When introduced to the world as Greta Garbo’s young lover in Camille, Robert Taylor was promoted as the “Male Garbo.” Movie after movie focused on Taylor’s Brill-creamed hair and flashing-teeth good looks, rather than any dramatic weight he had as an actor.
Gnawed by his image as a romantic lead who swept stars Garbo, Joan Crawford and Vivien Leigh into his arms at the fade-out, Taylor pushed MGM for different kinds of roles.
The first real career shift came in 1940, when he was cast in the studio’s all-star production of Billy the Kid. Any similarity the film had to the life of William Bonney was wild coincidence, but its huge success set a new path for the Nebraska-born actor.
A Westerner at heart and a fine horseman, Taylor never became a Westerns icon, but like Glenn Ford, he fit the genre naturally. He stood before the camera with grit and honesty, his deep voice and worn handsomeness projecting a simple truth about his characters, proving that the “Male Garbo” was indeed made of tough stuff. Warner Archive has released a slew of his Westerns on DVD so you can put that theory to the test:
The Law and Jake Wade: Taylor plays a sheriff who can’t escape his outlaw past when confronted with snarling Richard Widmark. A personal favorite of mine, this 1958 film was directed by John Sturges.
Saddle the Wind: Taylor’s chemistry with hotheaded John Cassavetes is great, in this 1958, Rod Serling-scripted story of feuding brothers caught up in a land war.
Billy the Kid: Taylor is an angelic Billy in this truly silly version of his life. Lots of MGM gloss, but the 1941 film is a second-rater, made with top money.
Ambush: Taylor is a civilian scout drafted by the cavalry in this standard, 1950 Western, from a Luke Short story.
Devil’s Doorway: Anthony Mann directs Taylor and a superb supporting cast in MGM’s look at the plight of the American Indian, with an emphasis on action.
Westward the Women: In one of Taylor’s best films, he escorts a wagon of mail order brides through the badlands. Frank Capra wrote the original story behind William Wellman’s 1951 flick.
Ride, Vaquero!: Ava Gardner is the fuse that sets off explosions between Taylor, Howard Keel and Anthony Quinn in a colorful, but pretty dull, 1953 melodrama.
Cattle King: A decent, low-budget production with Taylor solid as cattleman Sam Brassfield, this 1963 film was the last produced by Nat Holt.
Return of the Gunfighter: Burt Kennedy wrote the story for Taylor’s final film for MGM, and the actor says goodbye with an unflinching portrait of a gunfighter who has seen better days. Taylor’s performance is the heart of this small, 1967 movie.
C. Courtney Joyner is a screenwriter and director with more than 25 produced movies to his credit. He is the author of The Westerners: Interviews with Actors, Directors and Writers.