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The Times (01/Oct/1981) - Obituary: Mr Robert Montgomery

(c) The Times (01/Oct/1981)


Mr Robert Montgomery, the American film actor and director, died on September 27. He was 77.

Entering films as a Metro Goldwyn Mayer contract player in 1929, he soon established himself as a suave and personable leading man, particularly in light comedy. He appeared with most of the big MGM female stars of the thirties, including Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford, and it says much for his professionalism that he more than held his own in such formidable company. After war service in the United States Navy he returned only briefly to films, becoming a television producer and adviser on television and radio to President Eisenhower.

He was born in Beacon, New Jersey, on May 21, 1904 and had early ambitions to become a writer. He turned to the stage instead graduating from walk-on parts to repertory and Broadway productions. Soon attracting the attention of Hollywood, he was turned down by Sam Goldwyn before MGM put him under contract and gave him his first part as a baseball player in So This is College.

In the dozen years up to the war he had made more than 50 films, mostly comedies and romances and often based on the work of popular British authors, such as Noel Coward, Frederick Lonsdale and P. G. Wodehouse. He even played Lord Peter Wimsey in a British film of Busman's Honeymoon, while another British writer, Emlyn Williams, was the source of one of his most successful, if uncharacteristic, roles as the homicidal Danny in Night Must Fall. At the time the film was made he had become prominent in the newly formed Screen Actors Guild, an activity of which the studio disapproved; and it was said that MGM encouraged him to make Night Must Fall hoping that it would harm his career.

But the opposite proved.to be the case and he maintained his popularity up to the Second World War. One of his last films before joining the US Navy in 1941 was Mr and Mrs Smith, with Carole Lombard, a rare excursion into light comedy by Alfred Hitchcock. Montgomery ended the war with the rank of Lieutenant Commander and he resumed his film career playing a naval officer in John Ford's They Were Expendable, a fine study of America's withdrawal from the Philippines. As well as taking top billing with John Wayne, Montgomery was assistant director on the film and from now on directing became as great an interest as acting.

His first picture as director was a controversial first person treatment of Raymond Chandler's The Lady in the Lake in which the hero — played by Montgomery — is never seen, except in one or two mirror shots. It was a courageous experiment which he did not repeat, Montgomery; directed three more films, including Your Witness, which he made in. Britain in 1950, and then decided that after 20 years in the cinema he had had enough. He turned to television and through the 1950s was the producer of a live drama series, Robert Montgomery Presents, sometimes acting and directing as well.

He had been a staunch supporter of the Republican Party and on General Eisenhower's election to the Presidency in 1952 he moved into the White House as a consultant — unpaid — on how the President could best use the broadcasting media. He also became a communications adviser to several companies. With a lifelong friend, James Cagney, he formed Cagney-Montgomery Productions and he made a final return to the cinema in 1960 directing Cagney in The Gallant Hours.

Montgomery was twice married — his first wife was the actress Elizabeth Allen — and had two children. His daughter Elizabeth starred in the long running television comedy series Bewitched.