Monday, May 21, 2007

Never, Never Believe It

"If you are lucky enough to be a success, by all means enjoy the applause and the adulation of the public. But never, never believe it." -- Robert Montgomery.

Robert Montgomery was born Henry Montgomery, Jr. on this day in 1904 in Fishkill Landing, New York, the son of a rubber company executive.

Montgomery is remembered today, if at all, as the father of Bewitched star Elizabeth Montgomery, but his film and TV career is notable in its own right, for his contributions both on and off the screen.

After a few years acting on Broadway, Montgomery arrived in Hollywood for the beginning of the Sound Era, and as a prep-school educated boy with patrician good looks, he fell easily into the role of the devil-may-care, tuxedo-wearing playboy. He managed to rise above the bluntness of his typecasting in a few films here and there, including The Big House (1930), Private Lives (1931), Hitchcock's comedy Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941) and They Were Expendable (1945), and was nominated for best actor Oscars for his performances as a psychotic murderer in Night Must Fall (1937) and as the boxer in a playboy's body in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) --the inspiration for Warren Beatty's Heaven Can Wait (1978).

He served four terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild, beginning in 1935, during a time when Hollywood producers weren't interested in letting actors unionize under any circumstances. The fate of the fledgling organization was uncertain, but under Montgomery's leadership, the Screen Actors Guild boycotted the 1936 Academy Awards and voted to strike on May 10, 1937, causing the major studios to sign the first SAG minimum wage contract, one that applied equally to stunt men and extras under Montgomery's insistence.

Montgomery also managed to stare down a threat from the Capone mob. Capone had his hooks into the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), which had managed to extract tribute money from Hollywood producers around the time that SAG was being born. Seeing SAG as a threat to his neat little arrangement, Capone tried to intimidate Montgomery by sending thugs around to slash his tires. Montgomery stood firm, however, invited the FBI into the mix, and ultimately cooperated with the Feds to get Capone's lieutenant Willie Bioff sent to prison.

The same sense of public duty that inspired him in his role with SAG was aroused by the conflict in Europe, and in 1940, Montgomery secretly went to France for several weeks to drive an ambulance. Shortly after he returned, he and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve, and Montgomery was placed in the Intelligence Section in London. Later, he served as an operations officer on a destroyer during the D-Day invasion, saw action at Guadalcanal, and commanded a PT boat in the South Pacific. He retired from the Navy with the rank of commander in 1944.

While continuing to act, he made his mark as an actor-director in Lady in the Lake (1947), the first Hollywood film to employ the subjective camera point of view of its protagonist for an entire feature. Montgomery starred as detective Philip Marlowe, but was seen on screen only at the odd moment when he might catch his own reflection in a mirror. "YOU do get into the story and see things pretty much the way the protagonist, Phillip Marlowe, does, but YOU don't have to suffer the bruises he does," noted the New York Times. "Of course, YOU don't get a chance to put your arms around Audrey Totter either. After all, the movie makers, for all their ingenuity, can go just so far in the quest for realism." Overall, the film was received as a curiosity, an interesting failure as a Hollywood film, but one that certainly confirmed Montgomery's willingness to take an artistic risk.

In the 1950s, Montgomery became the first effective political media consultant of the television age as an adviser to President Eisenhower, helping the ex-general to harness the new medium. In a particularly spectacular coup during the run-up to the 1956 election, Montgomery managed to convince CBS to air a birthday tribute to the president's wife Mamie in March 1956 -- never mind that the first lady's birthday was actually in November. Seeing Nixon's disastrous performance in the 1960 presidential debates against John Kennedy, Eisenhower is reported to have remarked that "Montgomery would never have let him look like he did in that first television debate."

Montgomery died on September 27, 1981 in New York City.

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