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Glamour. Intrigue. The Golden Era of Hollywood. They just don't make movies like they used to!
Reluctant Witness: Robert Taylor, Hollywood, & Communism is the exhaustive biography of the life of Golden Era movie star, Robert Taylor.
Called “The Man With The Perfect Profile,” some considered him the most beautiful man to ever grace the movie world. Yet there was more to him, lots more. He was complicated. He saw history – movie history and world history – and he was part of both.
Much has been written about Robert Taylor and his politics. Here's a bit of background:
"Bob was summoned to see Louis B. Mayer in early 1943. When he entered his bossí office, he found they werenít alone. Lowell B. Mellett stood when he entered the room. Bob was introduced to him and the three had a brief talk which, according to Bobís later recollection, 'didnít last more than five minutes.' The subject of the meeting was the making of what had been called Scorched Earth, a film now titled Russia.
"While some stories indicate this to have been Bobís first introduction to the assignment, official documents show that Mellett personally made the trip to Hollywood for the 'express purpose of overruling Taylorís objection' to being a part of the movie. A number of things clashed. Bob had already been inducted into the Navy. When Lowell Mellett, with his direct connection to the President, showed up in Hollywood for a meeting with Mayer, and with Bob, the drama that went on prior to this 'five minute' MGM get-together took on added importance.
"Bob was offered the film prior to this meeting, and he had refused. This was an unusual move for him, notwithstanding any consideration of film content, or Bobís strong anti-Russian beliefs. For Bob to act this way, there must have been some heavy leaning on Louis B. Mayer, or he would have handled Bobís sudden stubbornness internally. He was famous for great finesse in taking care of problems with his talent. He handled these matters in total privacy, within the ranks. Available records indicate MGM acquired the Scorched Earth/Russia treatment in April of 1942 which, time-wise, curiously coincided with Bob receiving the extortion letter. Filming started in March of 1943. His previous assignment, Bataan, another war film, had wrapped on February third.
"Bob was sworn into the United States Naval Reserve the same month, so this meeting between Bob, Mayer, and Mellett was held somewhere at a point concurrent with his official entry into the Navy in February, and six months or less after the extortion case had been finalized and the perpetrator punished. While there is no known indication that securing Robert Taylor as the lead in Russia and the attempt to extort him had any connection, the consideration is intriguing.
"Also worth contemplating is why the movie was made in the first place. This question has never been satisfactorily answered....
"Documented accounts seem to show how MGM acquired the script prior to government intervention. Most likely his [Mayer's] goal was little more than sheer numbers, pocketbook numbers. In 1942, Louis B. Mayerís income was reported at $949,765, a seriously tidy sum for the period, particularly considering this was war time. He was a smart man. He certainly also read newspapers and listened to the radio, as well as to his well-connected advisors, and he saw the writing on the wall. The acquisition of such a story, and the making of such a movie, was the right thing to do for the company coffers.
"Whatever the reason behind the struggle, Bob did end up as the the lead in this increasingly controversial film. There are records showing that his name was probably bandied about early in the process. Mayer may have wanted him in that role from the start. Whether because MGM had already lost the option on the two other actors, or whether Bob was Mayerís initial choice, Bob learned in the meeting with Mellett and Mayer that he would play John Meredith, Navy or no Navy Ö and he was not happy. Later, he said, 'They [the studio] wanted me to do it. I didnít want to do it because I thought it was definitely Communist propaganda. In other words, it happened to paint Russia in a light in which I personally never had conceived it.'
"Mayer somehow thought him 'ideal,' though, despite the fact that he knew from the outset that Bob 'did not like the story.' This in itself wouldnít have been so unusual, since actors didnít always find an assignment to their liking for any variety of reasons. For someone like Bob, though, known to take what work was handed him and not argue with the brass, to be extraordinarily agreeable often to the point of submission Ö for him to speak against any role was a total shock to all involved.
"That initial meeting must have been interesting, possibly volatile, in the short amount of time they were together, though Bob wouldíve been nothing but polite in his determination to argue his side. He reminded his boss and the government representative of his commission in the Navy, already secured. He hoped, and probably at that moment believed, that the signed fact of his upcoming military service would prove to be the end of his consideration for the lead in this film.
"Mayer let him talk. He was well-versed in Bobís personality. He knew Bobís politics. He himself was considered conservative, though most thought his true allegiance was only to the bottom dollar. Chances are, he finessed Bob and told him something that wouldíve bought him time, something like, 'Well see, Bob,' or 'Iíll see what I can do about this,' or 'Iíll do what I can for you, Bob.' Mellett may have remained silent and let Mayer be the front man.
"All the while, Mayerís think wheels were turning. After Bob left his office, and in correlation with a letter Mellett wrote to Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, Mayer called in his chips. He had a personal phone conversation with Knox to explain the situation, 'recalling the good that had been accomplished with Mrs. Miniver and other pictures released during the war period.'
He asked for a deferment for Robert Taylorís Navy service. Knox listened, and then agreed to consider the problem. Ultimately Knox gave the nod so Bob could be granted 'the time to make the film before being called to the service.'
"Done. Robert Taylor would star with Susan Peters in Russia."