I grew up thinking of Robert Montgomery as a movie tough guy, but watching all these pre-Code Hollywood movies recently, I was surprised to discover that MGM largely wasted him in the 1930s by assigning him an endless series of flaccid pretty boy roles supporting Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and pretty much any other actress who needed a handsome man to gaze vacantly at her while she did her thing.
Made me wonder if the same thing would have happened to Clark Gable if he hadn't been loaned out to Warner Brothers for a particularly nasty turn in Night Nurse, and then a couple of years later to poverty row studio Columbia Pictures for a little ditty called It Happened One Night, where he got to show, respectively, his roguish menace and comedic flair and win an Oscar in the process.
Anyway, here are a few facts about Robert Montgomery, some I knew, some I didn't.
● He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth but the life of privilege didn't last—his father jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge and the family lost everything.
● While working as an actor in New York, Mont- gomery met then stage director George Cukor. It was Cukor who later convinced him to give Hollywood a try. Montgomery made his debut as an uncredited extra in 1929's The Single Standard. A year later he was co-starring with Norma Shearer in The Divorcee, a role that won Shearer an Oscar. That same year, he also had an important role in The Big House, a prison drama that won Frances Marion as Oscar for screenwriting.
● Montgomery received two Oscar nominations, the first for playing a murderer in 1937's Night Must Fall, the second playing a dead boxer in search of a live body in the comedy Here Comes Mister Jordan.
● He served in combat in the Pacific during World War II, rising to the rank of lieutenant commander.
● His official directorial debut was The Lady in the Lake in 1947 (two years earlier, he had directed some scenes in They Were Expendable during John Ford's illness). Based on a Raymond Chandler mystery, The Lady in the Lake was an experimental attempt to film the entire movie from the lead character's point of view. We only catch a glimpse of Montgomery in a mirror. The film received a mixed reception critically and was not a hit. He directed four more movies between 1947 and 1960.
● Montgomery was twice the president of the Screen Actor's Guild. He was active in politics as a Republican and advised President Eisenhower on his television appearances. Ike later commented that had Richard Nixon followed Montgomery's advice before the first televised debate with John Kennedy, Nixon likely would have "won" the debate and the election.
● He was the father of actress Elizabeth Montgomery, the star of television's Bewitched.
Here are five Robert Montgomery performances I can recommend to you:
1) The Big House—he's quite convincing as a rich, sniveling weasel who doesn't cope well when he's thrown into a prison cell with murderer Wallace Beery.
2) Private Lives—in this screen adaptation of the Noel Coward comedy, he plays Elyot, a man who would rather spar with his ex-wife (Shearer) than honeymoon with his current one.
3) Night Must Fall—playing a caretaker of Dame May Whitty's cottage, Montgomery isn't quite the nice guy he seems to be, and Rosalind Russell can't decide whether to kiss him or turn him over to the police.
4) Here Comes Mister Jordan—probably his best performance, here he plays a boxer frustrated with a celestial bureaucracy that has accidentally killed him before his time and then can't make things right. And you thought the Department of Motor Vehicles was a pain! (Warren Beatty later remade this as Heaven Can Wait.)
5) They Were Expendable—John Ford's classic downbeat war movie about the ones who were left behind. Inspired by the real-life heroics of John Bulkeley, Montgomery plays an American PT boat skipper battling both the Japanese and U.S. Navy brass during Japan's invasion of the Philippines. Co-starring John Wayne, this was not only the best movie Montgomery ever starred in, it's on a short list of the best movies ever to come out of World War II.
And here's one more, a movie I haven't seen, but would like to: Ride the Pink Horse. No, it's not a porn movie, it's a film noir directed by and starring Montgomery based on a script by the legendary Ben Hecht. Co-star Thomas Gomez received his only Oscar nomination for this one.
"If you are lucky enough to be a success," Montgomery once said, "by all means enjoy the applause and the adulation of the public. But never, never believe it."
That's it. That's all I've got. It's enough, isn't it?
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