Sunday, September 21, 2008

Book Review: Reluctant Witness: Robert Taylor, Hollywood, and Communism

Over the past year or two I've come to very much enjoy the films of Robert Taylor; my reviews of his movies are included at the end of this post. Growing interest in Taylor's films caused me to learn more about him, and the more I read, the more I found to like about him.

Taylor seems to have been greatly admired by a number of his colleagues. Director William Wellman said Taylor was "one of the finest men I've ever known." In her autobiography actress Rosemary DeCamp wrote Taylor "must have been the kindest and least troublesome star on the MGM roster...a dear and gentle man." When Taylor died in 1969, he was eulogized by his best friend -- the man who was then Governor of California, Ronald Reagan.

Given my growing admiration for Mr. Taylor, I was happy to discover Linda Alexander's new biography RELUCTANT WITNESS: ROBERT TAYLOR, HOLLYWOOD AND COMMUNISM. I read the book while on vacation this summer, but my plans to review it immediately (as well as an excellent book I read on Gene Tierney) were delayed due to the busiest few weeks I've had in all my years as a proofreader.

Alexander's book is an important contribution to film history, as she did a huge amount of primary source research. Taylor's youth and the years before his film career were especially interesting; Taylor was torn between potential careers in medicine (his father was an osteopath) and music, and was headed toward a career as a professional cellist when he fell into acting and a career at MGM. Taylor originally moved from Nebraska to California when he followed a music professor to Pomona College.

Alexander's analysis of Taylor's relationships with his invalid mother and his first wife, Barbara Stanwyck, are of particular interest. Stanwyck's hardscrabble background as an orphan in the big city was the antithesis of Taylor's secure, somewhat rigid Nebraska upbringing, and over the years their differences caused increasing conflict in their marriage; after a dozen years Taylor and Stanwyck ultimately parted. Stanwyck never remarried, and attended Taylor's funeral.

As the title indicates, Taylor's role testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee is also explored in detail. While this is a lengthy chapter in the book, it's not really the main topic of the biography, although the book title might cause one to expect otherwise. It's just a guess on my part, but the title might have been meant to help provide a unique angle for marketing the book.

The focus of RELUCTANT WITNESS is on Taylor's private life. Naturally, his films are referenced throughout the book, as part of his life story, but for the most part there is not detailed analysis of his films and performances, nor is there a filmography; the book tends to approach Taylor's films from more of a "business" standpoint in terms of where they fit in his life and career. As I mentioned here recently, Charles Tranberg, author of a new biography of Fred MacMurray, is working on a Robert Taylor book which is currently planned for a 2010 publication date; perhaps Tranberg's book will delve more extensively into Taylor's acting career. There is definitely room on my shelves for another book on this subject.

RELUCTANT WITNESS would have benefited greatly from the inclusion of photographs, particularly of Taylor in his younger years, but given that there are no photographs whatsoever, I am guessing that this was an economic decision to keep the book in a lower price range. (Amazon's discount price, for example, is $13.49.)

There are some minor errors in RELUCTANT WITNESS; for instance the films BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936 and BROADWAY MELODY OF 1938 are referred to as A BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936 and A BROADWAY MELODY OF 1938. However, on the whole the book is well researched and adds a great deal to the published record on Robert Taylor, who was one of the biggest stars of his era yet sadly is relatively lesser known today.

The book contains a fairly detailed bibliography; it does not have an index. Including the bibliography and end pages, this softcover book is 361 pages. It was published by Tease Publishing of North Carolina.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn recently that author Alexander's next book will be A MAVERICK LIFE: THE JACK KELLY STORY. Kelly, who was once the mayor of Huntington Beach, here in Orange County, was always my favorite of TV's Maverick brothers -- the other, of course, being James Garner. I had the good fortune to meet Mr. Kelly briefly on a couple occasions and found him to be friendly and courteous to his fans. I'm very pleased to know that his life story will be preserved in print.

Fans interested in more on Taylor's movies may want to seek out Lawrence J. Quirk's THE FILMS OF ROBERT TAYLOR, which is filled with stills from Taylor's films. Originally published in the '70s, the book is available from used book vendors in both hardcover and paperback. I note that virtually all of the photos in Quirk's book are publicity or film stills, so it's possible that photographs from Taylor's personal life are hard to come by.

Taylor's widow, Ursula Thiess, published a book last year titled ...BUT I HAVE PROMISES TO KEEP: MY LIFE BEFORE, WITH, AND AFTER ROBERT TAYLOR. I haven't read it yet, but look forward to checking it out in the future.

For Robert Taylor fans -- or those who want to try his movies -- I provide links to his films I've reviewed here thus far: SMALL TOWN GIRL (1936), FLIGHT COMMAND (1940), WESTWARD THE WOMEN (1951), ROGUE COP (1954), MANY RIVERS TO CROSS (1955), SADDLE THE WIND (1958), and PARTY GIRL (1958). My favorite to date is WESTWARD THE WOMEN; all these titles are recommended.

Update: More Taylor movie reviews: HIGH WALL (1947) and ABOVE AND BEYOND (1952).


Blogger Carrie said...

I'm about 2/3-rds of the way through the book myself - an interesting read. I almost feel sorry for Taylor for looking so good - so many people just stop at that when thinking of him. His aviation background has always interested me and I was jumping up and down to find the N number of his Twin Beech plane (airplane nerd thing).

3:24 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

That's fun, Carrie. :)

One of his movies on my "short list" to watch is the aviation-related film ABOVE AND BEYOND, have you seen that one yet? My dad thought very highly of it.

I'd enjoy any other comments you have on the book, too.

Best wishes,

3:43 PM  
Blogger J.C. Loophole said...

OK- yet another book on my stack, but I doubt if this will figure into this year's goal. I've decided to continue reading one "showbiz" book a month next year so this will be on the top of the list. After having reviewed the Tyrone Power set recently (what a great set!), I'm curious to know what book about Power that you would recommend.

9:22 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

"I'm curious to know what book about Power that you would recommend."

Unfortunately there is not a lot out there worthwhile of which I'm aware.

I do have my eye on THE FILMS OF TYRONE POWER by Belafonte and Marill, which never made it into my Citadel FILMS OF... collection back in the '70s.

THE SWASHBUCKLERS by James Robert Parish has a good chapter on Power. The focus is strongly on Power's films, but there is also other biographical info as well, plus a good number of photos and an excellent filmography.

I believe you've already read Jeanine Basinger's THE STAR MACHINE, which contains a good chapter on Power.

Here is a 1990 bio I've never seen.

There's one more book out there I wouldn't recommend at all, as it seems to come from the Charles Higham school of making-it-up-as-you-go biography. (Romina Power spoke out strongly against this book in a post on IMDb a couple years ago.) I hope that in future someone publishes the substantive, thoroughly researched biography Power deserves.

Best wishes,

9:53 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

PS Loved your review of the Tyrone Power DVD set, J.C.! I'm thoroughly enjoying it.

Best wishes,

9:54 PM  
Blogger UGN said...

From Mrs. UNG

Laura, I must protest. A book about Jack Kelly deserves its own entry and a huge headline!

I've finally come to the conclusion that Warner Bros. is still punishing James Garner and that's why they won't release the complete series.

11:53 PM  
Blogger J.C. Loophole said...

Yes, Star Machine was excellent - one of the best books I've read this year. I'll have to see if I can track down The Films of...

" seems to come from the Charles Higham school of making-it-up-as-you-go biography." I know what you mean. There are too many of these out there on the shelves. I am a stickler for research, for footnotes or endnotes and bibliographies. There are too many books which rely on heresay, rumor and innuendo to see their books. (And thanks for your kind comment on the review!)

5:19 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

"A book about Jack Kelly deserves its own entry and a huge headline!"

I know what you mean!! (Should have written you right away about it.) I will definitely put up a solo post when there is a little more info available. :)

I was soooo frustrated when reading about Warners' latest online forum discussing their plans for TV DVDs for the next year, and once more read there are no plans to release MAVERICK on DVD. It's just not right to hold it hostage and keep us from seeing it... :(


8:15 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I agree about STAR MACHINE, J.C. (That's another I've meant to write a review of...) It was thoroughly enjoyable, with lots of fresh insights into familiar subjects.

I was delighted to see Basinger did the commentary on GIGI with Leslie Caron, BTW.


8:17 AM  
Blogger Carrie said...

Laura - Yep, have seen "Above and Beyond," but it's been a while!

I do recommend "Flight Command" with Bob, a young Walter Pidgeon & Ruth Hussey.

I did find the 'naked at the front door' story funny :0) I'll have to get back to you on the rest book!

2:22 PM  

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