Caftan Woman

Caftan Woman

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

CMBA Forgotten Stars Blogathon: Robert Montgomery

Robert Montgomery
1904-1981

"If you are lucky enough to be a success, by all means enjoy the applause and the adulation of the public. But never, never believe it."

This post is part of the Forgotten Stars blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association where names of yesteryear come alive.

The family was watching Bewitched when my father mentioned to my mother, "She's Robert Montgomery's daughter".  The name meant nothing to me then, but by 1974 when That's Entertainment was released and Jimmy Stewart pointed out an "uncomfortable Robert Montgomery" trying his best as a vocalist in Free and Easy, Mr. Montgomery was a very familiar actor.  He was that squealer in The Big House and Joe Pendleton in Here Comes Mr. Jordan, who made me cry, and Lt. Brickley in They Were Expendable

Born to privilege, Robert Montgomery exemplified the young dandies and playboys he was cast as early in his years at MGM in films such as The Divorcee, Our Blushing Brides, Private Lives and When Ladies Meet.  However, Robert Montgomery showed a lot more gumption than some of the callow youths he was asked to portray.  The family fortune was lost and Robert set about making a place for himself in the world giving it the old college try as a railroad mechanic, oil tanker deckhand, short story writer, and settling on actor as the most promising avenue for a satisfying and financially rewarding profession.  Broadway shows in the 1920s with titles like Bad Habits of 1926 and The High Hatters give some indication of the type of roles Montgomery played.  Signed by MGM in 1929 his first job at the studio was as an uncredited "Party Boy" in The Single Standard

In 1928 Robert and British born actress Elizabeth Allen (died 1992) were married.  They met during the run of the 1924 play Dawn.  Their first child, Martha, was born in 1930 and sadly passed at 14 months of spinal meningitis.  Daughter Elizabeth was born in 1933 (died 1995) and son Robert Jr. in 1936 (died 2000).  Elizabeth and Robert's marriage lasted 22 years and they divorced in 1950.

Robert Montgomery, Chester Morris, Wallace Beery
The Big House

Proving himself a more than competent supporting light comic type such as the flirty drunk with a conscious in Norma Shearer's Oscar winner The Divorcee, Montgomery lobbied for grittier stuff.  He got it in 1930s The Big House with its Oscar winning screenplay by Frances Marion.  In the granddaddy of all prison pictures, Montgomery plays another profligate youth.  "Kent" is sent to prison for vehicular manslaughter (drunk driving).  Kent is unprepared for the harshness of life behind bars and he is a coward.  The combination is dynamite behind bars and the role gave possibilities which Montgomery seized, and he delivered a memorable performance.

James Cagney, Robert Montgomery

Montgomery was a born organizer and in the 30s was one of the driving forces behind the Screen Actors Guild, first being their president from 1935 to 1938.  It was through that work that Robert Montgomery and James Cagney became lifelong, stalwart friends. From John McCabe's biography Cagney, published 1997:  The two complemented each other effectively.  Montgomery envied Cagney his elemental toughness and common touch; Cagney admired his friend's easy and natural gentility.  "They were a pair," Willie (Mrs. Cagney) said in her old age.  "One supplied the other with what he had and the other hadn't."

McCabe also quotes Cagney on Montgomery's SAG activities:  Lots of screen actors may well not know how much they owe Bob.  It's sometimes said that Republicans are anti-union.  Malarkey.  Our union, Screen Actors Guild, wouldn't have gained what it did as fast as it did without Bob.  He became our leader in the fight against the producers, and Bob fought them no holds barred, knowing full well he was putting his career right on the line.  It was Bob who bearded those all-powerful producers in their comfortable den.

Robert Montgomery, Rosalind Russell
Night Must Fall

During the 1930s Robert Montgomery made five films with Rosalind Russell, including the Joel and Garda Sloane mystery Fast and Loose, the Robert Louis Stevenson story The Suicide Club as Trouble for Two, and a couple of romantic comedies Forsaking All Others and Live, Love and Learn.  They made a fine screen team and the best of their features is 1937s Night Must Fall based on Emlyn Williams still popular play.  Montgomery is riveting as "Danny", a murderous psychopath who charms and seduces those in his orbit.  Hired as a handyman by a spoiled and wealthy wheelchair bound woman played by Dame May Whitty, Danny intrigues her live-in companion played by Rosalind Russell.  The psychological thriller has a tense atmosphere and bravura performances from Montgomery and Whitty which were nominated in the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress categories.  Their final scene together in the film is unforgettable.  The awards were given that year to Spencer Tracy in Captains Courageous and Alice Brady in In Old Chicago.  Who am I to cast aspersion on the Academy's choices?  I have read that during filming of Night Must Fall Robert Montgomery took over the directing chores from Richard Thorpe who couldn't quite grasp the material. 

Robert Montgomery, James Gleason
Here Comes Mr. Jordan

Robert would receive another Oscar nomination as Joe Pendleton, the boxer taken before his time in the after-life fantasy Here Comes Mr. Jordan.  The film was popular with the Academy garnering seven Oscar nominations.  It won for Best Original Story and Best Screenplay, but lost in the Picture, Director, Black and White Cinematography and Supporting Actor categories to a little film called How Green Was My Valley.  Gary Cooper would take the Best Actor award for Sergeant York.  Through the years I am troubled but what seem to be logic or plot holes in Here Comes Mr. Jordan, yet retain warm feelings for the film.  The comedy still makes me laugh and the sentiment leaves me bawling.  James Gleason is a riot as trainer Max Corkle and Robert Montgomery as Joe is so single-minded and sincere that I just love him.

After that 1941 release Robert Montgomery was off screen due to involvement in the war effort.  He enlisted as an ambulance driver for the American Field Service in France.  After Dunkirk he joined the Navy.  He served at Guadalcanal and off Cherbourg on D-Day.  He received the Bronze Star for meritorious service.

Ward Bond, Robert Montgomery, John Wayne
They Were Expendable

Robert Montgomery's return to motion pictures was John Ford's 1946 film They Were Expendable based on the true life story of Medal of Honor holder Lt. John Bulkeley and the book They Were Expendable by William L. White concerning the battle for Bataan.  During filming Robert Montgomery defended co-star John Wayne from Ford's perverse bullying of the actor who had not served and, once again, Montgomery took on some of the directing chores when Ford was felled by ill health.  They Were Expendable is a leisurely paced and emotional tribute to those valiantly fighting in the face of impossible odds. 

Robert Montgomery was once again president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1946-1947 and was invited to speak at the the 1947 House Un-American Activities Committee as a friendly witness.  From National Screen Actor, 1998 publication:  He stated that he had become aware, in the late 1930s, of "a very active Communist-front organization" in the film industry and "an organized minority" within SAG. He accused that minority of inciting labor strikes and then strongly opposing their settlement. Montgomery wanted to keep the Guild completely out of politics and "strictly an organization which represented the economic status of the members of our profession."

After all those times pinch-hitting, Robert Montgomery finally got the chance to direct his own feature choosing an adaption of Raymond Chandler's Lady in the Lake.  Philip Marlowe was the perfect character to experiment with the use of the subjective camera.  We see the action unfold through Marlowe's eyes and while I can't say the device is overwhelmingly successful, it is such a game try and the story so fun and convoluted that the movie has become a holiday staple in this family.

Robert Montgomery, Thomas Gomez
Ride the Pink Horse

Also released in 1947 is a film I think can truly be considered a film-noir classic, Ride the Pink Horse based on Dorothy B. Hughes novel and directed by and starring Robert Montgomery.  Montgomery is "Lucky" Gagin chasing his destiny to Mexico, although he doesn't know it.  The atmospheric film of oppressive fate sticks in your gut, especially the Oscar nominated performance of Thomas Gomez which lost to Edmund Gwenn's twinkly Kris Kringle.

In 1950 Montgomery moved into television as producer and host of Robert Montgomery Presents where he gained the reputation as a frugal producer, but also a fighter.  From Cagney:  He had begun his successful series, Robert Montgomery Presents, for NBC in 1950 and was very pleased by the results.  But his future with the TV networks was seriously compromised by their establishing an unwritten law; in order to continue a series, one had to sell 50 percent of the show to the presenting network.  He appealed to the FCC, appeared before Senate committees, and denounced the networks for their monopoly tactics.  This did little good at the time, but it is generally agreed that his testimony before influential boards and committees provided an important stimulus toward freeing the television air.

Elizabeth Montgomery, Robert Montgomery
Robert Montgomery Presents

Robert Montgomery Presents ran from 1950 to 1957 and won one out of three Emmy nominations for Best Dramatic Program.  Montgomery acted in three of the episodes as Alan Squier in The Petrified Forest, Lucky Gagin in Ride the Pink Horse and a spy story, Mr. Top Secret co-starring daughter Elizabeth, who appeared in 30 episodes of the program.  Our producer even got James Cagney to appear in one episode, the 8th season kickoff Soldier from the Wars Returning.  Jimmy discovered that live TV was definitely not his thing.  Predating the image consultants of today, Robert Montgomery advised presidential candidate Eisenhower on how best to present an image on television.  During the 1950s Robert Montgomery turned his hand to directing on Broadway and won the Tony as Best Director for the successful melodrama The Desperate Hours in 1955.

Robert Montgomery, "Bull" Halsey, James Cagney

Robert Montgomery's last film was a labour of love with Montgomery and James Cagney co-producing, Montgomery directing and Cagney starring as Admiral "Bull" Halsey in 1960s The Gallant Hours.  An unusual war film with no battle scenes, the director and actor wanted to portray the complexities and loneliness of leadership.  The Gallant Hours succeeds in creating a memorably  emotional and thoughtful mood.

In 1950 Robert Montgomery married Elizabeth Grant and that marriage lasted until his death from cancer in 1981.  During the 1960s Robert Montgomery's energies were devoted to business, serving on corporate boards such as that of R.H. Macy.  While not a name familiar to the casual movie fan of today, classic fans retain their admiration for Robert Montgomery, a talented actor and director worth remembering or discovering. 


27 comments:

  1. I like Mr. Montgomery, too. He was always more than just a conventional leading man. I especially loved his twinkling eyes, which were sort of "bewitching," don't you think? Thanks for a great post about a great star.

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    1. Ha. Good one!

      There's a Montgomery for every mood in his filmography of light-hearted comedies and searing dramas.

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  2. Great post Caftan Woman , although I don't know that he was really forgotten other than how younger generations just don't know any of the old actors. He certainly had a full career. I always liked him, especially his debonnair films at MGM in the 30s. But I really like "Here Come Mr. Jordan" and talk about a forgotten actor, how about Jimmy Gleason, he was in more movies than just about anybody and no one even knows his name! A great choice for the blogathon - even if unforgotten.

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    1. When Montgomery popped into my head as a possible subject I immediately dismissed it. Everybody knows Bob Montgomery! Nevertheless, he kept pushing himself forward. When I was watching "Jeopardy" and no one rang in on an Elizabeth Montgomery question/answer, I decided to follow my gut on her dad.

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  3. Paddy, you know no doubt know that Robert Montgomery has been a favorite of mine since I saw LADY IN THE LAKE, and from I was hooked! Your wonderful salute to this versatile actor and director is superb, and you've just reminded me that it's been ages since I saw RIDE THE PINK HORSE -- thanks for reminding me to watch it again! BRAVA to you on a great post, my friend! :-D

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    1. Thanks so much, Dorian. I like living in a world where Bob Montgomery is still a star.

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  4. Ack! I did not know that Robert Montgomery was so active in the SAG. I admire him all the more for it.

    I enjoy all his performances because he was such a good actor, but my fave is is turn as Danny in "Night Must Fall". He has such great chemistry with his co-stars, and when he is onscreen I cannot take my eyes off him.

    Thanks for adding Robert Montgomery to this blogathon!

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    1. Truly, "Danny" is one of the great performances of the 30s and of all-time.

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  6. Robert Montgomery was surely multi-talented, and if he comes under the heading of being forgotten, it is likely due to our forgetting he was involved in so many facets of the film industry. Great post.

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    1. It's always a shock when I'm speaking to those not into classic movies and they don't recognize a name that is revered. The Nolan girls still joke about the time our brother-in-law confused Glenn Ford with John Ford!

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  7. Lovely post on this wonderful actor. He was so much more versatile than fans imagine. So much great background info on him, especially his SAG leadership and behind-the-scenes directing.

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    1. Thank you. With no official biography or iconic poster and a variety of roles that kept him from being pigeon-holed, Montgomery isn't at the forefront for casual movie fans. His activities on and off-screen are laudible.

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  8. Really enjoyed reading this post, it made me realise how little I actually knew about Montgomery, even though I've seen a number of his films he always slips out of my mind when I think about 'male leads' - that's certainly not a reflection of his talent. Thanks for introducing me to his entire backstory!

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    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed learning more about our "Bob". I don't think he is treated with the respect due, even though we love watching him.

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  9. Thanks for this post. I agree with FlickChick about his twinkling eyes. I love him as David in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. My 13 year old and I enjoy watching classic film together, and Robert Montgomery was high on my list of actors to introduce her to.

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    1. "...Robert Montgomery was high on my list of actors to introduce her to." That's what I call outstanding parenting!

      I think he's perfect in "Mr. and Mrs. Smith". He really makes the whole script work.

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  10. What a fascinating life he led, and how good to know he was as brave in his life outside of film as was in his choices within it. Thank you for such an interesting, informative piece about a talented man. Leah

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    1. Thank you so much for reading and complimenting. So many of the performers we enjoy did so much beyond their "day job".

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  11. Such a great post! I love his early comedic roles and I had no idea of his service in WWII and his efforts for SAG! I also didn't realize that Elizabeth was his daughter! So I obviously need to brush up on my Montgomery--thank you for reminding me of this terrific man!

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    1. My pleasure.

      I have a feeling that once that floodgate reopened, you won't be able to turn around without running into something or someone connected to Robert Montgomery.

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  12. Great, comprehensive post on a very underrated actor and human being. I agree with you that Lady in the Lake is an interesting, if ultimately failed, experiment. (Now of course, the subjective camera is limited pretty much to video games.) I was creeped out by Night Must Fall, but my all-time favorite is Ride the Pink Horse, itself a great, neglected classic. Like some of the other commenters, it took me the longest time to make the connection between Robert and daughter Elizabeth.

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    1. So glad you stopped by, Brian. Perhaps we could lead the charge for a cult around "Ride the Pink Horse". Stranger things have happened.

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  13. Better late than never! Terrific post. I learned quite a bit about Mr. Montgomery and made a note of the movies I haven't seen. THANKS!

    Aurora

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    1. And here it is 2016 and I am just getting around to thanking you for reading and commenting. Thanks a lot!

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  14. Very entertaining read! Alas, ever since watching Robert Montgomery in Night Must Fall and Rage in Heaven I can't help but think him tetched in the head no matter what role he plays. It's those crazy eyes.

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    1. I agree. Those are very unsettling performances. We want to applaud Mr. Montgomery AND stay out of his way.

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