career. He continued on “Death Valley Days” until his death from lung cancer on
June 8, 1969.
Robert Taylor spent his
entire professional life trying to live down the good looks nature had blessed
him with and in so doing he left behind a remarkable body of work. Though he
would remain best known for his handsome face, he was truly a man of many
talents – a fact that scores of loyal fans continue to appreciate to this day.
Susan M. Kelly is a
freelance writer who lives and works in Dunellen, New Jersey. Susan is a
regular contributor to
The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.
Other Robert Taylor Pages:
Reluctant Witness: Robert Taylor, Hollywood and Communism -- Coming soon to a bookstore--and theatre...near you! But for now we have this introductory page from author Linda J. Alexander focusing upon Taylor and HUAC.