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By Susan M. Kelly

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June 14, 1936 Robert Taylor M23 Philadelphia Record Supplementc.1940 Robert Taylor MADE IN USA Arcade CardDeep 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 career.

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.

1936 Robert Taylor & Greta Garbo MGM Watkins 4x5 Promotional PhotoThe 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 Committee.

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.

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