The Dark Side of Robert Young

stillWhen most people think of actor Robert Young they recall his popular TV medical series “Marcus Welby, M.D.” (1969-1976) where he was the epitome of the kind, compassionate doctor or they remember Jim Anderson, the perfect dad in the all-American sitcom “Father Knows Best” (1954-1960).  And he was also typecast as Mr. Nice Guy in most of his Hollywood films, playing bland romantic leads or the leading man’s best friend or some other decent, noble or well-intentioned character who blended into the woodwork and rarely stood out. But there were at least two occasions when Young trashed his good guy image by playing despicable characters and for some reason these are the two performances I remember best – Fritz Marberg, a budding Nazi party member in THE MORTAL STORM (1940), and Larry Ballentine, a complete cad and accused murderer in THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME (1947), an often preposterous but highly entertaining film noir that deserves a release on DVD. 

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THE MORTAL STORM, directed by the great Frank Borzage, is a cautionary tale about the xenophobia that swept through Germany in the thirties and triggered the rise of the Nazi party. Though it is structured as a romantic drama set in a small German village, the film’s turbulent background eventually occupies the foreground and overwhelms the story. At the beginning of the film Young is the fiancé of Freya Roth, played by Margaret Sullavan, but as he becomes swept up in the ideology of the Nazi party, he slowly becomes a threat to the Roth family and all non-Aryan members of the community. (I don’t recall if the term Nazi is ever actually used in the film since Hollywood – and in this case MGM – was still marketing and distributing its films in Germany). Young’s transformation from the ardent suitor to a hateful oppressor may be melodramatic but it’s a side of Young you always knew was there. Nobody can be that nice all the time and in this film his conversion to fascism allows him to finally release all that pent-up anger for being stuck in drab romantic roles all those years at MGM. He’s a frightening character and you genuinely fear for Sullavan and James Stewart when they flee the town at the tragic conclusion.

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Young is even better in THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME which has a terrific supporting cast (Jane Greer, Susan Hayward, Rita Johnson) and is produced by Joan Harrison (a screenwriter for Hitchcock on four features and his TV series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”) He plays a married stockbroker but is a compulsive womanizer and liar. And capable of embezzlement and other illegal business transactions. Told in flashback from a courtroom murder case,  Young’s character emerges as a weak, amoral and highly ambitious guy who attracts women who sense a similar hunger and drive for success. His wealthy wife is aware of his many flaws but clings to him anyway and tries to manipulate his behavior through her purse strings. It doesn’t work of course and he plunges into one adulterous affair after another leading to a chain of tragic coincidences that land him in a courtroom, facing the death sentence. Bad luck comes in spades in this film and Young, like Tom Neal’s character in DETOUR, seems doomed from the start. The ending is over the top but somehow appropriate considering everything that has gone before. And Young is completely convincing as the spineless, callow and self-absorbed Larry Ballentine. He’s such a loser that you feel real empathy for him by the end of his miserable tale. It’s a long way from Marcus Welby and Jim Anderson but somehow you always knew something dark and disturbing was behind Young’s kindly smile.

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16 Responses The Dark Side of Robert Young
Posted By MDR : June 30, 2007 4:06 pm

Great article Jeff, and I was reminded of a discussion on the TCM message boards a couple years ago during which "we" discussed the three Roberts – Montgomery, Taylor, and Young – all of whom were destined to play "good guy" roles except for a few notable exceptions, which were some of their better parts (like Montgomery's Night Must Fall (1937) or Taylor's Rogue Cop (1954)).

Posted By MDR : June 30, 2007 4:06 pm

Great article Jeff, and I was reminded of a discussion on the TCM message boards a couple years ago during which "we" discussed the three Roberts – Montgomery, Taylor, and Young – all of whom were destined to play "good guy" roles except for a few notable exceptions, which were some of their better parts (like Montgomery's Night Must Fall (1937) or Taylor's Rogue Cop (1954)).

Posted By Buddy R. : June 30, 2007 5:57 pm

The dark side of Robert Young indeed! That was his real life. The actor suffered from severe depression for years, turning to alcohol to deal with it. He had a nervous breakdown in 1966 and tried to kill himself in 1991. Apparently he developed a drinking problem during his contract years at MGM and it lasted for decades. The irony of your article is that Young preferred playing respectable, likable characters and didn't want to appear in THEY WON'T BELIEVE ME but had no choice. It was a film he always regretted making proving that actors are not always the best judges of their own work.

Posted By Buddy R. : June 30, 2007 5:57 pm

The dark side of Robert Young indeed! That was his real life. The actor suffered from severe depression for years, turning to alcohol to deal with it. He had a nervous breakdown in 1966 and tried to kill himself in 1991. Apparently he developed a drinking problem during his contract years at MGM and it lasted for decades. The irony of your article is that Young preferred playing respectable, likable characters and didn't want to appear in THEY WON'T BELIEVE ME but had no choice. It was a film he always regretted making proving that actors are not always the best judges of their own work.

Posted By ccmiller : July 1, 2007 11:06 am

Very interesting details about his real life personality….it seems very close to the character he played in the 1950 film "Second Woman" in Of course, for which he plays a man having a breakdown and attempting suicide.Of course, for me, he will always be the "Father Knows Best" so wise and compassionate he can solve any family problem.  But I do greatly enjoy seeing him in atypical roles such as in  "Northwest Passage"

Posted By ccmiller : July 1, 2007 11:06 am

Very interesting details about his real life personality….it seems very close to the character he played in the 1950 film "Second Woman" in Of course, for which he plays a man having a breakdown and attempting suicide.Of course, for me, he will always be the "Father Knows Best" so wise and compassionate he can solve any family problem.  But I do greatly enjoy seeing him in atypical roles such as in  "Northwest Passage"

Posted By ccmiller : July 1, 2007 11:08 am

Very interesting details about his real life personality….it seems very close to the character he played in the 1950 film "Second Woman" in  which he plays a man having a breakdown and attempting suicide.Of course, for me, he will always be the "Father Knows Best" so wise and compassionate he can solve any family problem.  But I do greatly enjoy seeing him in atypical roles such as in  "Northwest Passage"

Posted By ccmiller : July 1, 2007 11:08 am

Very interesting details about his real life personality….it seems very close to the character he played in the 1950 film "Second Woman" in  which he plays a man having a breakdown and attempting suicide.Of course, for me, he will always be the "Father Knows Best" so wise and compassionate he can solve any family problem.  But I do greatly enjoy seeing him in atypical roles such as in  "Northwest Passage"

Posted By Michael Levin : July 21, 2007 7:52 pm

You're forgetting the early 1930s Hitchcock film "Secret Agent".  Robert Young played the hero's friend who later turned out to be the enemy spy.  Does anybody with a better memory recall this film including its cast members?  I saw it on a VHS tape from an old and undigitalized shaky print. 

Posted By Michael Levin : July 21, 2007 7:52 pm

You're forgetting the early 1930s Hitchcock film "Secret Agent".  Robert Young played the hero's friend who later turned out to be the enemy spy.  Does anybody with a better memory recall this film including its cast members?  I saw it on a VHS tape from an old and undigitalized shaky print. 

Posted By mARY : November 29, 2008 6:36 pm

Unfortunetly he suffered from depression and attempted suicide more than once, he eventually ended his life I beleive, but he was a great actor.

Posted By mARY : November 29, 2008 6:36 pm

Unfortunetly he suffered from depression and attempted suicide more than once, he eventually ended his life I beleive, but he was a great actor.

Posted By TCM’s Classic Movie Blog : May 27, 2009 7:28 pm

[...] in a small scale film noir about greed, desire and fate. The movie, which MorlockJeff also praised in an earlier blog,  benefits from the casting of the usually affable Young in the role of an ordinary man who, in [...]

Posted By TCM’s Classic Movie Blog : May 27, 2009 7:28 pm

[...] in a small scale film noir about greed, desire and fate. The movie, which MorlockJeff also praised in an earlier blog,  benefits from the casting of the usually affable Young in the role of an ordinary man who, in [...]

Posted By tommy honner : May 8, 2010 6:16 pm

robert young died of respirory failure..

Posted By tommy honner : May 8, 2010 6:16 pm

robert young died of respirory failure..

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