|ROBERT MONTGOMERY BIOGRAPHY
It's hard to say how Robert Montgomery is best remembered; is it as the sophisticated
leading man in the glossy M-G-M productions of the early 1930's; the Academy Award
nominated actor in Night Must Fall and Here Comes Mr. Jordan; the real life naval
lieutenant during WWII; the director who added two very significant films to the genre of
film noir; the Emmy Award winning television producer/director/actor; the Tony Award
winning Broadway director; the man who coached Eisenhower on his public appearances;
the father of Elizabeth Montgomery, star of Bewitched; or perhaps he isn't remembered at
all...certainly not as well as he should be. Not one biography has been written about this
versatile actor and complicated man. His contributions seem to have been reduced to a
footnote in pieces about other people and subjects. His film career often seemed to be a
study in frustration, especially during what would prove to be his most prolific period;
Montgomery himself lamented "So little of what I did in Hollywood gives me any pride of
achievement. Three or four pictures out of sixty-odd. It's not very much." That estimate is
probably a little conservative, but with endeavors as wide-ranging as the aforementioned,
Montgomery certainly qualifies as a renaissance man. His story is an interesting one, one
that has been left untold for too long...
N.Y. TO L.A. (1904 - 1929):
Robert Montgomery was born Henry Montgomery, Jr. in Fishkill Landing,
New York, in a large house on the banks of the Hudson River on May 21,
1904, the first of two sons (brother Donald was born in 1906) born to Henry
Montgomery and Mary Weed Barnard. (In 1913 Fishkill Landing united with
the adjacent Matteawan and became Beacon, for this reason Beacon is
frequently sited as Montgomery's birthplace.) His father was Vice President
of the New York Rubber Company and the family was comfortably off,
although M-G-M later embellished the family's financial circumstances to
enhance the wealthy playboy image they were promoting.
Montgomery attended the fashionable Pawling School for Boys in Pawling,
New York and in 1918 was sent abroad to continue his studies in England,
France, Switzerland and Germany. In 1922 Henry Montgomery, Sr. died and
when the estate was settled the family found itself penniless which resulted
in Montgomery finding employment as a mechanic's helper with the New
York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad and as a deckhand aboard a
Standard Oil tanker.
A CASE OF IDENTITY (1929 - 1935):
M-G-M was one of the largest and most important studios of
the era. Formed in 1924 when the Metro studio merged with
Goldwyn studios and Louis B. Mayer, M-G-M specialized in
glossy, larger-than-life productions. After playing a bit part in the
Garbo vehicle The Single Standard Montgomery was cast in
Three Live Ghosts and then had the part of a college student in
So This is College. After playing opposite Joan Crawford in
Untamed and Norma Shearer in Their Own Desire Montgomery
found himself typecast in the role of sophisticated playboy. A
tuxedo became his uniform and a martini and a cigarette were his
In 1930 Montgomery received an important role in the prison
drama The Big House, which was a significant departure from
what he had been doing. Montgomery delivered an excellent
performance as the frightened young prison inmate. Despite this
obvious display of dramatic ability, in an amazingly short-sighted
move, M-G-M saw fit to return him to the same parts he had been
RISE UP AND WALK (1936 - 1941):
On February 15, 1936 the Montgomery family expanded to include a son, Robert, Jr.,
known to the family as "Skip". The Montgomery's also moved in 1936, from Beverly Hills to
The Screen Actors Guild boycotted the Oscars in 1936 and denounced the producer run
Academy for selling out actors and operating as a bargaining operation for talent. On May
10, 1937 the Guild members voted to strike, demanding recognition for the Guild.
Producers gave in to the demands and thirteen producers signed the first SAG contract
that established a minimum wage for actors, including stunt men and extras. Montgomery,
as President of SAG declared it the "victory of an ideal."
Montgomery also helped send gangster Willie Bioff to the Federal penitentiary when the
Screen Actors Guild was being intimidated by Bioff and the Capone mob. After having his
tires slashed, Montgomery hired two former FBI men to gather information on Bioff, which
he then presented to Henry Morgenthau, then Secretary of the Treasury.
STORM (1942 - 1944):
Anxious to contribute to the war effort, in 1940 Montgomery made an unpublicized visit to
France, much to M-G-M's consternation, where he volunteered and drove an ambulance for
several weeks. Upon returning to the United States, he and friend and fellow actor Douglas
Fairbanks, Jr. determined to enlist in the service. Montgomery and Fairbanks applied for a
commision in the U.S. Naval Reserve. Montgomery was sent to the Intelligence Section in
the map room of the U.S. Naval Attache's office in London where he worked as an assistant.
He then returned to the U.S. where he was assigned to set up a naval operations room in
the White House.
Due to his military service, Montgomery was unable to attend the Febraruy 1942
Academy Award ceremony in which he was nominated as Best Actor for Here Comes Mr.
Jordan. The oscar that year went to Gary Cooper (for Sergeant York.)
In 1942 Montgomery saw action at Noumea, Espiritu Santo, Guadalcanal and New
Georgia and was operations officer aboard a destroyer during the D-day invasion of
France. He also commanded a P.T. boat in the South Pacific.
Among the military honors bestowed upon Montgomery were the Bronze Star and being
decorated as a Chevalier in the French Legion of Honor. Montgomery was retired from the
Navy with the rank of commander.
When Montgomery returned to the U.S. in 1944 he had a serious case of tropical fever,
but recovered enough to accept his first acting role in three years.
SOLDIER FROM THE WARS RETURNING (1945 - 1947):
John Ford had offered him a leading role in what turned
out to be Montgomery's only war film, They Were
Expendable. When the company arrived on location in
Miami Montgomery suffered a panic attack. Unsure of his
ability to act after the three-year hiatus, he confided his
fears to Ford who allowed him the time to prepare before
filming his scenes. Montgomery later described Ford as the
"best (director) I ever worked with...he was a genius." And
when Ford fell and fractured his leg before filming was
complete it was Montgomery he called upon to finish the
job. There were several scenes left to film including many
battle sequences; "...Duke (John Wayne) and I were
visiting him (Ford) in the hospital when the telephone
rang." Montgomery recalled in a 1980 interview, "It was
Eddie Mannix from the studio, wanting to know when he'd
be back. He said: 'I'm not coming back...I'm staying here
and getting my leg right. Then I'm going back to the navy.
Montgomery'll finish the picture.' That was the first I heard
of it. It was quite a shock."
WAGES OF FEAR (1947 - 1949):
In September of 1947 forty-three members of the film industry, Montgomery among them,
received subpoenas from the House Un-American Activities Commitee (HUAC). Orginally
formed in the late 1930's, HUAC first concerned itself with opposing President Roosevelt's
New Deal and other legislation which they deemed as tainted with Communism. HUAC
reached Hollywood in 1940 when the testimony of ex-Communist John L. Leech was leaked
to the press; Leech had named a number of prominent Hollywood actors as Communists,
including Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Fredric March, Franchot Tone, Lionel Stander
and Jean Muir. The Screen Actors Guild was outraged at the time and rallied around the
accused, but as the strength of HUAC's attacks on Hollywood increased, a sense of
After WWII ended and the Cold War began, a strong current of anti-Soviet,
anti-Communist fear began to surge through the United States. By 1947 things in Hollywood
had come to a head and the industry was being accused of using films to impart communist
messages to the nation. Of the forty-three called to testify, nineteen refused to cooperate
and sighted their first ammendment rights in declining to answer questions; these nineteen
were termed "unfriendly" witnesses. Montgomery along with actors George Murphy and
Ronald Reagan had repositioned themselves and SAG regarding the menace of
Communism, largely due to the changing attitudes of the nation. When the trio arrived in
Washington they were counted among the twenty-three "friendly" witnesses.
THE PEOPLE YOU MEET (1950 - 1958):
Attracted by the still unexplored possibilities of television, Montgomery debuted a new
series in January of 1950. Robert Montgomery Presents was a weekly anthology series with
an hour-long format. Montgomery not only produced the program, but hosted each episode
and also occasionally starred in the series. The show was a success and won an Emmy as
Best Dramatic Program in 1952. It had been nominated in the same category in 1951 and
would be nominated again in 1953. Montgomery also received a nomination as Best Actor in
1952. The highly regarded series ran for eight years on NBC. It was on her father's show
that 18-year-old Elizabeth Montgomery made her acting debut in 1951.
In 1950 Montgomery starred in his last feature film, the mystery yarn Your Witness, which
he also directed.
Montgomery moved from California back to New York and on December 5, 1950 he and
Elizabeth Allen were divorced. (Elizabeth Allen remained in New York where she died on
June 28, 1992.) Four days later, on December 9, he married the former Mrs. William Hale
Harkness, Elizabeth "Buffy" Grant Harkness, in Sag Harbor, on Long Island. The couple
divided there time between an apartment on East Seventy-second Street in New York and a
house on Hook Pond in East Hampton.
In 1952 Montgomery assisted Dwight D. Eisenhower in his Presidential campaign by
coaching Eisenhower on his public appearances and speeches. Under Montgomery's careful
attention, Ike became one of the most relaxed and confident speakers, especially during
television debates. When Eisenhower was elected President he appointed Montgomery
"special consultant on TV and public communications." When Richard Nixon lost the 1960
Presidential election to John F. Kennedy, Eisenhower, who had offered Nixon the services of
Montgomery and been turned down, said "(Montgomery) never would have let him look as
he did in that first television debate..."
In 1953 Montgomery produced another television series, Eye Witness, which featured
stories about people who had witnessed crimes. This show did not catch on as Robert
Montgomery Presents had and was relatively short-lived.
In 1955 Montgomery turned his attention to the Broadway stage, directing a play, The
Desperate Hours. Written by Joseph Hayes and starring Karl Malden, Nancy Coleman and
Paul Newman the play earned a Tony award as Best Dramatic Play and Montgomery also
won as Best Director. Montgomery's daughter, Elizabeth accepted the award on his behalf.
The Desperate Hours was made into a feature film that same year starring Humphrey Bogart
and Fredric March.
MAN LOST (1959 - 1970):
In 1959 Montgomery and actor James Cagney formed Cagney-Montgomery Productions
and produced a biopic about Admiral "Bull" Halsey, whom Montgomery had served under
during WWII. The film, The Gallant Hours was directed by Montgomery and starred
Cagney as Halsey. Robert Montgomery, Jr. had a bit part in the film, as did James Cagney,
Beginning in the early 1960's Montgomery served as communications director for John
D. Rockefeller III. He also was on the board of directors of the R.H. Macy Co., the
Milwaukee Telephone Co. and the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
In 1962 Montgomery directed another Broadway play; Calculated Risk was another
Joseph Hayes play and starred the husband and wife team of Joseph Cotten and Patricia
Medina. The play opened off-Broadway and was well-received. The opening night in New
York also went well and the galley copy of the review that the company received that night
was a rave. Unfortunately, the newspapers went on strike the very next day. With nothing
to publicize their play, attendance dwindled. The same thing was happening all over
Broadway and play after play was closing as a result. Cotten, determined not to let the
play close had a brilliant idea, he and Medina went on television and advertised the play.
They also appeared on game shows, talk shows and anywhere else they could make a
pitch. The ploy worked, "we became known as the miracle on 49th street," recalled Cotten,
" and ran the entire season."
In 1964 Montgomery's daughter, Elizabeth, who had previously been seen in over
countless television programs over the past thirteen years was cast as the star of the
television sit-com Bewitched, produced and directed by her third husband, William Asher.
In 1968 Montgomery authored the book An Open Letter From a Television Viewer in
which he expounded on his theories on television.
In 1969 Montgomery served as President of the Lincoln Center Repertory Theatre.
|Be sure to check out the embedded links
within the text for more info, photos, etc.
RECLINING FIGURE (1971 - 1981):
Having sold the Hook Pond property,
Montgomery and his wife spent their summers
in a place on the water in North Haven, Maine
and winters in an ancient farmhouse in the
Canaan valley, in northwestern Connecticut.
Montgomery spent most of the 1970's in
retirement and on September 27, 1981, at
Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan,
Montgomery died of cancer. His body was
cremated and the ashes given to the family.
|"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
|"His every gesture is superb. In fact, he's the
only man I know of who doesn't have to pull up
the legs of his trousers before sitting down." -
On October 13, 1930, a daughter, Martha Bryan was born;
tragically Martha passed away from spinal meningitis a few
days before Christmas, 1931, aged fourteen months.
In 1932 the Montgomery's moved to Beverly Hills and on
April 15, 1933 added a daughter, Elizabeth to their family.
In 1935 Montgomery was elected to the first of four terms
as President of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). SAG was
organized in 1933 as a union for actors when the Producer's
Association announced a 50% salary cut for actors already
working six-day weeks for $65. Many actors didn't consider
themselves "laborers" working for "bosses", but artists
collaborating with producers. While feeling the need for some
sort of guild, they were not in favor of a union, but rather a club
which would work on friendly terms with producers. Montgomery
had been among those originally in favor of a club, but worked
quite vigilantly for the union during his presidency. In 1934 a
failed fundraiser wiped out the Guild treasury and Montgomery
was among a group of actors and actresses who loaned the
Guild money to replenish their funds. In 1935 the Guild became
a national organization when it joined the Associated Actors
and Artistes of America (4A's), a branch of the American
Federation of Labor.
|An early portrait by Hurrell.
Meanwhile Montgomery was also fighting for the right to
play better roles. The foremost in question being that of the
psychotic killer in Night Must Fall. The studio in general and
Louis B. Mayer in particular couldn't imagine why Montogmery
would want such an unflattering role. They eventually gave in
and Montgomery got his way; the film was a huge critical
success garnering rave reviews, but a dismal failure at the
box-office. It didn't matter; Montgomery received an Academy
Award nomination as Best Actor for his performance and the
respect of critics who had heretofore considered him as
nothing but a glorified pretty boy. He lost the Oscar to Spencer
Tracy (for Captains Courageous), but was not surprised; "there
was a line of M-G-M cameramen waiting with cameras poised"
recalled Montgomery, "and they all looked self-concious and
turned aside. I knew immediately I wasn't going to get it..."
Montgomery was nominated as Best Actor by the New York
Film Critics Circle in 1937 and 1941, mirroring his Academy
Award nominations for Night Must Fall and Here Comes Mr.
|Montgomery and his wife Elizabeth Allen in the mid 1930's.
|Montgomery's children, Skip and
Elizabeth in 1939.
|Montgomery renews his contract with
Louis B. Mayer and MGM.
|Montgomery volunteered and drove an ambulance in
Paris in 1940.
|The difficult task of filming Lady in the
Based on Raymond Chandler's novel, The Lady in the Lake features Montgomery as
detective Philip Marlowe and after a brief introduction by Montgomery at the beginning of
the film, we see everything from Marlowe's perpective, only getting a glimpse of the leading
man when he sees his own reflection, such as in a mirror.
For Montgomery's next directorial effort he was back in front of the camera again; Ride
the Pink Horse was based on a mystery novel by Dorothy B. Hughes and filmed on location
in New Mexico. This is arguably the best film Montgomery directed; while obviously rooted in
a specific time (post-war America) and place (a New Mexican border town), the film at the
same time trancends both. Montgomery's style of direction was unique, he handles the
well-trodden ground of sex and violence in a compelling way; the scenes between
Montgomery and leading lady Wanda Hendrix are handled in a frank and upfront manner;
the several brutally violent scenes are depicted in a matter-of-fact way which forces the
viewer out of passive observation and brings them face to face with violence and it's
consequences. The film is a classic, which if seen more today would definately have a
higher place in the genre of film noir and classic film in general.
|Montgomery, Wanda Hendrix and Thomas Gomez
in the classic Ride the Pink Horse.
In a move more concerned with the preservation of the film industry and it's economy
than in the preservation of the "American way", producers met at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel
and in a landmark decision, voted to blacklist industry members who had failed to cooperate
with HUAC and who would not pledge themselves as "anti-Communist". Producer Samuel
Goldwyn was the lone dissenter. In turn, SAG, along with the Screen Writers Guild (SWG)
and the Screen Directors Guild (SDG) convinced themselves they were doing what was best
for the industry as a whole and, caving in to the pressures of the blacklist, cut loose all
members accused of being "reds". The blacklist and subsequent "graylist" endured
throughout the 1950's, ruining the lives and careers of many Hollywood actors, actresses,
writers and directors.
In 1948 Montgomery headed the Hollywood Republican Commitee to elect Thomas E.
Dewey President. Dewey, three-term governor of New York, was a successful prosecuting
attorney who had been defeated by Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1944 bid for the
Presidency. He was considered a shoe-in in the Presidential election of 1948, so much so
that the Chicago Daily Tribune's headline on the morning after election day read "Dewey
Defeats Truman", but in the largest political upset in U.S. history, Harry S.Truman was
victorious and became the 32nd President of the United States.
Montgomery also revived his writing ambitions in the late 1940's, having several of his
short stories published in magazines and periodicals of the time, including Colliers and
American Magazine. He also found time to host the 1948 Academy Award ceremony, held
March 24, 1949 and direct and star in Once More, My Darling.
In 1948 Montgomery who had done much radio work, served as producer of the radio
series Suspense, but his radio work soon gave way to a relatively new medium, television.
|George Murphy, Montgomery and Ronald Reagan at the House
Un-American Activities Commitee hearings in 1947.
|Montgomery's daughter, Elizabeth (right) accepts a Tony award
on her father's behalf at the 1955 awards. Pictured with her from
left to right are: Rosalind Russell, Sybil Trubin, Carol Haney,
Helen Hayes and Nancy Kelly.
|James Cagney and Montgomery on the set of The Gallant
Around 1922 Montgomery moved to New York City with the idea of becoming a writer, but
he soon found himself on the stage instead, making his acting debut in 1924 in The Mask
and the Face. He also changed his name from Henry to Robert, which he felt was more fitting
for an actor. Among the plays Montgomery appeared in were, Alene O'Dare, Dawn, One of
the Family, The Complex, The High Hatters, Garden of Eden, and Possession.
On April 14, 1928 Montgomery married socialite and fellow stage player Elizabeth Allen,
formerly of Louisville, Kentucky. After having been turned down by Goldwyn talent scouts for
having "too long a neck," Montgomery obtained a contract with M-G-M, and in 1929 he and
Elizabeth Allen moved to Hollywood.
In 1946 Montgomery was re-elected as President of the Screen Actors Guild, but resigned
the post in 1947 to pursue other activities, namely directing.
Montgomery's original intention was to direct and star in a film based on John Galsworthy's
Escape and to use the subjective camera. This style, in which the camera is the protaganist,
had never been employed for an entire full-length film before and M-G-M was against the
project. "I wanted to do Galsworthy," Montgomery said, "because the story, people's
reactions to an escaped convict, lent itself to the method. I had been contemplating the
prospect since before I joined the Navy, but the actual way of doing it, of applying the form
as a framework for a whole film, had to be worked out. M-G-M didn't want to do it, but I
persuaded them at least to accept the basic principle. Edward Mannix, the vice-president,
eventually gave me the go-ahead to use it in Lady in the Lake when the script was being
revised, much to Louis B. Mayer's displeasure - although Mayer was quite happy to accept
credit for it after the film had been well-received."
|A candid shot of Montgomery, taken in the late
60's or early 70's.