Published 11/1994, Classic Images, No. 233
"This high vision is granted to one who is pure in heart, to the end that faith in what is eternal may be renewed; of fellowship and honor nor 'tis lost . . . of all knights, Gallahad, the son of Lancelot, shall well be most worthy. Give comfort, then, to Lancelot, whose guilt is all forgiven and whose heart shall now know peace. Blessed be God who lives and moves in all things forever." (assumed to be) the Voice of God, spoken to a Knight Errant, an innocent who had God's favor, in KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE, 1950s, starring Robert Taylor.
I'm fascinated by classic films, those made early on when romance, love, and even violence were portrayed, but never graphically. A viewer can still get lost in the stories, even with a child nearby. One never need worry about any of them being "not suitable for children under the age of thirteen."
The opening quote is from KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE, which starred, in my opinion, the most intriguing actor of his time, Robert Taylor. Very particular in his personal life, Taylor vowed never to make a film "the whole family could not see," and he never did. His respect for others in general, and women in specific, was so well-defined that he determined early in life to conduct himself in a manner befitting a gentleman and, even more so, a gentleman in the public eye. Despite a divorce from Barbara Stanwyck, his greatest desire seemed to have been for a marriage and family life as stable and loving as that which he'd known between his own parents. He achieved this in his second marriage to actress and model, Ursula Theiss, with whom he had two children.
In KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE, Taylor portrayed Sir Lancelot more as a man than a favored member of King Arthur's court. He was Arthur's best friend, confidante, comforter, avenger . . . and in love with Arthur's wife, Guinevere, a love he refused to give in to. In these different human strengths and failings, Taylor seemed to exhibit himself more than just play a part. He showed a man with frailties, worries, joys, sorrows, and guilts. He knew his weaknesses better than most -- save God -- and was harder on himself than all others . . . even his King.
In this trait -- Taylor's ability to portray "Everyman" within various roles -- one finds the basis for longevity in a career that spanned nearly 40 years. . . .Yet, few were allowed into Robert Taylor's inner circle of friends. He chose his confidantes very carefully, almost as if he wanted to make sure ahead of time that they would remain loyal. He seemed to have been burned too many times by hangers-on, or people who invited his confidence but, eventually, sold him out.
Taylor is dead now, has been for over 30 years. Death is a fact of everybody's life and here, for the Robert Taylor story, it seems that only in his death can his life be fully, and finally, understood. Robert Taylor was not just a pretty face. To try and understand who this complex and severely misunderstood man really was, one must delve into the longstanding and, unfortunately, never before seriously disputed idea that Robert Taylor was, at best, a fair actor, an uninspiring figure on the screen if not for his overwhelming good looks.
Anyone interested in plumbing the complexities of human nature in any facet should look into giving Taylor his due. He had acting talent and was proud and fiercely protective of his abilities as they warred with the Hollywood stereotype of good-looker-nothing-upstairs ideology. This ugly untruth should be relegated to those dusty shelves, the same shelves which house those old movie books which tell us, without any backup information to prove the point, just how average and nothing more an actor Taylor was.
Chad Everett, best known for his TV fame in MEDICAL CENTER, has called such a theory, with vehemence in his voice, "bullshit." Everett worked with Robert Taylor in two films during Taylor's later years and considered him a mentor. Taylor seemed to see Everett as a son figure.
Everett assessed that some actors are physical statements, some are psychological statements, and yet others are love statements. In no uncertain terms, Everett called Robert Taylor a "love statement." The camera loved his face, his body, and all his movements. And, in turn, Taylor loved the camera. He was, in Everett's words, "excited by it." When the camera came in for a close-up, Taylor gave it all he had. He worked for the camera. The camera, in response, worked for him.
Taylor used his eyes to express all. There was never any question as to the emotion behind the scene if that camera was pointed on his face and, specifically, his eyes. He used his facial muscles to show tension and anger . . . and his eyes completed the emotions by falling and hardening. Within seconds, his smile could turn into a study of intense hatred or confused fear.
His jaw muscles worked just underneath his cheekbones. The slightest of twitches denoted intensity. His lips, perfect for the gentlemanly and lover roles so often foisted upon him, could curl with the best of the bad guys, or twitch upward to the right just enough to show wry amusement or a neglectful sense of sarcasm.
And when that sarcastic lip did turn upwards, his eyebrow usually followed. Only one, and only the right one. When the two movements came together, it was obvious that his character's dialogue would soon be full of rapid-fire witticisms that were only half-serious and lacking in any genuine content.
One very specific part of Robert Taylor's physical acting has also remained neglected all these years. He was a man who used his hands to tell a story. Not in the usual sense, as in waving them when angry or flustered, or to punctuate his dialogue. Taylor's hands were a vehicle for intensity, a complement to the rest of his skills.
When he was concerned, he would worry his fingers into his palms or abstractedly fondle something he held in his hands. When he touched a woman, any woman, he really touched her. He was never half-involved when he held a woman in his arms. If a scene called for him to put an arm around her, it was almost always around her waist, and he held a firm grip. If the scene required him to take a woman into his embrace, he began by pulling her to him with both hands, tightly grasping her shoulder bones right at the top. It always looked as if that hold he had on his leading lady meant everything in the world to him.
If the script told him to follow that with an embrace, he did so by running his hands over her back with frantic vehemence, as if he would never stop. When the kiss came next -- and depending on when during the different stages of the morality code that kiss was executed -- he gave it an intensity of passion that, without any explicit overtones, told the viewer exactly what he had in mind. His lips met hers and, for those brief seconds, he made love to his leading lady.
Robert Taylor sat in a chair with executed nonchalance. His physical ease was as studied as his moments of hard tension. He moved with a wiryness that showed he had agility and purpose. And few people in his business have ever -- before or after him -- sat a horse with as much aplomb and skill. When Taylor was seen on a horse, the reality that he knew exactly what he was doing was never in question. He looked as if he were born to ride (he did a lot of riding as a child and young man).
His voice could make or break just a few words. He used its tonal qualities sparingly, which punctuated its impact all the more. During his early years, his laugh was free, contagious, and plentiful, like a boy who was delighted with life and couldn't control his elation. As he aged, his laugh became rarer, happening only when it was specifically called for, and then only when Taylor was ready to laugh.
Taylor had a smile that could light up the darkest scene . . . and which was often used for that exact purpose. Again, he seemed to wear a perpetual smile in his earlier days, and his face thanked him by showing its ease and openness. However, somewhere around his early forties through to his death, he held tight rein over his smile. It came at brief, unexpected intervals and broke through the gloom when it seemed that nothing else could.
That sarcastic half-smile, however, was seen in abundance. This didn't necessarily mean that he was smiling for happiness' sake, but more because he was aware of the irony of his situation. He was a star, a legend within his time period . . . and no one ever understood how it happened. Especially him. Was it only because he was so handsome? Had that alone held him on top of the heap all those years? Or was it, as some intimated, because he was so easy-going and never gave his employers, or his public, anything to get angry about? Or was it because he was such an Average Joe -- albeit with a not-so-average face -- whom most everyone, male as well as female, could find appealing . . . each in a different way?
From almost the beginning, when he first entered MGM studios as a beginner straight out of college and due to the insightful eyes of a MGM talent scout, Robert Taylor was, as Chad Everett has stated, "a star."
He was never not a star. Everett, as well as many others, have speculated that if he were alive today, he might still be acting, but he'd definitely still be a star. He had the face, he had the body . . . and he had the ability.
Robert Taylor had what it takes to survive. His track record proves that. Despite his death over 35 years ago, he is still, through the wonder of his celluloid legacy, surviving strongly. If his critics throughout the years he lived had taken the time to review his acting as opposed to either drooling -- the females -- or turning green -- the envious males -- they would've recognized a more-than-competent actor who gave his work his all and then some.
They would've recognized his enduring star power.