Traveling across the highways and roads under dark, stormy skies, I recently found my way to Beatrice, Nebraska. As a Beatrice native, attorney by day and film historian by passion, Jeanelle Kleveland shared, “Beatrice’s population was about twelve thousand when I was born and it’s remained about twelve thousand to this day.” While many things about this small Nebraska town appear relatively unchanged over the decades, with a few signs of modern times sprinkled here and there, one constant remains… this town takes their pride of their native son and screen legend Robert Taylor seriously. Very seriously.
I was invited to experience the Gage County Historical Society’s Gage County Classic Film Institute‘s tribute to Spangler Arlington Brugh and Ellen Martha Clancy to see this for myself. That’s quite a mouthful and by now many of you are muttering, “Spangler and Ellen… who?” Ellen Martha Clancy became known in Hollywood as Janet Shaw, born in Beatrice in 1919.
And yes, Robert Taylor, that devastatingly handsome and popular star of Golden age of Hollywood, was born Spangler Arlington Brugh in Filley (pop. 194) a nearby township near Beatrice (pop. 9,664 at that time) on August 5, 1911. The only son of the town osteopath doctor, his parents raised him in Beatrice, and he was better known as “Arlington” or “Arly.”
On a Friday evening, I drove up in time to see the first event in the festival’s lineup, a screening of W.S. Van Dyke’s PERSONAL PROPERTY (1937), starring Robert Taylor and Jean Harlow. As a fan of silly, over-the-top 1930s comedies, I was pleased as punch.
The next day began with a morning devoted to speakers presenting background histories and a few personal stories of both of these locals that went on to stardom. E.A. Kral, author and local walking Wikipedia of Beatrice and its famed citizens, Lesa Arterburn, Museum Director, Frank W. Smith, first cousin to Janet Shaw, and Linda Alexander, author of newly re-released Robert Taylor biopic on his political controversies “Reluctant Witness,” all indulged us with details on Arly and Ellen.
It became clear that Arly was quite a popular kid, very athletic, excelled in dramatic arts and academics, played cello and always involved in the community. After two years of studying music and dappling in the performing arts at nearby Doane College, he followed his cello teacher to Pomona College in Claremont, California. Before long, he was spotted by a talent scout, enrolled in the MGM dramatic school, and eventually landed a contract with MGM.
According to Kral and Sanders’ “Profiles of Nationally Distinguished Nebraskans” (a book generously given to every attendee in a nice bag of local goodies), “After his father had unexpectedly died in October 1933, Arlington and his mother settled in Hollywood, where he re-enrolled in the MGM dramatic school, and on February 6, 1934 signed a contract with MGM for $35 per week, which made him the lowest paid actor in Hollywood history, where he remained for 25 years, longer than any other star at any Hollywood studio. He was also given the name Robert Taylor to increase his general appeal to more Americans.”
He was very close and devoted to his parents so it was incredibly hard on Taylor when his father died. The picture painted of Robert Taylor was of a very traditional, conservative and obedient man. He thrived and enjoyed the structure of the studio system, under Louis B. Mayer. Furthermore, the speakers supported a vision of Taylor being extremely loyal and obedient to LB Mayer, to his mother, and despite their long periods working apart and big differences in interests, to his first wife Barbara Stanwyck, married in 1939.
The speakers didn’t give a concise image on what the relationship was between his mother and his first wife, who each appeared to rule the roost when it came to Robert Taylor. But I did receive the strong message that Stanwyck never appreciated Taylor’s more humble Nebraskan roots. He traveled back home occasionally, for having a fruitful career in Hollywood, yet Stanwyck did only once- on April 28, 1939 for the premiere of her film, Cecil B. DeMille’s UNION PACIFIC (1939) in nearby Omaha. They shared a strong work ethic and helped balance each other during the transition to fame. Opposites do attract but he never let go of his small town values, his thirst for outdoorsy hobbies and easy-going style, which did not always match well with Stanwyck’s more sophisticated and cool style. And so the city mouse and country mouse divorced after 12 years, with no children together.
Taylor’s second marriage in 1954 to German actress Ursula Schmidt Thiess was a much better fit, and more traditional balance of power. With two children from her previous marriage and two more of their own together (Terry and Tessa who have visited Beatrice for this event a few years ago), Taylor was finally a family man as he always envisioned.
The most intriguing information was presented by author Linda Alexander, author of “Reluctant Witness: Robert Taylor, Hollywood and and Communism.” She gave a brief overview of Robert Taylor’s political life. Alexander touched upon the intense scrutiny and fears of Communist influences within the industry of the 1930s and 1940s that led to the formation of organizations such as Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals and the HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee), and how his forced testimony affected his career and reputation.
In Hollywood at that time, key figures were targeted and played roles in “outing Communists,” were called to testify and asked to name names. Basically, pitting colleagues against one another and the studios themselves were under the same pressure. Some played ball, some did not, some were blacklisted and some felt the sting of loyalty to cooperate via scorn within their own ranks. It’s hard to imagine now that it was actually more protected and less openly scorn to be a member of the KKK than being a member of the Communist Party. Neither are illegal then or to this day.
But it was a complex time of paranoia, fear and betrayal. With a reputation of extreme obedience and conservative values, Robert Taylor was hand plucked to be the party lackey and studio stooge. It likely helped to keep HUAC off the studio’s backs by offering up the sacrificial lambs that not only named names but of course the victims of the witch hunts too.
Alexander’s book surmises that Robert Taylor was a “reluctant witness.” He did out Communists by name but did so under grave moral inner-conflict, a decision that plagued him for the rest of his career. While he continued to work in Hollywood and continued to be a staunch conservative, he faced scorn from many of his colleagues as a “fink.” Linda Alexander called Robert Taylor a victim of “reverse blacklisting.”
In interviewing Linda after her presentation, I discovered that his political entanglements were so controversial that the author initially received an even colder Nebraskan reception than Stanwyck. The town was quite sensitive and protective of their hometown hero. But Alexander was determined to explore the man behind the myth, a man that reminded her of her own father, and she has since enjoyed open arm welcomes by Beatrice after her book was published.
The focus on Ellen Clancy aka Janet Shaw was more brief. Born in Beatrice on January 23, 1919, with a determined mother to create a starlet out of young Ellen, the Clancys moved to Hollywood in 1935. Jack Warner signed her with a seven year contract at the mere age of sixteen. With 71 acting credits in film and TV from 1935 to 1955, Shaw remains most known for her roles in JEZEBEL (1938), WATERLOO BRIDGE (1940) and SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943). For me, her portrayal as Louise Finch the waitress in Alfred Hitchcock’s SHADOW OF A DOUBT is priceless.
Her first cousin, Frank W. Smith, was charming and heartfelt when he stood up and regaled stories of Ellen as a young girl, of visiting her and her mother in Hollywood, and full circle back to when he returned her home to Nebraska, already suffering from Alzheimer’s.
The rest of the afternoon included an old-fashioned church luncheon (where Taylor’s family belonged) and a matinee screening featuring both Taylor and Shaw along with Norma Shearer, Nazimova and Conrad Veidt in Mervyn LeRoy’s nail-biting, thwarting-nazis thriller, ESCAPE (1940). The film was terrific and I recommend it, by the way. A book signing, with Robert Taylor biographers Linda J. Alexander and Charles Tranberg, and banquet followed with Tranberg as key note speaker. Screening of Roy Rowland’s MANY RIVERS TO CROSS (1955) finished out the fest.
I was unable to stay for the banquet and final screening, and unfortunately unable to chat more with author Charles Tranberg, who is a biographer of seven Hollywood star biographies. I believe a follow-up is in order with Chuck. I did speak with FB friend Bruce Crawford, host of Omaha’s Film Event and friend to countless Hollywood connections, who shared exciting news of his next mega event being a tribute to Christopher Reeve this November. Expect a very beautiful, former co-star as guest to headline the screening. Stay tuned to his site for more info to follow.
One of the more fascinating attendees was a 92 year old woman named Elsa who flew in from Sacramento, CA. She claims to be the biggest Robert Taylor fan and after speaking with her, I’m convinced she deserves the title. Jeanelle Kleveland overheard her refer to “Bob Taylor” (she’s so intimate with her Robert Taylor fandom she calls him Bob) at the last TCM Film Festival. A fast friendship was formed and an invite to this event was a must. Elsa revealed that she keeps a calendar that marks significant Robert Taylor dates (birth, death, etc…) and she even sends flowers to his grave four times a year. Now that’s a fan!
Overall, it was a delightful weekend devoted to classic film history, shared with fellow fans and friends. A special shout-out to Jeanelle Kleveland for inviting me, for emceeing the film screenings and generously driving us around to see the three childhood homes of Robert Taylor.
Living in a small Midwestern town myself, I can see how Robert Taylor never let go of Spangler Arlington Brugh and his earnest beginnings of a small, Midwestern town. It shapes its citizens. They realize their common bonds are what keeps them forging through the hard work, simple rewards and those harsh weather extremes uniquely of the Plains. Common bonds like taking joy in celebrating a hometown kid named Spangler who made it big. Really big. He never forgot his small town roots and even to this day, they’ve never forgotten him either.