Discovering Robert Montgomery

Hollywood actor Robert Montgomery (Henry Montgomery, Jr., 1904-1981) was born on this day.

Montgomery has become a favorite star of mine, mostly because I discovered him so late in life. I don’t think I had ever seen him in a movie previous to 10-15 years ago. Odd for so major a star, who had appeared in so many films, but none have really endured in the mainstream, no Casablancas or Gone with the Winds. I had certainly heard of him during my childhood, because he was the father of Bewitched’s Elizabeth Montgomery. And my dad often spoke of him as an actor he liked. But none of his movies were shown on television, at least where I lived, and that was our only medium for exposure to classic films in those days. And Montgomery had been retired from acting for decades when I was a kid; he didn’t show up on television shows like a lot of his contemporaries.

I think it may well be the case that every Robert Montgomery movie I have ever watched was via TCM. The ones I’ve seen include Untamed (1929) with Joan Crawford; Buster Keaton’s Free and Easy (1930); The Divorcee (1930) with Norma Shearer; Noel Coward’s Private Lives (1931), also with Shearer; Maxwell Anderson’s Yellow Jack (1938); Hitchcock’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) with Carole Lombard; Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), which was remade by Warren Beatty as Heaven Can Wait; and the 1947 Raymond Chandler adaptation Lady in the Lake, which he also directed.

Montgomery’s appeal as a star is mysterious and has kept me intrigued. He speaks and carries himself with polish, as though he were the product of fine schools, and he was. His father was the president of the New York Rubber Company. And yet, he also seems unaffected and fun-loving; he is extremely likable. The combination is not unlike the personality of FDR. But Montgomery could also go against type, as when he played a tough army sergeant in Yellow Jack. Montgomery appeared in seven Broadway plays through the 1920s. He began starring in films in 1929. Some other notable ones included Night Must Fall (1937), for which he was nominated for an Oscar; John Ford’s They Were Expendable (1945), for which he directed some scenes; and Ride the Pink Horse (1947), which he also directed.

In 1950, Montgomery shifted from film to television, hosting and producing Robert Montgomery Presents through 1957. Starting in the late ’40s he became increasingly involved in politics as a Republican; by the late ’50s it was his entire focus. He worked as a media consultant to President Eisenhower and others. He served as President of the Screen Actors Guild twice, and was a friendly witness for HUAC. His last film was The Gallant Hours (1960), a biopic about Admiral Halsey starring James Cagney, which Montgomery directed and narrated, and co-produced with Cagney. (Cagney was a pretty left-wing guy; they made Republicans very different back then.)