WEIRDLAND: Robert Taylor: Magnificent Obsession

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Robert Taylor: Magnificent Obsession

Barbara Stanwyck had seen Robert Taylor in 'Magnificent Obsession' and 'Broadway Melody of 1936', admired his work, and told him so. 'Magnificent Obsession' was the John Stahl picture from Lloyd C. Douglas’s best-selling novel. In it Taylor was the selfish rich boy who becomes a great doctor in order to care for the woman —Irene Dunne— he accidentally blinds in a drunken selfish state and whom he comes to adore.

Taylor saw Irene Dunne, then thirty-seven years old, as “dignified.” He had “felt the strength of her great experience” and said that her “confident poise could not fail to help anyone with whom she played.” Taylor’s assurance, agility, and depth surprised critics. Women by the hundreds of thousands were fantasizing about Robert Taylor as the dream combination — the perfect lover (full of spirit and play, cocky but not rough) and husband (knowing, presentable, steady, caring).

Robert Montgomery’s world-weary sophistication seemed acidic and faded next to Taylor’s openness and purity. Lloyd C. Douglas’s novel ('Magnificent Obsession', 1929) was brought to John Stahl’s secretary by Joel McCrea, who was tested for the part with Rosalind Russell. The director felt that neither actor was right and instead cast Robert Taylor and Irene Dunne. Following the release of 'Magnificent Obsession' thousands of fan letters were delivered to Metro addressed to Robert Taylor written by women across the country, until ten thousand letters were arriving each week.

'Magnificent Obsession' was a sellout and played to held-over business, as did Taylor’s next picture, Broadway Melody of 1936, from the Moss Hart story “Miss Pamela Thorndyke,” in which Taylor danced with the rangy twenty-three-year old Eleanor Powell in her first major picture and sang Nacio Herb Brown’s “I’ve Got a Feelin’ You’re Foolin’” to June Knight. Louella Parsons called Taylor the most promising actor of the moment.

Hedy Lamarr had been named Glamour Girl of 1938, called the “Dream Girl of 50 Million Men,” all on the basis of one picture, Algiers, made on loan-out to Walter Wanger and United Artists. Lamarr, while shooting Lady of the Tropics , taught Bob how to kiss more convincingly for the cameras. “His usual kiss seemed much more like a school-boy’s when photographed in close-up,” she said. The picture was directed by Jack Conway, Bob’s frequent coyote-hunting partner, and written by Josef von Sternberg, Jules Furthman, Dore Schary, John Lee Mahin, and Ben Hecht, with Hecht getting final screenplay credit.

Barbara and Bob, soon after they met, were one night looking up at a marquee of the Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. Taylor’s name was in lights for the first time —"Robert Taylor And Loretta Young" in 'Private Number', with his name first. Bob was impressed with it all. “Don’t let it go to your head,” said Barbara. “Loretta has been working for years to get her name up there; you’ve been at it for six months. The trick is to keep it up there.” She believed that Flaubert’s observation to de Maupassant about writing was true about acting: “Talent is long patience.”

While shooting 'Waterloo Bridge' (1940), LeRoy got the flu and was laid up for five days. Woody Van Dyke stepped in. Bob was working late and asked Barbara to visit him on his set. She had never been on one of Bob’s sets. She hesitated and said, “Miss Leigh might not like it.” Bob assured her that Vivien wasn’t like that, that it would be fine. Barbara agreed to have Bob drive her onto the Metro lot. She had Bob park his car a short distance from the soundstage where he was shooting. At the last minute Barbara thought it better for her to stay in the car and read a book while Bob worked. -"A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940" (2013) by Victoria Wilson

Taylor told Louella Parsons that he considered "Bataan" (1943) one of his four personal favorite pictures of those he made. The other three were Magnificent Obsession, Waterloo Bridge and Johnny Eager.

Robert Taylor had an old-fashioned appreciation for women. He was courtly and very much a gentleman who had an idealized view of the type of woman he was attracted to. "I couldn’t care for a woman who didn’t respect herself, who didn’t have a passionate desire for making the most of life. It is easy for a girl to be ordinary; that demands no will at all. [...] I’ve invariably been drawn to women who are tolerant, who are good sports. I’m not above relishing a dash of glamour, but to me glamour is not bleached hair and plucked eyebrows and gobs of make-up. It’s that intangible understanding and sweetness that only the woman who has a first-rate heart has. Artificial girls bore me.”

Since the break-up with Barbara, Bob was staying busy with picture making. He was also re-establishing himself as a potent box-office star at the studio. Bob was about to start a film which meant a great deal to him and would team him with one of his favorite leading ladies, Eleanor Parker. The film was 'Above and Beyond', with Bob playing the part of Lt. Col. Paul Tibbets and Parker cast as his wife Lucey. It’s a very human performance in that Bob is playing a man who truly is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. It may be his all-time best motion picture work.

The chemistry with Parker was strong off screen as well as on. They began an off-and-on affair that would last almost up to the time of Bob’s marriage to actress Ursula Thiess. The affair was an open secret among their friends and at the studio, but they worked assiduously to keep it out of the press. Bob was genuinely fond of Parker, but he never considered marriage. Parker was a take-charge type of woman who wouldn’t let any man dominate her. In too many ways she reminded Bob of Barbara.

Reading the newspaper at his Dorchester Suite, in London, one day in 1952, Bob saw a picture that knocked his socks off. It was of a stunningly attractive woman whom the paper dubbed “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World.” Bob couldn’t disagree. He thought she was stunning with her full lips, dark hair, expressive eyes and luscious figure. Her name was Ursula Thiess and Bob definitely wanted to get to know her better. Ursula was born on May 15, 1924, in Hamburg, Germany. Bob was able to locate Ursula thru the help of her agent, Harry Friedman of MCA. Friedman telephoned and told her that Robert Taylor wanted to meet her for dinner and dancing. Bob took Ursula to the Coconut Grove where they met their companions, Harry Friedman and his wife.

She later recalled that what attracted her most to Bob was his, “down-to-earth, unassuming manner and his beautiful, searching eyes, which were the open windows to his incredible sex appeal.” Bob enjoyed introducing his friends to Ursula and showing her the sights of his hometown. Ursula later recalled that his friends “received us with open arms, making me feel reinstated once more as his woman and his love.” The official announcement of their engagement was made on April 30, 1954. “It was the biggest diamond I ever saw,” Ivy Pearson recalled [about Ursula's engagement ring]. “I asked him if it was real!”

In "Party Girl" (1958) Nicholas Ray came to admire Bob’s dedication to his part and growth as an actor: "I saw Taylor working for me like a true Method actor.” One Ray biographer later wrote that Party Girl, “moves effortlessly from action-packed scenes of violence to more meditative and touching sequences that helps the film to surpass its generic origins. Marked throughout both by his [Ray’s] great professionalism and by his feelings of sympathy for his ill-starred lovers, the movie transcends the conventions of the nostalgic gangster picture to become a passionate, involving tale of moral and emotional rebirth.”

Ursula completed Bob. “I’ve never known such complete happiness as I have since I’ve been married to Ursula,” he told Hedda Hopper. “She’s a really attractive woman... She’s so self-sufficient. Nothing seems to upset or worry her. She’s well-adjusted. I’ve never seen her in a situation she was unable to handle in a quiet sort of way.” Ursula had managed to do something that Barbara never did, nor had the inclination to do, she won over Ruth. “Ursula won Bob’s mother over by her kindness, devotion to Bob and wonderful homemaking skills,” accords to Ivy Shelton-Mooring.

Bob liked the idea of a ranch, especially with an expanding family. He thought it would be a great way for his children to grow up with plenty of time for the out of doors on 113 acres. It also reminded him of his upbringing in rural Nebraska. His daughter Tessa was named after the character from the book 'Tess of the Storm Country', which Bob had read as a child. “Bob’s attitude had taken a complete turn,” recalled Ursula. “While he was reticent to even touch his son as a small baby, this new little female was overindulged with attention.” He affectionately nicknamed her puss-puss.

The ranch was Bob’s refuge and the place he loved the most. “When I think of Daddy, I think of the ranch,” his daughter Tessa says. “It was a great place to be. A great way to grow up.” Bob liked the fact that Terry and Tessa were growing up on a ranch and finding an appreciation for the outdoors and learning respect for the land and the animals that inhabited it.”

In 1988 the Lion’s Building on the Lorimar Telepictures Lot (formerly the MGM Studio Lot) was renamed as the Robert Taylor Building. In 1990 the building was renamed “The George Cukor Building”. According to director Judy Chaikin, the reason was the days of the blacklist. Ironically, in 1983, Cukor was quoted as saying, “Robert Taylor was my favorite actor. He was a gentleman —that is rare in Hollywood.” -"Robert Taylor: A Biography" (2010) by Charles Tranberg

"Robert Taylor was indeed the best combination of gentleman and actor that ever graced the big screen." -Terry Taylor (Robert Taylor's son)


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. Very concise and informative.

Kendra said...

I'm glad you like it, you're very welcome!