A Second Look at Robert Young

Robert Young in the 1930sSometimes, the man seems to have been dismissed during his film career as having “had a face like a duck”. He was regarded as a pretty nervous sort who might be a second lead at best, but could fake a certain hearty good fellowship whenever a part called for it and exemplified a sort of unadventurous husband and father. What most of us may not have been prepared for was the discovery that the man had talent too. Thanks to TCM, in the last few years, I’ve had a chance to see that he was more than the lightweight, improbable romantic lead of comedies cranked out in the studio era.

My fellow blogger, Jacqueline, of Another Old Movie Blog reminded me of this actor recently when she turned her nuanced eye on They Won’t Believe Me (1947) starring Robert Young and Susan Hayward as very star-crossed lovers 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 his job as a stockbroker becomes involved with three archetypal film noir women, played by Hayward as a working class girl with ambitions for the finer things in life, Jane Greer as the polished, seductive Lorelei beyond his reach, and the solitary, wealthy socialite Rita Johnson as the controlling wife, who seeks to isolate Young and feed on his soul, like a mythical Harpy. I love this movie, and felt as though I’d discovered a secret door into the real Robert Young when I first saw this film after growing up enjoying his lighter-veined paternal roles in such movies as Sitting Pretty and, of course Father Knows Best, Marcus Welby, M.D. and those ’70s Sanka commercials when a grandfatherly Young used to ask “Why so tense?” just before foisting a cuppa the brew on some younger person about to snap.

Young proved in this film that his ability to appear peevishly bland and self-satisfied might be covering a lack of insight and uneasiness about his own character–or it might just be that his facade is slipping throughout the movie, as it seemed to do throughout his career when a good role came up. This restlessness under his very “averageness” expressed an unquiet heart central to this actor’s most effective film work. While reading Jacqueline‘s thoughts on this movie on her blog, I was reminded of the fascinating interview with the late Robert Young that was published in Leonard Maltin‘s recent Movie Crazy (M Press, 2008).

In Maltin‘s long interview, the actor described the incredible people he worked with, from Marie Dressler to Katharine Hepburn, as well as his own real life, characterized by sometimes crippling bouts of self doubt and alcoholism, as well as a remarkable work ethic and a lifelong desire to find some peace, even after a nervous breakdown in the 1960s and a suicide attempt in the early ’90s. He appears to have been a far more complex and thoughtful person than one might guess from reviewing his best known work, and, as I’ve come to appreciate in recent years, the actor used his private qualms to lend a fatalistic air of quiet despair to his best movies.

Joe Smith American (1942) with Marsha Hunt, Robert Young and Darryl HickmanI think another example of Young‘s range can be found in the interesting “B” movie,  Joe Smith, American (1942). It might be easy to dismiss this film as pure World War II propaganda. It concerns a defense factory worker working on a secret advance in bomber equipment. Joe, played by Young, helps the police to track down the saboteurs who kidnapped and tortured him to reveal sensitive information about his work even while brushing off the heroic attention he receives from those around him.  As in many B movies, there were opportunities for the filmmakers to make some telling points about the society they lived in then–often without excessive oversight by the front office. One of the more disquieting moments in the movie comes in the scenes when we hear Joe’s voice expressing his inner thoughts and fears as he listens, blindfolded, to his captors. While ordinarily this might be a prelude to some feat of derring-do, the way that Young infuses his character’s situation and racing thoughts with despair and anxiety is still cutting. While most audience goers would readily understand the likely outcome of this MGM movie, the effects of the experience on Young‘s character are not so patly handled, especially given the actor’s intensity of performance.

The film, written by Allen Rivkin from a story by Paul Gallico,  comes to vivid life thanks to the beautiful ensemble work created by Young, the underrated warmth and intelligence of Marsha Hunt as his wife, and Darryl Hickman as his son, under the direction of journeyman Richard Thorpe.  The movie, which features some still harrowing scenes when Joe Smith (Robert Young) is tortured by his captors, pushed the boundaries of the Production Code’s then iron grip, all in the name of emphasizing the solidarity between civilian workers and those who served in uniform. During this memorably matter-of-fact movie, as Young recalls the incidental, everyday pieces of the mosaic that comprised his domestic life at home and at work, the remembrance helps him to pull through the unexpected shock of his experience. His character’s occasionally flippant attitudes at work or at home where his child’s baby teeth are pulled by the string-and-door method or his wife’s insists on eating in the kitchen to avoid scratching the new dining-room set become part of a remembered contentment for him, giving a bittersweet appreciation for the prosaic moments in life.

Later, in this small movie, the semi-documentary feel of the piece becomes heightened by the fascinating sequence when Young‘s aural re-tracing of his steps back to the kidnappers by use of his memory for sound. In the end, Young has proved himself capable of enduring much more pain than he realized he was able to stand, but he has also found himself with a renewed, appreciative perspective on his life as a husband, father, and citizen. This film, which is not available commercially, is broadcast on TCM from time to time. Here’s the trailer, which veers well over into the comically melodramatic rah-rah territory that the actual movie of Joe Smith, American managed to sidestep nicely, even though this trailer is a fascinating artifact of an over-the-top moment in pop culture when the country was at war:
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2qG8g9V18Y4]

By the time that he’d appeared as “Joe Smith”, Young may have felt as though he was finally proving that an incident several years earlier was well behind him. When Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer head Louis B. Mayer called a young contract player into his office for a chat in the 1930s, two outcomes seemed possible to the actor.

The unlikely one might be that you are about to be told that your recent work was pleasing to the mogul. Or, as often seemed more plausible, you were about to be given the boot. When Robert Young, who was under contract at the studio from 1931-1945, entered Mayer‘s gleaming, intimidating sanctum, he received the following advice from L.B., who asked that he do a “couple of things…for your career, and for us.” Young, an anxious young man who was always eager to hone his skills, perked up. Louis B. Mayer in his office at MGMHe apparently wasn’t going to join the league of the unemployed at just that moment and the boss was taking an interest in him. He wasn’t completely prepared when L.B. told him succinctly, “Put on some weight and get more sex.”  Young, who still lived at home with his mother at this point, had a skeletal frame like Jimmy Stewart, was unable to gain an ounce, and didn’t have a clue as to how to amend his new label of having  “no sex appeal”. Robert Young never quite exuded masculine self-confidence effortlessly like the studio’s stars Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. Nor could he possibly compete with Robert Taylor, the new stellar presence around the studio, whose rather breathtaking good looks may have unfairly masked any trace of acting talent in the guy for two decades.  Still, Mayer went on to urge Young to move out of Mom’s house, get an apartment with a Japanese houseboy, be seen regularly at the Mocambo and Ciro’s, cultivate an air of mystery, and start dating some of the girls from the “stable”, such as Mary Carlisle and Madge Evans. Robert Young tried this mode of living for about six weeks.

He finally confessed to his fiancee and his boss that he was going to have to coast along on his “just his talent” and that boy next door air that nature had given him. His journey, which he spoke of quite frankly in his last decades prior to his death at 91 in 1998, began as one of five children born to an Irish immigrant father and an American born mother in Chicago. Moving to Seattle, Washington and eventually Los Angeles, his carpenter father left the family when he was ten, compelling him to work, beginning as a newsboy to supplement the family income.  His partner in marriage beginning in 1933, Betty Henderson, resulted in the birth of four daughters. His acting career, begun in part to help him overcome his innate shyness, was particularly stressful for him even without the “helpful” advice offered by Mr. Mayer. Young spent many years working to become a better actor, looking for various ways out of his lifelong bouts of depression, alcoholism, and, after a suicide attempt in 1991, the discovery that he had lived with a chemical imbalance for many years.

Working in movies as well as radio and eventually tv, it was fortunate for some of us who like the guy, that he remained “a featured player” and became useful as a utility player for the studio, (who also raked in some serious dough by loaning him out to other studios during his tenure for 38 of the approximately 78 movies he made during his time at MGM. Some of the best of those loan-outs resulted in some fine teamwork being created supporting actresses such as Claudette Colbert, Shirley Temple, and Loretta Young. Hs most memorable team may have been that which he formed with Dorothy McGuire in several movies, including The Enchanted Cottage, a topic I’ve touched on previously in blog articles found here).

There are several performances that I’ve come to treasure by Young, who was a master at portraying conflicted and often just highly fallible men, in such movies as Three Comrades (1937), playing a bitter WWI veteran whose only redemption is in his friends,  The Mortal Storm (1940), in which he plays a Nazi with just a twinge of conscience,  Crossfire (1947), in one of his best roles, and The Searching Wind (1947), a really interesting failure, based on a Lillian Hellman play, in which Robert Young played a delusional diplomat who failed to see the danger of fascism.

The Second Woman (1951) posterOne of the most memorable and least known of Robert Young‘s movies after leaving MGM may be the underrated film noir, called The Second Woman (1951), which I tend to think was unfairly categorized as a weepie for female audiences. The movie, produced by Harry M. Popkin (who also produced several interesting independent films, including And Then There Were None (1945) and Impact in 1949), co-stars Betsy Drake as an educated, if rather impulsive and naïve young insurance actuarial agent. While you don’t meet such females every day in the cinema of the late ’40s or early ’50s, Betsy‘s character may have a grasp on dry statistics, but, when it comes to that Frank Lloyd Wright style house on the Northern California coastline, the gal’s just a moth to the flame burning within the troubled architect who lives there, mooning over his dead bride, who perished on their wedding day.  Drake and Young are supported by a few fine character actors Florence BatesMorris Carnovsky, and Henry O’Neill. Slimy John Sutton, an actor whose career seems to have consisted of many roles as a less likable or trustworthy Errol Flynn sort of bounder, is laughable as a country club lothario. Jean Rogers, a rather lovely actress with an overlooked delicate quality, is long remembered for her role as Dale Arden in the Flash Gordon serials opposite Buster Crabbe in the 1930s, though in this film, she appears as a brittle divorcée. Not too surprisingly, given the era and the calibre of roles coming her way, Rogers called it a career after making an appearance in The Second Woman.

A minor motion picture by most standards, The Second Woman was one of several “B” films directed by James V. Kern, a former Fordham Law School trained attorney and a member of The Yacht Club Boys, a popular comic singing group who popped up in some musicals in the ’30s–until the participants got “real jobs” . The director had previously helmed small bombs for Warner Brothers, such as the fitfully funny The Doughgirls (1944), the roiling soap opera on Stallion Road (1947), and had encouraged postwar Americans to let a smile be their umbrella in the nostalgic musical featuring the neglected talents of Jack Carson and Ann Sothern in a damp but occasionally sprightly film, April Showers (1948). Today he is probably best remembered today for his television directing of programs from I Love Lucy to Maverick and My Three Sons. Despite that fairly undistinguished dismal résumé, Mr. Kern creates an effectively brooding atmosphere from the moment the narration begins, first spoken by Betsy Drake and secondly by Young. Yes, dear reader, we have a plethora of flashbacks in this movie, which tips its hat at several far better known films of the genre, including Rebecca, Jane Eyre, and even The Second Mrs. Carroll.

Ms. Drake, with her lithe figure and soft, cultured voice seemed to be pigeon-holed as an upper middle class bachelor girl early on in her career, (avoid, at all costs, the ghastly Every Girl Should Be Married, if you value your brain cells and patience). Married to Cary Grant from 1949 to 1962, the bookish former model and actress, never really fit into the Hollywood world of pneumatic blondes in the fifties. Betsy Drake in The Second WomanThough their marriage eventually ended in divorce, Grant later said that she helped to steer him toward a better understanding of life through her interest in books and hypnotherapy. Not surprisingly for those who knew her, Ms. Drake became a practicing psychotherapist later in her life. As a heedless young woman in jeopardy in this movie, she worries the viewer and, as she becomes increasingly drawn to Young‘s quiet gloom, almost finds herself wondering if she’s fallen in love with a madman. With her refined mien, Drake, like Jane Wyatt in the Father Knows Best series, seemed a logical choice of partner for Young in this film. Photographed in a lovely brooding black and white by Hal Mohr, with some spectacular settings on the Northern California coast, as well as some cheapjack interiors and shaky process shots, the movie has a strong sense of place and mood that heightens the generally intelligent performances of Young and Drake.

Throughout the movie, architect Robert Young finds himself increasingly suspicious of others, and he is suspected of various acts of paranoia, possible delusions and acts of violence. His damaged character, haunted by the past and stymied by his efforts to move ahead in the wealthy but stifling social atmosphere of his town, gives the actor a chance build his character’s mystery believably, despite some hairpin turns in the story line, which leave the viewer wondering who is the hero and the villain of the piece.  There is one scene in particular toward the end in which Robert Young‘s tattered will to live flags as his spirit and posture crumples when faced with one more failure in his life. His air of quiet, sinking sorrow is far more memorable than the rather gimmicky solution offered by the script, though the ride to that end is characterized by several enjoyably dark moments. Btw, the denouement may make you wonder about the sanity of the neophyte scenarists of this film, Mort Briskin and Robert Smith, but I suspect that you may be impressed with the talented cast’s ability.

The film, which is available in both dvd and vhs form for a relatively inexpensive price tag. I do hope that there might be a better 35mm print somewhere of The Second Woman, which ought to get a re-broadcast somewhere, (hint, hint, TCM programmer). In the meantime, here’s the entire movie, in slightly battered but compelling form from youtube:
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CKDjife6IvU&hl=en&fs=1]

Robert Young, so well remembered for his bland and kindly, sunny roles, once explained to an interviewer that he was an introvert in an extroverted profession. Quite troubled throughout his life by depression and alcoholism, he could convincingly play an upright citizen as well as a character with dark flowers growing in his soul.

He was exceptionally good when given half a chance with a decently written part. ”I am a plodder,” Mr. Young once said. ”My career never had any great peaks. But producers and directors knew I was reliable. So when they couldn’t really get the big stars, they’d say, ‘Let’s get Bob.’ As a result I always kept working, each time a little higher.”

Sources:
Bodnar, John E., Blue-collar Hollywood: Liberalism, Democracy, and Working People in American Film, JHU Press, 2003.
Maltin, Leonard, Movie Crazy, M Press, 2008.
Parrish, James Robert, Mank, Gregory, The Hollywood Reliables, Arlington House, 1980.
Quirk, Laurence J., Margaret Sullavan: Child of Fate, St. Martin’s Press, 1986.

14 Responses A Second Look at Robert Young
Posted By Jacqueline T Lynch : May 28, 2009 7:47 am

Thanks for the nod, Moira, and another excellent and thoughtful biography. I agree Robert Young could show great depth and sensitivity, and complexity to his characters when given a chance at a good role. You give us some great sources and a lot to think about on this self-effacing actor.

Posted By Jacqueline T Lynch : May 28, 2009 7:47 am

Thanks for the nod, Moira, and another excellent and thoughtful biography. I agree Robert Young could show great depth and sensitivity, and complexity to his characters when given a chance at a good role. You give us some great sources and a lot to think about on this self-effacing actor.

Posted By Jenni : May 28, 2009 11:30 pm

Thanks for the interesting post about Robert Young.

The Canterbury Ghost was a favorite of mine, having seen it when I was 11 on the afternoon “Big Show” after school one day. I loved Enchanted Cottage. Thanks to your earlier post on Dorothy McGuire, I made sure to tivo it when TCM aired it. I also recently watched They Won’t Believe Me. That movie was something! Stringing along 3 women, scheming plans, divorce, accidental deaths; sounds like a plot of a Lifetime movie, but the cast made it work very well. Even my husband got hooked watching it to see how it would turn out!

Again,Moira, a great post!

Posted By Jenni : May 28, 2009 11:30 pm

Thanks for the interesting post about Robert Young.

The Canterbury Ghost was a favorite of mine, having seen it when I was 11 on the afternoon “Big Show” after school one day. I loved Enchanted Cottage. Thanks to your earlier post on Dorothy McGuire, I made sure to tivo it when TCM aired it. I also recently watched They Won’t Believe Me. That movie was something! Stringing along 3 women, scheming plans, divorce, accidental deaths; sounds like a plot of a Lifetime movie, but the cast made it work very well. Even my husband got hooked watching it to see how it would turn out!

Again,Moira, a great post!

Posted By missrhea : May 29, 2009 11:11 am

Thank you so much for this look at the under-estimated, under-appreciated Robert Young. Just last week I was hoping that one of you would write a piece about him. I’ve admired him my whole life. It’s always a pleasant surprise to see one of his old films pop up on TCM.

Posted By missrhea : May 29, 2009 11:11 am

Thank you so much for this look at the under-estimated, under-appreciated Robert Young. Just last week I was hoping that one of you would write a piece about him. I’ve admired him my whole life. It’s always a pleasant surprise to see one of his old films pop up on TCM.

Posted By Jacqueline T Lynch : June 2, 2009 7:35 am

Back again. Passing on the Palabras Como Rosas award to you here: http://newenglandtravels.blogspot.com/.

Posted By Jacqueline T Lynch : June 2, 2009 7:35 am

Back again. Passing on the Palabras Como Rosas award to you here: http://newenglandtravels.blogspot.com/.

Posted By Suzi Doll : June 2, 2009 7:35 pm

Enchanted Cottage rules.

Posted By Suzi Doll : June 2, 2009 7:35 pm

Enchanted Cottage rules.

Posted By Brian Pinett : June 18, 2009 7:26 pm

Your assessment of Mr. Young is perhaps a little accurate. He was a perennial favorite among movie goers and directors. Amiable and dependable and rarely a bad review questioning either his integrity or sincerity. He did not have to fake it, as you indicated above. That is called talent. He was a pro and was quite a performer. In Marcus Welby, the entire nation, most notably, Annette Funicello wished he was her doctor. In real life, he was hard and sometimes rude. But on the set, he was a pro like Bette Davis. I see you are a “student” of film, but a cynical fan at best. Years from now, will others read your reviews and call you cynical … you judge the past with cynicism. How you judge is others will judge you. Of course, I am just paraphrasing the Bible.

Posted By Brian Pinett : June 18, 2009 7:26 pm

Your assessment of Mr. Young is perhaps a little accurate. He was a perennial favorite among movie goers and directors. Amiable and dependable and rarely a bad review questioning either his integrity or sincerity. He did not have to fake it, as you indicated above. That is called talent. He was a pro and was quite a performer. In Marcus Welby, the entire nation, most notably, Annette Funicello wished he was her doctor. In real life, he was hard and sometimes rude. But on the set, he was a pro like Bette Davis. I see you are a “student” of film, but a cynical fan at best. Years from now, will others read your reviews and call you cynical … you judge the past with cynicism. How you judge is others will judge you. Of course, I am just paraphrasing the Bible.

Posted By Pam Latham : July 12, 2015 8:41 pm

Robert young never made a bad movie.Its such shame nobody saw the talent.He was so much more talented than Robert Montgomery.He was funnier,and his timing was better.The movie he made with Lana Tuner,and Walter Brennan was one of the funniest I’ve ever seen.Robert Taylor might have been handsome but his acting was awful.Robert Young was so cute,and he could act.Im just sorry he didn’t make more movies.As a child we watched Father Knows Best,until it went off the air.From young to old his facial expressions were perfect.Thanks for letting me have an opinion .

Posted By Steve Zalusky : February 22, 2017 6:28 pm

One interesting omission in the article is the fact that Young’s brother Joe had a very long career as a film comedian, mainly in silents and primarily for the Mack Sennett studio. In fact, historian Brent Walker has brought up the fact that Robert played a bit in a Sennett comedy in which Joe was featured. Without comedy makeup, Joe’s face is almost identical to Robert’s. The descent of Joe’s career mirrored the ascent of Robert’s and provides an interesting background to Young’s progression through his profession.

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