The man with the perfect profile: Robert Taylor

‘Acting is the easiest job in the world, and I’m the luckiest guy’ — the words of Robert Taylor, whose star once shone as brightly as Rudolph Valentino’s. And no one was more surprised by that than Taylor...

The man with the perfect profile: Robert Taylor

In the 1930s, the actress Luise Rainier found herself seated next to Robert Taylor, then on the cusp of matinee-idol status, at a Hollywood luncheon. Possibly stuck for small talk, she asked him to sum up his aspirations for life. Without hesitation, Taylor replied that he dreamed of owning 10 perfectly tailored suits. 

For decades afterwards, the German-born Rainier would repeat this anecdote to illustrate what she saw as the epitome of American materialism and crassness. The consensus among Taylor’s peers was that he, in turn, was illustrating the fatal sense-of-humour failure allegedly prevalent among the Teutons. But there’s a strong case for taking Taylor’s remark at face value: few Hollywood leading men, before or since, have been as aware of clothing’s power to maketh the man (and, by extension, the role), whether pressing his tailor for “a navy blue gabardine serge or sharkskin suit (medium weight)” in order to play the captain of a luxury yacht, or “two pairs of frontier pants made out of cotton twill with rivets” in service to the many westerns he made. 

Robert Taylor poses for a portrait during a publicity shoot in Hollywood, circa 1930.

Combine this with a shock of black, wavy hair replete with eye-catching widow’s peak, a trim, six-foot frame (all the better to fill out a commanding DB, navy gabardine serge or otherwise), and classically handsome features (he was dubbed “the Man with the Perfect Profile”), and you have a force to be reckoned with. At his high 1930s watermark — in films such as the tear-stained melodrama Magnificent Obsession, or Camille, in which he was suitably smitten opposite Greta Garbo — Taylor was mobbed in public and mentioned in the same breath as Rudolph Valentino. The Nebraska-born Taylor also seemed a model of midwestern rectitude (in his funeral eulogy for Taylor, his friend Ronald Reagan noted approvingly that “he can be remembered by millions of moviegoers with gratitude that in the darkened theatre he never embarrassed them in front of their children”), while his $5,000-a-week salary put him on a par with contemporaneous luminaries like Clark Gable, Shirley Temple, and Astaire and Rogers. Through it all, he remained staunchly unassuming. “Darned if I know,” he replied when asked, in 1957, for the reason his star had continued to shine through the decades. “I’ve been wondering about it myself for years. I guess the most important thing is to get a good picture once in a while. Acting is the easiest job in the world, and I’m the luckiest guy.” 

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Ava Gardner with Taylor on the set of the film noir The Bribe, directed by Robert Z. Leonard.
With Elizabeth Taylor at the premiere after-party for Quo Vadis in Los Angeles, 1951.
Signing autographs for fans in London in 1937.

‘Breezy’ was always Taylor’s preferred M.O. He was born Spangler Arlington Brugh in 1911 — it was MGM, on signing him in the early thirties, who changed his name to something markedly less excitable. He was a teenage track and field star, and cellist in his high school orchestra, before following a beloved professor to Pomona College in California, where he joined the campus theatre company and was spotted by an MGM talent scout. He made his film debut in the 1934 Will Rogers vehicle Handy Andy, and went on to make 18 features in three years, including Broadway Melody of 1936 and the British comedy A Yank at Oxford, alongside Vivien Leigh. If his impeccable turnout wasn’t always enough to lift the material at his disposal — one wag opined that his appearance in the drawing-room comedy Her Cardboard Lover was an apposite critique of his performance — his was always a collegial presence. “He was the sweetest man to work with,” said Shelly Winters, a later co-star. “By that I mean he was cooperative and understanding, in contrast to most leading men today, who try either to elbow you out of camera range or are off in a corner somewhere practising Method acting.” 

Barbara Stanwyck and Taylor in a scene from The Night Walker, 1964.
Taylor and Stanwyck, circa 1945, six years into their marriage.
Franchot Tone, Joan Crawford, Stanwyck and Taylor dine at The Trocadero.

To crown his imperial bitten neo-noir — in 1939. The pair had been set up on a blind date by Zeppo Marx, and Stanwyck’s initial hesitancy — she was just out of a traumatic marriage to the actor Frank Fay — was mollified by their mutual love of the outdoors (they often repaired to their working ranch in the San Fernando Valley, where Taylor doubtless got maximum wear out of those frontier pants), their hatred of pretentiousness, and their politically conservative sympathies. Stanwyck, four years older than Taylor, mentored him into more muscular roles, including the titular outlaw in 1941’s Billy the Kid, and the unscrupulous racketeer in the same year’s Johnny Eager (although he somewhat blotted his copybook by embarking on an affair with Lana Turner, his co-star in the latter). 

Taylor had acquired his pilot’s licence in the mid 1930s — his Twin Beech was named Missy, his diminutive for Stanwyck — and was sworn in as a lieutenant in the Navy’s air transport division during world war II. Always an interventionist, he now threw himself zealously into the effort, becoming a flight instructor and directing 17 Navy training films, as well as providing the voiceover for The Fighting Lady, a documentary about an aircraft carrier. Taylor’s commentary, noted one critic, was delivered in “a stern, self-effacing manner, with no trace of the movie star”. 

Taylor arrives in Southampton on the ship Berengaria, August 1937.

In 1944, Taylor helped found the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an organisation that, according to its statement of principles, exalted “the American way of life” and was “in sharp revolt against a rising tide of communism, fascism and kindred beliefs that seek by subversive means to undermine and change this way of life”. His fellow travellers included Stanwyck, Reagan, John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Walt Disney. After the war, Taylor was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, but lambasted the proceedings as a “circus” and refused to appear until subpoenaed. Not that this should have remaining major star under contract from the studio’s heyday — he turned his attention to T.V., starring in the series The Detectives and assuming narration duties from his friend Reagan in the western anthology show Death Valley Days, when the latter began his political career in earnest. Taylor also went on a second blind date that led to marriage, this time to the German actress Ursula Thiess. “The press reported that he’d finally met someone even prettier than he was,” she said, “but he was warped about marriage, thanks to Barbara been mistaken for any hint of ambiguity on his part: “I speak out against communism now for the same reason I spoke out against Nazism a decade ago: because I am pro-freedom and pro-decency,” he thundered in 1951. Perhaps it was a relief to turn his hand to westerns, still then very much in their white hat-black hat phase, though he played both sides: a brusque frontiersman guiding the cavalry against the Apaches in 1950’s Ambush, and a Shoshone Indian losing his fight against encroaching white settlers in the same year’s Devil’s Doorway

Clark Gable, left, and Taylor on their way to work at MGM — Gable is dressed to appear in Parnell and Taylor is wearing a costume for Personal Property.
Shaking hands with Walt Disney in 1938.
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Posing with the actress Virginia Bruce and her husband, the screenwriter J. Walter Ruben, at an event in Los Angeles.
Reading what must presumably be the 1940s equivalent of The Rake.
Taylor as the bomber pilot Paul W. Tibbets Jr. in Above and Beyond, 1952. Tibbets was the pilot of the Enola Gay on the mission to drop an atom bomb on Hiroshima in 1945.
Wearing brown in town, circa 1955.
Pouring himself a cup of tea at a press reception for a new film at the Dorchester Hotel in London, February 1959.

Read the full story in Issue 91, available now.