The Rich Boy
Clarence Brown's 1931 film Inspiration is a negligible yet intermittently lively and evocative Garbo vehicle: a shuttle train in her still venturesome advance into sound. The movie (an ‘updated’ adaptation of Alphonse Daudet's 19th-century novel Sappho) enlists her lingering Swedish accents in the chic nasality of upper-crust post-World War I Paris. She enacts the title role of novel and film: the soulful courtesan and amorous muse of upper-class Bohemia. Obviously flourishing in her partnership with Brown, Garbo performs with a feline languor that recalls Dietrich, at no detriment to either. She moves with the floppy insouciance of a small girl; a stylisation never painful or ridiculous. The tender sensitivity she embodies is reflected in the imagery of place and nature: silvery Empire decor, firelight, pouring rain, the shabby warmth of dawn; all invested by Brown and his camera director William Daniels with manifest skill and affection for both medium and subject.
The film’s modest sphere is thronged and energised by Garbo’s supporting cast: Lewis Stone as an elegant old rake, black sheep twin brother of Judge Hardy; Marjorie Rambeau as Garbo's fellow courtesan and confidante – a Renoir painting re-drawn by Reginald Marsh, ripe and billowy. And pivotal to this retinue, Garbo's male lead.
Watching our heroine from afar, at a shimmering, ribald (pre-Code 1931, remember) soirée, is a tall, very slender young man in black evening dress; his long, neat head encased in glossy, black looking hair. Suddenly, his dark eyes flick to the left: the single movement in the pale face. The banked intensity transmitted resounds like a single note from a steel triangle.
Some time ago, Dale Thomajan mentioned to me the similarity of Robert Montgomery to Louis Jouvet. The introductory shot just cited is emblematic in recalling the opening sequence of Jean Renoir's Les Bas-fonds (1936). As the camera prowls like a stalking interrogator in a half-circle, Jouvet maintains the slightest yet most fixed of smiles, as he and we hear the oration of Mandarin politeness that will terminate in his discharge from a major civic post.
Montgomery and Jouvet shared a tone of furtive irony, a tough delicacy of control, a sea captain's respect for heroic poise. Their best performances display an unfailing intuition for the scale of a role, and a continual golden wire of sardonic finesses. Their well considered elegance could allow for the exaggerations of farce with no sacrifice of integrity (dignity, which many might regard as a priority, seems to have been too instinctive to warrant their consideration).
The glittering range of Jouvet's career (including his pragmatic Mosca to Harry Baur's superb Volpone, the scandal sniffing Vicar of Bedford in Drôle de drame  and the weatherworn detective in Jenny Lamour ) was not available to Montgomery in a Hollywood saturated with typecasting. Yet, from early on, he can be seen evolving a distinctive sharp-focused style from the types afforded him.
His initial role, comprising numerous roles of the early ‘30s, was the Rich Boy. He was born in Beacon, New York in 1904 to old money that had become virtually extinct by his teens. He served as a mechanic's mate and a deckhand on an oil tanker; sometime within that segment he discovered a penchant – possibly outweighing aptitude – for writing. Though it seems never to have extended beyond fledgling attempts, the literary affinity would recur, as would the naval one.
Samuel Goldwyn, who preferred the well-fleshed in both male and female players, was taken aback by Montgomery's gangling length. At MGM, he was granted artificial contours by studio costumers as a college football player extra. Later, Mother Nature did her bit; yet he never lost the hint of bony jointure. Recall his entrance as a scarecrow-like Danny in Night Must Fall (1937). But he could also glide like a goldfish; recall Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941).
Possibly unfairly, certainly illogically, his Inspiration performance has been called vapid by occasional critics. Setting aside the self-evident – André is neither a Marc Antony nor even Fred in Coward's Brief Encounter – his performance of this plaster puppy shows some detailed perception: a prim deliberation, a sort of pedantic nicety. The young man, one observes, is well under way in his studies for the Diplomatic Corps.
Not too much later along, he would display further nuance; a growing alertness to certain hard-core possibilities in the white dinner jacket and black dress trousers of the well-to-do young man. These Montgomery shared in shifts with those two other charismatic Roberts, Taylor and Young. Distinct from them, he begins to display a hard, watchful intelligence that discloses frequent sidelights of cunning; as well as a potential mischief that may not always be boyish, or harmless.
The makings of his comic potential may be seen by reverse reflection, as it were, Private Lives (1931), Noel Coward's (by many) celebrated Battle of the Decibels. Let me say here that I would be hard put to suggest any acting team fully equal to the undulant fevers (tantrums/tenderness) of Eliot and Amanda. Both seem to me presumptuous heirs of that other classic British team Punch and Judy. Unless one counts the (probably by now) notorious line about warien and gongs, the two major instances of wit in this version belong to director Sidney Franklin: an instant flashback, at the film's opening, as Amanda – watching Eliot's highly solemnised marriage – recalls their own wedding by an officious French Justice of the Peace, to a giggling chorus of young women; and, much later in the film, a whispered interlude in bed between the couple – which, as the camera recedes, is seen taking place amid a roomful of sleeping couples in a Swiss mountain lodge.
Montgomery contributes his share of grace and earnestness in his one-and-a-half dimensional role. What he probably lacks is a sense of active pleasure in Eliot's roaring paroxysms. Also, at that stage in his career, he may have lacked the malice. I can imagine Rex Harrison (who played a Coward hero in Blithe Spirit, 1945) shovelling in the animus. His partner Norma Shearer, on the other hand, invests Amanda with the rampant gusto of a drunken lumberjack. Somehow, it does not cancel, but rather buttresses, the mature poise of her peaceful interludes.
Montgomery's genuine comic élan can be observed in good fettle three years later. Forsaking All Others (1934), its title notwithstanding, is not a soap opera; but rather a cheerfully skedaddling comic romp: the affable love child of Joseph L. Mankiewicz (screenplay) and W. S. Van Dyke (direction). Both may be seen here in their prime, and at their near best. The film's opening moments – some small talk between Joan Crawford and her masseuse as Crawford tones up for her impending marriage – display the flip, breezy aptness, the edgy phrases, that adorn Mankiewicz's dialogue at that time; long before the warmed-over flippancies of All About Eve (1950) or the stodgy sententiousness of People Will Talk (1951). Van Dyke's talent for pell-mell brio in his pacing has long been too easily dismissed as slapdash and uncaring. Partnered with J. M.'s screenplay, however, the rhythm boils along with a jubilant vivacity. A typical scene: Clark Gable, recently landing on American soil, regales his pal (the matchless Charles Butterworth) with his patriotic delight; as the camera accompanies them down the street, he celebrates with purchases from a gallery of street vendors climaxing his triumphal march with a bunch of balloons.
Montgomery enters the film within approximately one minute of its opening. As Crawford is being kneaded and paddled on the massage table, Montgomery peeps around the door; on his face, a stare of delicately exaggerated diffidence, to ask a manifestly inane question about the coming nuptials. Answered, he withdraws only to reappear two or three times more; the lubricious significance of his boyish stare now unmistakable.
His introductory image might offer a sort of logo for the type that he would perfect throughout such ‘30s comedies as Riptide (1934) and Blondie of the Follies (1932): the Nice Young Man of ulterior motives. Similar moments abound in Forsaking All Others; especially, a faltering, studiously timid catechism of Crawford, as the pair bed down – separated only by a Chinese screen – after a series of boisterously messy adventures in a country cottage.
He was rapidly learning how an apparent foil – a steadfast reactor – could manipulate comedy. To this end his eyes had become an expressive prop of many uses, not all of them comic. They could be variously incredulous, cunning, and often wary – darting right and left. Like those of a small animal leaving its warren. A few of his most memorable entrances involve some variation of emergence from a hiding place: in addition to the moment described above, recall his appearance from the bedclothes in the opening of Mr. and Mrs. Smith; or in Night Must Fall his sidling, loose-kneed approach through a doorway to the regal presence of his future employer and ultimate victim, Dame May Witty.
Also figuring in his acting vocabulary was an ably geared capacity for self-caricature: note June Bride (1948), wherein Montgomery executes a succession of eye-poppings and eye-rollings, frantic sprints, and at least one classic flat-on-the-face tumble. These various tropes, which might have been the legacy of Pat Sullivan’s Felix the Cat, are delivered by Montgomery as though he had indeed transmuted himself into a black-and-white cartoon, supervised by a serenely watchful presence.
In Forsaking All Others, Montgomery’s abovementioned skills are placed in relief by his miniature counterpart, the superbly diffident Charles Butterworth: a chief engineer of murmuring unease, always in the apparent process of collecting his thoughts from some unbelievably traumatic previous encounter. Like Montgomery, Butterworth was one of Hollywood's notable Britoids: actors who, without recent British origins, could seem British on screen minus the all too usual lame affectations. He shared the young Robert's aptitude for carrying off farcical extravagance with an aplomb that disclosed his basic comic paradox – flattered, yet serene. At one point, he dons a maid’s cap and apron; at another, he poses, along with Gable, as the distaff side of a honeymoon couple. In both instances, as with Montgomery, Butterworth’s secret relish of the posture is never in question; no more so than his masculinity. Another, though 1esser incidental light, Rosalind Russell's momentary appearance – her voice, for its smattering of speech, in full-throated splendor, and her bearing in full (i.e. regal) confidence. Her appearance forecasts future notable teamings with Montgomery: e.g. Trouble for Two (1936), Night Must Fal1, Fast and Loose (1939). Would there had been more.
‘Minimalism’ is a too tempting, yet too slippery designation for Montgomery's evolving style. His was not a wilful denuding of technique in favor of stolid blankness: a kind of histrionic anorexia. Rather, his acting through the years registers his perception of portraiture by discrete, subtle changes in such features as voice, walk, gesture, carriage. His acting was grounded in a hard-headed determination to localise himself in every role through the cogent use of particulars. Thus, the rolling shuffle of a pugilist's walk in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), or, the honeyed hint of brogue in Night Must Fall. One recalls a rare radio appearance on William Robson's Suspense: the incognito Jack the Ripper, in The Lodger. Montgomery adopted a high-pitched Welsh singsong that seemed to quiver with some imminent outburst.
That performance in The Lodger offers a pertinent sidelight on the literary penchant that surfaced increasingly as his Hollywood status acquired authority. When he came to direct his own films, these – Lady in the Lake (1946), Ride the Pink Horse (1947) – suggest a preoccupation at least as much literary as cinematic. Even that eminently forgettable comic romp Once More My Darling (1949) is a would-be frolicsome reprise of the private eye continuity in the Chandler film. In later years, he would be found drafting speeches for President Eisenhower and, within roughly the same time segment, initiating Robert Montgomery Presents on TV, which would highlight such works as O’Hara's Appointment in Samara and Charles Jackson's The Lost Weekend.
With such references in mind, Montgomery’s on-screen persona begins, through the ‘30s, to disclose nuances of irony and hard-eyed calculation that suggest the Smart Young Man as taking on aspects of Scott Fitzgerald's short story hero ‘The Rich Boy’. The story, in miniature chronicle, follows its ostensibly ingratiating main man on a firm-stepping course climaxed by his ruthlessly peremptory dismissal of a now-inconvenient mistress.
In various ‘30s roles undertaken by Montgomery, his ambiguously boyish presence comes increasingly to resemble a mask, beneath which one senses the varying imminence of either criminality or vulnerability. His most successful comic appearances, however frenetically mobile, enlist a passivity not far from that of the foil.
Some of his best comic work seems to consist of little more than a tapestry of reactions: distrust, muted terror, fluttering embryonic indignation. In Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Montgomery projects the awakening realisation of a lethargic-brained pug that he has been cast (through the cross-wires of celestial Providence) as the hero of a modern-day fable. The movie, directed by Alexander Hall, enjoyed record success at the Radio City Music Hall. Today, its major charm may be found in its cheerfully pedestrian patience in spinning a fantasy of life after death such as today’s film culture would download with technological hoopla. Its tone of amiable lightness is buttressed by the tactful charms of Claude Rains as a heavenly ombudsman, James Gleason as a canny fight manager, and Montgomery. The role of Joe Pendleton is a remarkable instance of Montgomery’s shuttling between high and low society in his diverse sorties as a character actor. He walks with a mingled prowling/slouching gait, as though sizing up invisible adversaries. His face, still residually boyish, wears a hovering frown of reluctant comprehension, ready at any point to become outraged mistrust. He leads the attendant company in converting a fantasy of potential laborious pretentiousness into an engaging updated Miracle Play about a beleaguered Everyman winning his stripes.
It is revealing of Montgomery's early earned and carefully evolved mastery of acting economy, that his quicksilver virtuosity in Jordan seems already substantially intact in the London underworld frolic The Mystery of Mr. X (1934). The MGM film, adapted by Philip MacDonald from his novel The Mystery of the Dead Police, offers a modest showcase of graceful ingenuity, unstudiously persuasive use of London locales, or their apt representations, which includes a skittering, shadowy chase among the freight elevators of a London warehouse; and all in all the forgotten delights of an era when crime thrillers could be more sanguine than sanguinary. Montgomery himself is wily, businesslike and delicately rakish by turns. Edgar Selwyn's direction backs him up with that resilient professional wit that occasionally, always startlingly, surfaces in the work of all but invisible journeymen. It offers, in fact, a veritable counterpart of Montgomery's own medium-grey artistry.
During the gradual maturing of his career, Montgomery's acting increasingly suggests a carefully curved energy; a style that uses his inherited role of gentleman as a sheath, which he can sometimes exploit (especially in the abounding comic parts) or sometimes seemingly lay aside. Very early on – in the The Big House (1930)– he accepts and brilliantly deploys his character's utter, fatal fragility.
The Big House, as directed by George Hill, offers some striking foretastes of the pseudo-documentary starkness brandished by films like Don Siegel's Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954). Neville Brand's brutish but stalwart intransigence can be glimpsed in Butch, the fierce old lag played by Wallace Beery: a Wallace Beery not yet submerged in the gross kittenishness of his later MGM roles. The film supplements his iron plausibility with a matter-of-fact, harsh gravity in compositions like the shots (recalling Lang or Dupont) of massed grey men in an assembly hall, and at a chapel service where guns are silently conducted to their future masters.
Initially, Montgomery seems to offer the useful perspective of the naive initiate; a convicted DWI, and unwitting, unwilling Virgil to this stony inferno. Measured for a uniform, he extends his arms in cruciform posture. The near blatancy of the image is beautifully muted by the camera of Harold Wenstrom.
Montgomery's seeming lamb-like ingenuousness becomes rapidly streaked with signs of impending surrender to the temptations of the informer's role. One is reminded irresistibly of the young prison novitiate in Jacques Becker's Le Trou (1960). In Montgomery's case, however, we can see the oncoming spiritual surrender in fugitive glimpses of his squeamish revulsion and childish, oddly moving pique. His scream of horror during the movie's bullet-spraying climax represents some of the freest emotion he ever displayed in film. (The film's power is slightly undermined by a ridiculously desultory romance between escapee Chester Morris and Leila Hyams as Montgomery's sister.) The film's overall animus is slightly compromised, but not the power of discrete performances and scenes – Montgomery's in particular.
Montgomery's spasm of vocal virtuosity at the finale of The Big House presages his reliance, increasingly throughout his career, on his voice as the backbone of his performing technique. His uninsistent skill at subtle inflection; his ready engagement, when required, of accent; above all, his apparent lifelong gentleman's romance with the English language. His verbal concern was probably foreshadowed in his youthful flutter at writing. The inclination to address his audience surfaces again and again, years before he signed up as speechwriter for that legendary verbal maladept Dwight D. Eisenhower.
I suspect that Montgomery my have found a resonant chord in Ike's much lampooned falterings in rubbled verbal terrain. The motif of faulty oral communication – deliberate or by chance – threads Montgomery's acting career in company with his literary bent (which may have encouraged him to play the hero of Stevenson's ‘The Suicide Club’; and, in 1937 his runaway triumph as a diabolical verbal and voca1 sorcerer in Night Must Fall). One of his comic summits occurs in Gregory La Cava's 1941 film Unfinished Business. In this overall dawdling and irresolute comedy-romance, Montgomery found himself complemented by the queenly aplomb and chipper vitality of Irene Dunne; whom, in a single segment unmatched elsewhere, he helps out at a swank affair. Dunne is serving receptionist duty at the telephone; Montgomery, aslosh in gallantry and booze, volunteers to help out; therewith peppering the luckless callers with a barrage of non sequiturs, unrevealing monosyllables, and occasional advice at once pungent and inapplicable. Amidst the murmuring brook of the movie's loquacious right thinking, the brief scene provides an obvious island (though riot a steppingstone) for both Montgomery and La Cava: the latter displays his familiar sagacity and finesse by filming Montgomery as a virtual background presence, a comic obligato to the droning throng.
Pursuing the motif of Montgomery's affection for texts, one recalls that he helped launch the maiden Lux Radio Theater with two performances (Norman Maine in A Star is Born [9/13/37]; Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps [12/13/37]), and likewise Edmond Dantes, The Count of Monte Cristo (2/6/39). Ironically, during the 1940s, Montgomery's Here Comes Mr. Jordan role was entrusted by the Lux producers to Cary Grant.
I report the foregoing from personal memory. I remember no details of Grant's performance; save only the cocky defiance of his Joe Pendleton, and his feverish bemusement, in contrast with the more phlegmatic wariness and hesitant unrest of Montgomery.
For me, the polar differences between two performers of ostensibly similar styles (insouciance, comic aplomb, a supple toughness) are summarized by their respective relationships with radio. For Montgomery, his film career notwithstanding, radio, with its hospitable intimacy and vocal authority, seemed vitally pertinent. The touch of vocal masquerade he affected (in his abovementioned performances on Lux Radio Theater and Suspense) is comparable to his curly Douglas Fairbanks Jr. wig in Trouble for Two (1936); or the Celtic lilt of his Danny in Night Must Fall. Grant, one may note, had starred some years before in a two-part Suspense dramatization of Woolrich's The Black Curtain minus any vocal cosmetics, save those of Grant's ever nuanced and volatile vocal delivery.
Indeed, Grant with any exotic vocal appurtenances seems as unlikely – indeed inassimilable – as Lee Tracy with a Capuchin Brothers' tongue. In terms of Grant's effusive and protean energy, it wou1d be redundant at best. Grant generated multiplicity, actual and potential, in his performances; plus the sort of ever-present paradox indispensable to great film acting. The air of combined dandyish confidence and spluttering capricious distraction always hinted at a quivering skein of caution. This ramrod enabled his transitions from the farcical spark plugs of His Girl Friday and even the regrettable Arsenic and Old Lace to the puritan flintiness of his deadpan heroes in Notorious and Crisis.
In the bird kingdom, one might envision Grant as a starling: swooping, staccato voiced, a darkness highlighted in green or purple. Montgomery might be a hummingbird: a diminutive, focused brilliance, wings in constant febrile motion, even when apparently static. Montgomery's basic rarity as a film actor consisted in his refusal to bypass a literate, potentially pedagogic intellect. A cinematic partnership one might have enjoyed seeing him adopt would have been with Val Lewton. Both men engaged a firmly protective devotion to a humanism of an unpretentious scale too often misidentified as mere gentility. Both maintained an ideal of humanity in terms of a latent autonomy, a dignity, which extended to the humblest and most carelessly regarded human types. This, I believe, furnished the main source of their common, warm yet decorous rapport with their audiences: the cordiality of teacher and host combined.
The keen-eyed humanism of their films is shaded by a common attention to darkness. Lewton's fright films of course outnumber and somewhat outweigh his exemplary tales like Youth Runs Wild or the Maupassant adaptation Mademoiselle Fifi. Montgomery’s films from The Big House on recurrently flirt with underwor1d themes. Such motifs fuse rather easily with his often evident Anglophilia; they also, especially occasional semi-successes and interesting non-successes, neatly focus some of his predilections. In the 1940 Haunted Honeymoon (Dorothy L. Sayers' Busman's Honeymoon) Montgomery as Lord Peter Wimsey and Constance Cummings (his recently acquired Lady Wimsey) were overshadowed by the wily and endearing comedy of Sir Seymour Hicks as their butler; along with the more darkly toned cunning of a young Robert Newton – a refreshing and eye-opening contrast to his latter-day descent as a British Wallace Beery. Even against such welcome diversions, however, Montgomery managed to demonstrate a fluid skill of exposition, while seeking clues to a murder among the fixtures of a British country cottage. In Fast and Loose (1939) Montgomery, along with his occasional (ideal) partner Rossalind Russell, starred as Joel and Garda Sloane – two particularly fey would-be successors to Nick and Nora Charles. As created by Mario Paige, the Sloanes were a husband and wife team of rare-book specialists, especially attentive to forgeries and kindred swindles. Montgomery helped maintain the pace of the amiably undistinguished film by yielding at every reasonable point to the more assertive stylization of Russell. In this and similar films, he demonstrates his ability to slenderize potentially ponderous material through a style of nimble reticence.
The teaming of Montgomery and Russell calls to mind his one-movie alliance with Carole Lombard in Hitchcock's sole Hollywood non-thriller, Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941). 1 regret the singularity of both partnerships: Lombard's boisterous raunchiness (even when tethered by Will Hays) while less urbane than Russell's, likewise offered a fine complement to Montgomery's deadpan caution. The performance also encapsulates with witty eloquence the longing of a seemingly staid Manhattan couple for erotic license and easy-gaited nonrespectability. Poor Will Hays.
Hitchcock's to me easily perceived liaison with Montgomery emerges most clearly in that motif of secret restlessness, combined with a terror of exposure. The film reminds me in some degree of a much later Hitchcock film: The Wrong Man (1957). As Mr. and Mrs. Smith try to recreate their honeymoon by a visit to a lovingly remembered Italian restaurant, they enter on a comic via dolorosa of embarrassment. The restaurant is run now by another couple, taciturn and, one readily surmises, sentiment-proof. I see them as reprised in The Wrong Man by the sinister German Mom and Pop who finally trap Henry Fonda's near lookalike. Bob and Carole's hosts, however, perform in such service, or indeed any other. While they are dining on the restaurant's residual store, Lombard's black honeymoon dress, saved and donned for this occasion, begins to split along the hip seam.
When they discover that a bureaucratic fumble has invalidated their marriage, both, in contrasting ways, sense the prospect of a new northwest passage for their straitened connubial lives. Lombard is appalled and outraged to hysteria; Montgomery is slyly excited: The probable peak of his performance is the rakish glint of his smile as, sitting at his office desk, he jots down Lombard's maiden name, Krausheimer; thoughtfully extending the title ‘Miss’ to ‘Mistress’. I sense, however, a touch of inexpertise on Hitchcock’s part: I suspect he might better have reversed the reactions; making Lombard the ardent opter for freedom, and Montgomery the cautious tiptoer.
The film's development includes none of Harold Lloyd's or Charlie Chase's rococo brilliance at elaborating some common impasse or inconvenience. When Lombard’s dress splits in the restaurant scene, that is all that happens. Hitchcock lets it rest with a literalness that seems aimed more at the viewer's voyeurism than humorous empathy. Later in the film, Lombard and a family friend who has been acting as a somewhat ambiguous intermediary, are stranded on a ferris wheel. But Hitchcock’s unwontedly casual handling barely shows us their eventual escape. We merely witness them again in another scene, back on the ground.
Montgomery’s embarrassments lie with his disastrous faux pas as he tries to rally the dormant playboy in him with some miscalculated flirting. The never more welcome presence of Jack Carson lends a certain zing. Hitchcock's total handling of the scene, however, suggests the neutrality of an anthropologist.
However, the movie delivers, toward its close, a moment of singular charm. The scene takes place in a ski resort cabin. Montgomery is pretending to have broken his leg on the ski slope; Lombard is shaving him. The charm consists simply of the camera watching her close up from Montgomery's viewpoint as she shifts her mouth and squints in barber-like empathy with the required facial motions of shaving. I shall probably always (absent any forthcoming news), wonder how much if anything this shot contributed to Montgomery's first-person camerawork on Lady in the Lake.
The brittleness of Mr. and Mrs. Smith is not that of crisp gaiety; but of parched age and literalness. Nevertheless, the components of its dry, journalistic tone – potential mortification, attendant cruelty, the crisscrossing impulses of would-be rebellion and bourgeois docility – all suggest another kind of vehicle; and an author who, with Montgomery and Hitchcock, might have completed a rewarding triangle of popular art.
I refer to John O'Hara; an author often too facilely dismissed, and inadequately understood by his admirers. He was essentially not a novelist; lacking the novelist's instinct for coherent, inclusive form, the core of faith. However, he wrote a multitude of often admirable short stories and a slender masterpiece of sardonic comedy, ‘Pal Joey’. He was a devoted and impressive ex officio historian of his own and somewhat earlier times, on both the eastern and western seaboards. His history was conducted through an agile, translucent accuracy of style that makes Hemingway seem somewhat stodgy and prissy. The Celtic oral tradition is relayed through his characters' gossip and extempore musings.
Above all, O'Hara offers an ongoing relief map of the worldly glamour, commemorated through semi-fantasy, of his friend and literary hero F. Scott Fitzgerald. O'Hara, the child of middle-class (Pottsville, PA) origins foregrounded the crummy, ashen underside of Fitzgerald's plush carpeting, with a special attention to the moral squalor, vicious pettiness and random paranoia: sensibility as a minefield (those latter strains should supposedly have appealed to the Hitchcock of Rebecca , Rear Window , The Wrong Man , or Vertigo ). More than Fitzgerald, O'Hara's work evokes James M. Cain, although generally free of Cain's indulgence in trumpery melodrama.
The persona that emerges from Montgomery's best roles – a drifting gentleman, articulate and artful, yet cut off somehow from his plausible social fabric – suggests such O'Hara protagonists as Liggett, in Butterfield 8, or the narrator of Hope of Heaven, or Julian English in O'Hara's first novelistic fling Appointment in Samara.
Indeed, with the advent of his late ‘50s Monday night TV dramatic series Robert Montgomery Presents, Montgomery offered Appointment in Samara in two parts (he would likewise offer, some time later, an hour-length The Great Gatsby). I keenly regret being unable at this time to document my recollections of Appointment in Samara. My shredded memories, however, retain an arresting sensation of Montgomery's rightness as Julian English (even his Anglophilia is consonant with the last name). I can recall the increasing pulse of resentment prodding his surface aplomb; erupting in an absurd gratuitous act: tossing a highball in the face of a powerful leading citizen; and the squalid bitterness of a quarrel with his wife's cousin (a WWI veteran and amputee). The scene peaks in Montgomery’s high, breathless voice of shock and outrage: ‘You dirty, one-armed rat!’
One can readily imagine Montgomery acting in and/or directing (for Hitchcock's or his own TV series) some of O'Hara's multitudinous short stories. Hitchcock might have presented two certain tales of rascality and mayhem that bristle throughout O'Hara's work: ‘The Public Life of Mr. Seymour Harrisburg’ about the momentary (and swift dissolving) fame of a witness at a criminal trial; back to back with ‘Where's the Game?’ in which a middle-class Bronx drudge loses his sole escape hatch from life – the weekly poker game – to unjust suspicions. Montgomery might have preferred those mini-tragedies of O'Hara's later years, like ‘The Engineer’, or ‘Craven Image’, that sardonic parable about self-respect and the fatal reflexes of snobbery. (Montgomery and Dabney Coleman might have tossed a coin for casting in that dramatic two-seater.)
And O'Hara's later stories highlight an emergent feature that Montgomery's latter-day roles bring into focus: a gallantry, a realisation, indeed a redefinition of dignity as a tacit value in the most ordinary commerce; often beyond the reach of social arbitration, yet precious and (often unexpectedly) fragile. Even in Pal Joey, O'Hara never simply jibes or mocks (remember the stunning conclusion).
Admittedly, such a high degree of amour propre may often seem close neighbour to pomposity; yet, Montgomery’s manifest sense of scale in his various performances (even the too numerous sprawlers like Piccadilly Jim  or dawdlers like Unfinished Business ) displays an undiverted alertness very unlike the self-indulgent languor of snobbish pomposity.
I remember reading, in 1941 at age 12, in some long-forgotten magazine of film gossip, some hearsay about Montgomery's discontent with his current vehicle. The movie was Rage in Heaven (1941); despite its stentorian title, a gobbet of psychopish from the ever active cotton candy mill of James Hilton. Montgomery, restive perhaps at the tepid silliness of the story and main
character, registered his displeasure by means that the Buddha might have approved: withdrawing emotive content, and droning his way through the role. Allegedly in response to this tactic, the studio inserted an opening scene in which a psychiatrist (Oscar Homolka) itemises Montgomery's vocal 'flatness' as a symptom of his psychosis. In truth, to my memory, it accorded all too well with the comatose inanition of the script; against which neither Woody Van Dyke's élan, nor the combined energies of Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders could prevail.
In Montgomery's own career as filmmaker, Jay Gatsby would seem to take precedence as patron saint. His prevailing hero is the case-hardened loner – amid uncomprehending, sometimes unfriendly aristocracies. He made an advance bid in his future film production by offering a novel The Earl of Chicago by Brock Williams, as his prospective vehicle to British producer Victor Saville. The end product, as released by MGM in 1940, is a bizarre oddity. Montgomery, as hoodlum/aesthete Silky Killmont, eschews gunplay and embraces decorum. Informed that he has inherited an earldom in England, he journeys there, thus falling into the hands of two cicerones: the treacherous Edward Arnold, a vengeance-minded lawyer (Arnold's measured, chortle-free intensity puts this among his best performances), and a devoted butler (the youngish Edmund Gwenn). One can imagine numerous tragicomic, satirical overtones resulting, perhaps, from the tensions of Silky's admiration for the old aristocracy's mannered ruthlessness, and his nostalgia for his old gangster operations, while glorying in occasions for posture and swank. No such matter: not on the threshold of Britain's entry into World War II, and the inception of Hollywood's Bundles to Britain; exercises in cultural exchange like the 1941 A Yank in the RAF (Tyrone Power), This Above All (1942) and, as early as 1938, such Brit-nuzzling as Lord Jeff (Freddie Bartholemew/Mickey Rooney) and A Yank at Oxford (Robert Taylor/Vivien Leigh).
Silky Killmont's gawking admiration embraces both the British nobility and the peasantry (whom he visits: clean, courteous, in their thatched cottage). And his underworld origins do not provide any of the dramatic friction possibly anticipated; save in one conversation with a prospective rival heir: Andrew Sinclair, an amiable Freddie Bartholemew lookalike. Montgomery relates the origin of his gun phobia to the agreeable young chap and the hint of darkness lights up the screen; but only momentarily. Even Edward Arnold's conspiracy to ruin him might have been directed against a lawful businessman. Late in the film, it is disclosed that young Sinclair's mother has tried to fire his enmity against Montgomery – but not a tremor of genuine tension has resulted.
I ruefully suspect that Montgomery not only acceded to, but supported the overall dilution. He has spiked his characterisation with a single mannerism: a nasal snigger, such as smart-alec kids direct at the movie screen on Saturday matinees. Victor Saville, in his autobiography, applauds this touch as a forerunner of Richard Widmark's manic levity in Kiss of Death (1947). But Widmark brought to his film breakthrough the visceral involvement of a radio actor from many years' practice, who had learned to combine precision with the full-bodied audacity of the silent film acting to which radio acting, also building on sensory deprivation, was kin. Montgomery's literary acumen, deprived of dramatic buttressing by the limitations of script and direction, is merely an ambiguous curio.
Until, that is, the film's last 20 minutes. Having transgressed his ancient code by shooting to kill, Silky, traumatised alike by the abhorrent contact of the gun and the terminal upheaval in his new life, turns catatonic. Montgomery’s stricken pantomime – the denial of words by this lover of texts – provides a poetic-toned intensity, a mood of encroaching nightmare, that underscores the sorry vacuity of preceding scenes. Montgomery’s march to the gallows – attired in knee breeches, dress jacket and staff, by the adoring Gwenn – suggests that the story, done right, might have figured as a subplot for Evelyn Waugh's WWII Sword of Honour Trilogy; even to the final absurdist fillip: Gwenn, in the RAF, bidding Silky a posthumous cheerio.
The Earl of Chicago presents us with a cross-section, graphic and compressed, of a certain strain in Montgomery’s career. The affinity for both Anglo-toned comedy and a mythic, underworld; plus an abiding preoccupation with the authority of language. One thinks of his TV adaptation: Woolrich/Irish's Three O’Clock. Montgomery, bound and gagged through most of the story's progress, holds forth frenziedly, ruminating and lamenting, on the soundtrack: an untoward peak of ventriloquism.
Some years before his debut on the small screen, Montgomery’s first directorial venture for Hollywood, Lady in the Lake, came closest to being a manifesto for that peculiar relationship with his ideal audience – that cordial distancing, noticeably evolving along with his evolving style. The film was Montgomery's presentation of Raymond Chandler's third novel about the chivalrous and grandiloquent Philip Marlowe; a private eye in sharp contrast with the tight-lipped, saturnine Hammett heroes. Marlowe deployed similes and metaphors as the elder Fairbanks did his knees and elbows as Robin Hood and D'Artagnan. Marlowe's romantic vivacity was a come-hither to admiration from the literati; and an open house invitation, tirelessly accepted over decades, to parodists.
Montgomery likewise directly engaged his audience, but with some major variations. Notably, his interpretation supplanted Marlowe's romantic persona with another, earlier popular detective: the affable pedant Ellery Queen. Ellery's ‘challenge to the reader’ to solve The Dutch Shoe or Roman Hat or Chinese Orange mysteries was picked up by the 1930s radio series starring CarIton Young.
A smiling Montgomery/Marlowe opened Lady in the Lake with a cordial invitation for the audience; assuring them that they would see, as through his eyes, all significant evidence. To that stated end, Montgomery utilised a device not common, yet recurrent at various times throughout film history: the so-called subjective camera.
Far from a slambang innovation, as some fledgling critics have treated it, the subjective camera has been used, though usually only sparingly, to enforce audience identification with some occurrence; usually some radical change in a character's perspective. It might be thrilling (a roller coaster ride; being trapped in a closet by a drunken sadist). It might enlist more subtle empathies (exploring a new house, as in Renoir's The Southerner ) or even fantasies of supposition (as in Siodmak's excellent The Suspect  where the theoretical actions of a murderer are reconstructed).
Montgomery's more ambitious effort was to use the subjective camera over the full length (104 minutes) of his film. Reportedly, his aim was to reproduce the viewpoint of Philip Marlowe. In fact, Montgomery supplanted Marlowe's point of view with the tutorial viewpoint of Robert Montgomery, with which he invited – insistently – the identification of his audience. He could not in any case have recreated literal reality as does Marlowe/Chandler with his showily brilliant verbiage. In terms of potential, the subjective camera was used more powerfully, if much more briefly, in Murder, My Sweet (1944): Edward Dmytryk's adaptation of Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely. Marlowe (a harassed, rather seedy small professional, well played by Dick Powell) was confronted with an eerie and unsettlingly believable narcotic-induced hallucination.
Montgomery's approach rather reduced than expanded the screen: to the intimate dimensions that television, then encroaching, would make still more familiar. His schoolmasterly air carries over to his leading lady: the maturely attractive and usually persuasive Audrey Totter. She is seen initially as a frigid yet frenetic female editor (Marlowe/Montgomery, unlike his prototype, but, to be sure, like Master Queen, is an author). Totter, adept and plausible as a rule, pops her eyes to denote impacted passion, as though a logo of Bette Davis was imprinted on each retina. ‘Someday, you'll wake up and discover you're a woman!’ counsels Dr. Phil.
The editor relaxes later on, and so, thanks be, does Totter. However, the abrupt dispatch of the scene mirrors the tabloid pace of 1940s TV dramas: already, perhaps, a looming possibility in Montgomery's businesslike consideration.
The incessant POV camera creates another rather stagey byproduct. The invisible Marlowe (who, it must be added, puts in numerous appearances, thanks to an abundance of full-length mirrors at various points on his journeys) is treated along with his audience to a succession of standup appearances that tend to resemble auditions. Jayne Meadows, in black wig, strides across the screen on her first entrance, bewailing the cares of a landlady in a tenant-abused rooming house. Later along, Detective Tom Tully makes a lengthy Christmas Eve phone call to his wife, to no evident purpose save demonstrating his worthiness as a right guy; redeeming the force's reputation from the hair-trigger brutality of Detective Lloyd Nolan.
He succeeds only imperfectly: Nolan's Detective DeGarmot, a glowering bravo, alternately explosive and reptilian, charges the film with evil vitality. As Marlowe's major antagonist, he is the freest presence in the film. It may be noted here that the script is credited to Steve Fisher; a veteran journeyman of pulp crime fiction. His career's raison d'etre may have been I Wake Up Screaming; the excellent 1941 film that featured and introduced Laird Cregar as Detective Ed Cornell, another viciously wayward centurion. Fisher (doubtless with Montgomery’s approval) sustained a facile balance of romantic sentiment and romantic cynicism, a five-and-dime distillation of Chandler's tone. But there is no trace of romance in Nolan's mean animus. His character is also indirectly responsible for one of the first-person camera's positive triumphs. When Marlowe, knocked out and doused with whiskey by his nemesis, clambers from a wrecked automobile, we see Montgomery's hands clawing laboriously at an earthy slope: a startling intrusion of primitivism. One must also add an unqualified kudos for a signal contribution of Montgomery's creative economy. That is: in lieu of conventional orchestral accompaniment, a soundtrack of a cappella wailing, murmurs, windlike soughings. Like the shot just mentioned, these voices convey a primitive anguish and terror that wou1d enrich a much better Chandler adaptation; or, for that matter, Conrad. The classical choral starkness and poignancy would be briefly reprised in Montgomery's The Gallant Hours (1960); when Cagney, as Admiral Halsey, makes his final departure from his vessel, to the accompaniment of a gently dirgelike shanty.
Whatever its limitations, Lady in the Lake helped crystallise the virtually unique (for Hollywood) Montgomery persona of the Reader as Ringmaster. It forecast the increasing eminence of text as impinging on image in films: the voiceover as agent of that intimacy that was and is a notable property of television. It recalls a memorable (though apparently seldom remembered) oddity from the same year, 1946: Richard Fleischer's So This is New York. It offered a savvy treatment of Ring Lardner's mordant The Big Town, starring Henry Morgan. A possible byproduct of the meteoric Sturges ascension, it holds my nomination for an eminence during that still interesting segment of Fleischer's career.
A more straightaway depiction of the Rusted Knight noir theme was Montgomery's Ride the Pink Horse. Montgomery’s literary partner on the screenplay was neither Chandler nor Steve Fisher but Ben Hecht, who – like Montgomery, something of a gypsy scholar – lent an ambiguous tone of sardonic romance to a story of half-unwitting, gritty gallantry.
The film represented a novel by 1940s suspense favorite Dorothy B. Hughes: a popular dispenser of exotic-toned thrillers involving devious and perilous pursuits, quests, and missions by a variety of present-day Quixotes. Fallen Sparrow (1943), starring John Garfield, was an earlier exemplar; In a Lonely Place, starring Bogart, would appear in 1950: rather wistful minglings of Robert Louis Stevenson/Conan Doyle fantasy with savage political modernity, well adapted to early postwar tastes, as was Hecht's appreciation of them.
Montgomery's hero Blackie Gagan (a name applied by Hecht in other yarns) is not a PI, but an itinerant hood, afoot in New Mexico. The milieu provides terrain for a cultural exchange motif that, along with the gangster protagonist, recalls The Earl of Chicago. In some never-quite-clear connection with the death of an old Army buddy, Gagan is attempting to blackmail a racketeering exec (Fred Clark, with the Dick Tracy-like appendage of a hearing aid).
Montgomery's enterprise is complicated not only by Clark's muscular coterie, but by a folksy, smalltown sheriffy FBI man (Art Smith); also, two other folkish emanations from Ben Hecht's pastry oven: jolly, faithful carousel keeper Thomas Gomez, who offers hiding to Montgomery; and a winsome chatterbox of a senorita, Wanda Hendrix. The ingénue as voluble angel recalls
Rita Hayworth in Hecht's Angels Over Broadway (1940); where Hayworth’s naive but sagacious Goody No Shoes was posed against Douglas Fairbanks Jr.’s eroded yet hopeful con artist.
Montgomery would reprise the relationship in comic terms with the lackadaisical whimsy Once More My Darling (1949). The noir protagonist was replaced by a middle-aged film actor, solicitous of his privacy, who finds himself reluctantly partnered with a debutante (the excellent Ann Blyth; who, even apart from the triumphs of Veda Pierce and the young Regina Hubbard, could transmit an attractive air of self-possession). It may be recalled here that Montgomery's daughter Elizabeth, the future Samantha of Bewitched, was then of the same early teen neighborhood. His would-be adorable stalker wears a T-shirt imprinted KILLER; plus the fragrance of some manifestly inexpensive perfume, a contest prize. The latter feature results in noses being averted and windows opened along her Montgomery-pursuing route. A no less inconvenient affiliate of the journey is her self-designated protector: a bony, rasp-voiced gardener-chauffeur, who views Montgomery’s evident embarrassment with churlish scepticism. No, he is not played by Charles Bickford; but by Charles McGraw, in perhaps his most noteworthy role prior to his breakthrough in The Narrow Margin (1952). His performance, without predictable comic bangles of mugging or catchphrases, bestows a humorous ambience that prods the film's more listless than giddy aimlessness.
Montgomery's relationship to the film reprises the role of amiable emcee. The course of his excursion with Blyth in tow is strewn with the misadventures of, say, Claudette Colbert and James Stewart's It's a Wonderful World (1939). As a result, his on-screen character intermittently seems to recede into a more detached and placid presence: ‘Your Host’.
Amid the moral chiaroscuro of his screen characterisations, Montgomery has adopted darker shades for at least two notable monsters; Danny in Night Must Fall and Matt Saxon in the The Saxon Charm (1948). The endearing page who dispatches his elderly benefactresses, embodied the monster as actor. His passion for animal freedom takes precedence over even his material desires for wealth and comfort. His is a deranged projection of the articulate young Welshman in author Emlyn Williams’ later play The Corn Is Green, who also forms a momentous rapport with a considerably older woman, the district schoolmistress. Night Must Fall is essentially fustian: skimpy, bordering on the threadbare. However, Williams' thimble-rigging facility manages to needle the spectator with beguiling uncertainties about this primitive charmer.
Montgomery/Danny's breezy, broguish ingratiation, with flickering ambiguous shades of potential ‘mischief’, becomes quietly charged with apprehension by the movie's all but hermetic enclosure. The close quarters are rescued from the three-walled oppressiveness of certain other stage adaptations; not by laboriously programmed flights out of doors (views of the estate and adjoining dark forest are sparing and pertinent) but rather by the animation of John Van Druten's crisply elegant screenplay; interwoven with the spasm-free mobility of cinematographer Ray June's camera. One recalls especially the contrasts and interplays of sunlight and interior light; the powerful distribution of greys, blacks and occasional whites. The methodical, actor-friendly competence of Richard Thorpe is immensely aided by the ever-competent Dame May Whitty; and (as her slavey/ward and Danny's momentary soulmate) Montgomery's ideal partner (uncommonly subdued here) Rosalind Russell. The composite norm that the household evokes is mockingly reflected in Montgomery’s grinning, chatty servility: a facade from which, up until the last ten minutes of the 117-minute film, and a brief scene alone with a mysterious hatbox, he shows no diversion. At one instance, with demonic buoyancy, he trundles Dame May's wheelchair into her bedroom for a nap, like a short-order waiter dishing up a lunch special; depositing her with a beaming zest that seems to radiate prospects of geriatric rape.
Although no drop of blood is to be seen on the film's surface, it seems even before the climactic on-screen murder, ready to disgorge unspeakable details. Can we imagine any such, in movie terms, today? Montgomery's performance recalls that curious quasi-sacredness that the screen was once capable of evoking: that profane awe.
That ambience does not surface in the other memorable Monstergomeryama: Matt Saxon, in The Saxon Charm. The film recreated the novel by Frederick Wakeman: a follow-up to his phrase coiner The Hucksters, and the newest entry in his brief but pungent dime museum gallery of picturesque eccentrics. The Hucksters’ major drawing card was the advertising executive (based on George Washington Hill) of the dramatised metaphor. Matt Saxon was an entertainment czar; czar indeed – a full-bloodied Ivan. His model was no less than the viperish and browbeating Jed Harris, of longtime Broadway notoriety. Wakeman's account was ribboned with flea market psychoanalysis, pertaining to Saxon's ambivalent, bedevilling awareness of his Jewish origins. The gentlemanly candour of Gentleman's Agreement notwithstanding, the dithery protectivism of the Production Code obtained in force where any venturesome attempt at ethnic-inflected human portraiture was concerned. Absent Montgomery, I might imagine Joseph Wiseman, say, in an alternate production of an extensively rewritten The Saxon Charm.
Extensive rewriting, however, would be indispensable. Like The Hucksters, The Saxon Charm is a procession of display cases for Harris/Saxon's cruelties, betrayals, and power plays; modestly adorned with diverting specimens of Saxon's ferocious, hyperbolic, and intermittently literate wit.
Within its regrettably lightweight context, The Saxon Charm offers a signal performance of Montgomery's career. The film was directed by Claude Binyon, who had seen action under fire in previous decades, as screenwriter on W.C. Fields' The Old-Fashioned Way (1934) and Mississippi (1935). An echo of Fields' courtly acerbities might be heard (the whimsy toned down, the bloodlust away up) in Montgomery/Saxon's snarling fury at a ‘Fascist pest hole’: the German-American restaurant that has served him unsuitably prepared stuffed cabbage.
Montgomery strides through the demands of the fleetingly plausible role with a mixture of hauteur and tigerish vivacity; and occasional silken gleams of graciousness: the monster as host and tutor. Without extensive research, I am pretty certain that The Saxon Charm was the only Hollywood film of that decade in which one encountered an extempore homily on Kafka's Metamorphosis.
My sole guarded reservation about the performance is: the absence of a certain crass vehemence, a knacker's jocularity, which my fantasy (minus any concrete assistance) suggests to me figured in Harris’ megalomaniac tapestry. Lloyd Nolan (as Montgomery might well have attested) could command the tone of which I speak. As long as we are not talking Jewish actors, Eddie Albert might also have served.
Yet, neither of these fine actors could exceed the finely honed economy of Montgomery, nor the vigorous taste that was its origin. His filmmaker's status brought impressively to the fore a surpassing lucidity that eschewed gratuitous, lip-licking exploitation. One might add: such a rejection involved no denial whatever of the notable escalation of what Isaac Rosenfeld called an age of enormity.
Montgomery's decorum was a prism of his style; his style, in turn, was a housing for his patent spiritual principles: so should all style be. It acquired a vital authentic metaphor when he entered the US Navy during World War II. It might be discerned in John Ford's 1945 They Were Expendable (in which Montgomery reportedly was permitted briefly behind the camera, and contributed some footage).
The tone of propriety that emerges in his work evokes irresistibly his appearance in the mid-1950s, as head of the Screen Actors Guild, before the House Un-American Activities Committee. There, he was quoted as declaring that the industry was capable of ordering its own house. As the response of a gentleman to motley and often ruffianly elements, one may be tempted to fault it for insufficient salve indignatio. To do so, however, is, I think, to wrest Montgomery’s moment from its context. That is, the context not merely of the immediate situation; but of Montgomery's style. Such a style not only encompassed his history, but had become for him a dimension of reality and a tenet of faith. As a rejection of brutishness, it has become on its typically modest scale an item in an ongoing testament of faith; even though subsequent events proved the expression of confidence lamentably wrong; not by the failure but by the stampeding excess of the industry's housekeeping.
He was not a film actor nor a filmmaker of spark-showering originality. He never radically reshaped the screen. Rather, he conferred on it his own sense of scale, a kind of intimate yet rigorous refinement. He confided to us his own definition of tone and style; and through these, an enduring definition and affirmation of civilisation.
© Donald Phelps and Rouge 2003. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors of Rouge.