If the guy pictured above looks like he just stepped out of a Noel Coward role, that’s because he actually may have. That’s Robert Montgomery posing with his Cadillac Sport Phaeton on the MGM lot in the early 1930s.
At about this time in the actor’s long and distinguished career on many levels, Norma Shearer — who, as Mrs. Irving Thalberg, exerted real clout at the time at MGM — chose Montgomery as her costar in the 1931 big screen version of Coward’s play Private Lives. The career of the aristocratic-bearing actor, the son of rubber company executive who turned out at his death to have more debts and assets, was officially off and running.
Montgomery subsequently appeared in more than 65 movie roles, and directed several notable titles. He also had a noteworthy career off the movie set. He was twice president of the Screen Actors Guild (in the mid-to-late Thirties and again in the mid-Forties), and served in the Navy with distinction in two World War II combat theaters. (Yes, he saw combat; no USO appearances for him.)
In retrospect, his SAG service may have posed more of a challenge since the big Hollywood studios were being shaken down at the time by two Chicago-bred gangsters, Willie Bioff and George Browne, who had taken control of the powerful International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union and then blackmailed studio heads to preserve labor peace.
It was under Montgomery’s stewardship at SAG that the actors union took on both the studio heads AND the Browne-Bioff extortion racket. Actor (and later California’s U.S. Senator) George Murphy recalled that Montgomery went to a meeting with (MGM boss) Louis B. Mayer at his beach house in Santa Monica to discuss the proposed contract between the Motion Picture Producers Association and the Screen Actors Guild.
When (he) arrived, (he) found Bioff among the negotiators. Montgomery took one look at this character and announced that he would return to the meeting only after the ‘hoodlums’ had left. (Bioff would eventually land a lengthy jail sentence thanks in large part to a private investigation launched by SAG.)
In the Navy, Montgomery rose to the rank of Lieutenant Commander, and saw action commanding PT boats in the South Pacific. This stood him in good stead in what we believe to be the actor-director’s finest film, MGM’s They Were Expendable, costarring John Wayne and a radiant Donna Reed. John Ford is the director of record of this 1945 classic about PT boats in the Philippines although Montgomery is said to have lent a hand in the direction.
They Were Expendable is not just one of the best World War II movies ever made but one of the best movies ever made, period.
One of Montgomery’s misfires as actor-director was his foray into film noir in 1947’s The Lady In The Lake, in which he assumed the role of private eye Philip Marlowe. The aristocratic-looking actor was wildly wrong for the part of the tough-talking gumshoe, and only the costarring presence of Audrey Totter — a stalwart noir femme fatale — makes this picture worth another look.
The actor is perhaps best known today for his Fifties NBC-TV drama anthology, Robert Montgomery Presents, a series of original teleplays plays that ran for six seasons. (The show provided the springboard to the late Elizabeth Montgomery, the actor’s daughter.) Montgomery later became a tv consultant for President Dwight Eisenhower.
He died in 1981 at the age of 77, a class act until the end. Notice that in the above shot, the gorgeous car — try as it will — cannot upstage the classy Montgomery.