1945-1948 Making it Alone in Movies and Malibu
After finishing “The Clock”, Robert Walker was assigned the lead in the romantic comedy, “Her Highness and the Bellboy”.“Hedy Lamarr was cast as the princess of a mythical European kingdom, June Allyson as a bedridden invalid who loses the bellboy to the exotic Lamarr. Once again, Bob would be able to conceal his personal torment from the all-seeing eye of the camera.
Robert and June Allyson, "Her Highness and the Bellboy"
The public would find him irresistibly appealing. Variety summed up his performance as ‘terrif.’”68 The August 1945 issue of the Lion’s Roar magazine devoted several pages to the film and said of Bob: “You’d spot him in a minute…he’s the boy with a grin as engaging and friendly as a puppy dog’s wagging tail…Has worn a uniform of the armed forces in every Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer picture until ‘Her Highness and the Bellboy’…that one has a pre-war dateline…but he’s in a uniform just the same…As a bellhop!”69“Robert Walker, the incorrigible draftee of ‘See Here, Private Hargrove’, dons a new kind of uniform as the bellboy. Walker’s efforts to teach the American ways and customs point up much of the story’s action and interest. The young actor recently completed a leading role opposite Judy Garland in ‘The Clock’, and prior to that he won plaudits of public and press with Van Johnson in ‘Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.’”70 June Allyson has fond memories of Bob. “Robert Walker also co-starred with me in ‘Her Highness and the Bellboy’. Working with him was a strange and exhilarating experience. He was intense and moody. For no reason he would disappear from the set and we couldn’t find him for hours. Once we found him sitting on the roof just surveying the world and we took his picture before he knew it. He always seemed to be hiding some hurt.Shooting a scene with Bob was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. No other actor I’ve worked with could make a scene more true – Bob could make you feel the scene with him as something urgent and surging with life. During the filming of ‘Her Highness and the Bellboy’, he said to me, ‘I’m absolutely miserable when I don’t measure up to my own standards doing a scene.’”71 “Many around the studio felt sorry for Robert Walker and knew he was involved in a terrible love triangle. As Bob put it, ‘My personal life has been completely wrecked by David Selznick’s obsession for my wife. What can you do to fight such a powerful man?’ Jennifer Jones was to divorce him shortly after this conversation. At another time he said, ‘Selznick was so jealous of me that he had a clause put in my wife’s contract forbidding her to be photographed with me.’ Robert Walker was young and handsome; Selznick was older and plainer. But he was already assured of eternal fame for having produced ‘Gone With the Wind.’”72 “Whenever I look back at my career and all my co-stars, I think of Robert Walker and I almost cry. I wish I could have helped him, but at the time I thought I was the one who needed help, not he. I was pitted against such beauties in my movies with him that I was preoccupied with my own problems.I was to do two other movies with Robert Walker. They were ‘The Sailor Takes a Wife’ and ‘Till the Clouds Roll By.’”73 A sequel to the popular “See Here, Private Hargrove” was being developed, but since the script wasn’t completed, Robert and June Allyson were reunited in another lightweight comedy.
Robert Walker, June Allyson, Audrey Totter and Hume Cronyn
“Audrey Totter and Hume Cronyn were assigned seconds leads and Richard Whorf, actor turned director, was put in charge of the project. The domestic comedy, which went into production titled ‘For Better or Worse’, recounted the trials and tribulations of an ex-sailor and his bride who move into a New York apartment where the doors stick, the folding beds foul up, the fireplace won’t work, and a sexy neighbor, Audrey Totter, goes on the make for the groom.When the picture appeared under its final title, ‘The Sailor Takes a Wife’, Bosley Crowher of the New York Times noted that , ‘In fact, if it wasn’t for June Allyson’s attractive personality…and Bob Walker’s boyish beam…it would be a fearful bore. These two do manage to give it a certain pleasant cohesiveness.’
Robert and June Allyson, "The Sailor Takes A Wife"
The latter was due to the off-screen rapport between Bob and June. June, wildly in love with Dick Powell, radiated sunshine and ‘made it my personal mission to keep Bob from retreating into his shell during the long waits between setups.’So did Whorf, who at thirty-nine was a brilliant conversationalist and an extremely talented artist. Disturbed about Bob’s lack of interest in food, Whorf would invite Bob to join him for lunch, and the two would discuss theater, books, art, and other intellectual subjects. Whorf, however, had his own tight circle of artistic friends, and Bob could not summon up the courage to ask to be included among them.When “The Sailor Takes a Wife’ was completed, Whorf told Bob, ‘Your potential hasn’t even begun to be tapped. I hope I’ll have a chance to direct you in something decent someday.’”74 Finally, the script was ready for “What Next, Corporal Hargrove?”, but as Bob said, “’The script ,’ which recounted Hargrove’s activities with his buddies in France, ‘stinks,’ he bitched to Keenan Wynn, who was also repeating his original role as Private Mulvehill. ‘It’s phony, and by the time it’s released, it’ll be dated.’Says Keenan in retrospect, ‘Bob was absolutely on target. The ‘Hargrove’ sequel was the bottom of the barrel. We were both disgusted with it. But he had to do what he was told – we all did in those days.’”75
Then Bob received another devastating blow when he read the headlines in the Los Angeles Examiner that David and Irene Selznick were divorcing. He got in his car and kept driving.“Four days later he was the headlined subject of another Parsons exclusive:BOB WALKER DISAPPEARSRobert Walker has disappeared.The likable juvenile, recently divorced by Jennifer Jones…hasn’t been seen or heard from in forty-eight hours. He was due on the set at MGM yesterday morning at nine o’clock…and when he failed to make an appearance after several hours, studio officials began to worry. Contacting the young man’s home only deepened the mystery, for no one had seen or heard from Bob.Bob, who is one of the film colony’s most earnest and responsible young actors, isn’t the type to disappear on a holiday or as a prank. He is far too conscious of his obligations to his studio to willfully walk out on an important production. His friends and I are sincerely worried.’”76 For once Miss Parsons didn’t exaggerate – everyone was worried about Bob. He returned in a few days, either unaware or uncaring of the stir he had created. He received a reprimand from the studio head, Louis B. Mayer, after explaining that he had visited friends in Santa Barbara for a few days. “Bob just shrugged. ‘I didn’t feel like calling. If you want, you can dock my salary or put me on suspension.’ He refused to be intimidated, confident that since ‘Hargrove’ was only half-completed, the studio would do neither.”77 During the filming of “Corporal Hargrove” Bob became friends with his female co-star, Jean Porter. “More than forty years later, Jean still maintains an incredible loyalty to Bob.‘Many people loved him. Count me among them. He was shy and could be withdrawn much of the time, but he had a delightful sense of humor. I loved nothing more than seeing his sad-seeming eyes suddenly sparkle and hearing him break into a laugh. We avoided the commissary and often shared lunch breaks at the nearby Culver City Drive-In, where we could really be left alone to enjoy our conversation. Our talks were private, and I never discussed them with anyone and still won’t. But Bob was great! Really great!’”78 A postscript to a movie review of “What Next, Corporal Hargrove?” in Modern Screen magazine notes: “Director Richard Whorf traveled to five training camps throughout the country looking for location spots, finally decided on Camp Pendleton, field artillery training center eighty miles south of Hollywood. All combat groups were filmed there…While on location, Bob Walker visited the nearby San Diego Army and Navy Academy, and made a speech to several hundred teen-age students. In his younger days, Bob was enrolled as a member of the Academy for three years…”79 “’What Next, Corporal Hargrove?’ turned out to be the bomb Bob had predicted. When it was rushed into release on Christmas Day, the Times critic, Bosley Crowther, notedthat Bob performed the character ‘in the style of the writing…perfunctorily…Now that it’s over, let’s hope that Hargrove will be separated from films.’”80 The critics might have panned the film, but the public loved Robert Walker and the fan magazines did, too. Modern Screen of February, 1946 said: “He’s played in nothing but hits, he’s done nothing but stand-out acting jobs. And along the way he has stubbornly, gradually won a victory over the big bugaboo he had to lick for his personal satisfaction – the tenacious type-casting yen of Hollywood to keep him forever a bashful boy, a perpetual clumsy Private Hargrove.”81
Robert and Jean Porter - "What Next, Corporal Hargrove"
Before “What Next, Corporal Hargrove?” was finished, Arthur Freed, the executive in charge of MGM’s musical unit, told Bob he was his personal choice to play the part of Jerome Kern in “Till the Clouds Roll By”.“’You must be kidding,’ Bob protested. ‘I wouldn’t be believable as Kern. I’m a young American type. I can’t do roles that call for me to age!’‘Stop selling yourself short,’ Freed chided. ‘But let me talk to Jerry and feel him out. I want to give him the option of approving my choice. And you’re my choice.’At their next meeting, Freed asked Kern: ‘What would you say to Bob Walker playing you?’Kern was hesitant. ‘I don’t know. Let me call my wife, Eva, and see what she thinks.’
Walt Walker with interviewer Jean Kinkead (Modern Screen September 1946)
Miss Hopper, acutely aware of Bob’s antagonism toward the press and his personal problems, extended herself to make the evening a gay and informal one. Away from her typewriter, she was a witty, charming, and knowledgeable woman, and after a strained fifteen minutes or so, Bob actually found himself liking her.Years later, she would say of him, ‘This gangling shy man carried a gentle sweetness with him that touched your heart.’ And she meant it. If her archrival, Louella Parsons, aiming to please her friend David O. Selznick, was always protective of and flattering to Jennifer, Hedda would become one of Bob’s greatest boosters. Privately she felt him the victim of one of the dirtiest deals in town.
Robert Walker with Hedda Hopper and Miss Photoflash 1946 - Shirley Molohon (Academy Arts and Sciences Library)
Walter left town the following afternoon. ‘Hate to say good-bye, kid. God knows when we’ll see each other again.’ Bob just laughed. ‘For half a buck, the price of a movie ticket, you can see me anytime.’But Bob never saw his brother again.”88 “In spite of Hopper’s enthusiastic endorsement of Bob and his convincing portrayal of Jerome Kern, the studio brass, still outraged by his attitude toward them, were determined to cut him down, even if to do so meant acting against their own best interests.”89 Bob’s next assignment was a supporting role in the Hepburn-Tracy film, “Sea of Grass”.“The basic story line about a feud between cattlemen and farmers was drowned in a sea of domestic melodrama; the Hepburn character has an affair with, and subsequently an illegitimate son by Tracy’s lawyer, played by Melvyn Douglas. The boy stays with Tracy but grows up to be a nasty ne-er-do-well. He is eventually shot down by a posse and the estranged Tracy and Hepburn reconcile.Walker’s role – that of Brock Brewton, Hepburn’s illegitimate son – was decidedly a minor one. It would have been more suitable for one of MGM’s stock contractees than for an actor who had just had an important role in a three-million-dollar production, but Bob Walker was ordered to report as a reminder that he was being punished.”90 “When Bob joined the Sea of Grass cast, his first friend on the set was Spencer Tracy. Tracy was well aware of the reverses – both personal and professional – that the younger actor had been experiencing, and his heart went out to him, an interest that might have developed into a lasting friendship had Bob not taken it as a personal affront when on several occasions Tracy, who had been making a valiant attempt (with Hepburn's encouragement) to stay on the wagon, refused to join him for drinks after work.When Bob became insistent, both Tracy and Hepburn began avoiding him. Once again, he was being rejected, but it was a rejection brought on by his own odd behavior. Phyllis Thaxter, cast as Bob’s half-sister, was as charming and friendly as ever, but since she was now Mrs. James Aubrey – she’d married Aubrey in 1944 – Bob made it a point to keep his distance. All in all, The Sea of Grass was proving to be an unpleasant experience for everyone connected with it.”91 Louis B. Mayer became involved in what he considered the ultimate World War II drama dealing with the development of the atomic bomb. It was titled “The Beginning or the End”. Screenwriter Frank Weed was instructed not to turn the film into a documentary.“To solve that problem, Weed carefully integrated real-life figures such as Major General Leslie R. Groves, Grove’s secretary, Jean O’Leary, Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman, and Dr. Albert Einstein, with a number of fictional characters and improvised dual love stories.Bob was costarred, with Brian Donlevy, as the fictional Colonel Jeff Nixon, in love with Miss O’Leary (played by Audrey Totter). Tom Drake received feature billing as a young scientist who questions the wisdom of building the bomb, and Beverly Tyler completed the romantic foursome as Drake’s young bride.Although Variety would call the film ‘a credit of new proportions to the motion-picture industry,’ many critics were offended by the romantic interludes interjected into such a historic event. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times noted, ‘In spite of its generally able reenactments, this film is so laced with sentiment of the silliest and most theatrical nature that much of its impressiveness is marred.’Producer Sam Marx recalls, ‘Bob Walker followed Norman Taurog’s direction without protest, and delivered a capable performance, although away from the cameras he made no secret of the fact that he was less than enthusiastic about the part.’”92 Even though the publicity blackout was still in effect, the studio did permit Bob to participate in one memorable public event.Arthur Freed produced a Jerome Kern Memorial Concert at the Hollywood Bowl, and put Roger Edens in charge of coordinating the event and lining up the stars of the feature film.“Freed approached Bob and asked if he would be the narrator for the entire program. The assignment would consist of reading a Jerome Kern eulogy which Freed would pen, and delivering prepared narration to serve as a bridge between numbers.Without hesitation Bob replied, ‘I’d consider it an honor.’The event took place on July 20, 1946, and the Bowl’s eighteen-thousand-plus seats had been sold out for weeks in advance.Bob was punctual during the rehearsals, knew his lines, and although the afternoon of the final dress rehearsal was an enervating scorcher, the weather affected neither his voice nor his enthusiasm. It was an old pattern repeating itself: when Bob was sufficiently motivated to be at his very best, he was at his very best.”93
Gigi Perreau, Robert Walker and Ann Carter - "Song of Love"
Bob read the hopeless script and was appalled. His protests to the front office that he was woefully wrong for the role, that he was uncomfortable in costume parts, that he’d be detrimental to the movie, left MGM unmoved.‘If you have nothing suitable for me, let me go,’ he pleaded. ‘You don’t need me. You have Van (Johnson) and Tom (Drake) and Pete (Lawford), and all those other juveniles back from the service.’The studio, eyeing the bags of fan mail that continued to pour in and Bob’s position on the popularity polls, refused to release him from either the picture or their payroll.”99 Bob poured out his grievances to his friend, Keenan Wynn, who recalled: “Almost without exception, the films he was thrust into were beneath his abilities as an actor. Hell! That lack seemed to extend damn near to all of us. Fortunately, I escaped to do stock work – which I regret Bob never did. It might have helped him a lot. But who knows?”100 Despite all his protests to MGM, Bob was to appear in Song of Love.“He reported to work on Song of Love on time, followed Clarence Brown’s direction, retired to his dressing room when not needed, and hated every minute of the experience. His attitude showed in his work. When the film was released the following October, Bosley Crowther would comment, ‘As for Robert Walker’s solemn posturing as Brahms, well, it’s good for a guffaw.’ The majority of his other reviews were also cruel and deprecatory, with the critics, of course, all unaware of Bob’s own losing battle against the miscasting.”101 Interestingly, an interview with Jennifer appeared in the April 1947 issue of “Modern Screen”. Florabel Muir wrote: “Hollywood buzzes from time to time with the story that Robert Walker never will marry again because he’s still carrying the torch for Jennifer. I am not one to say that this could be the case. Robert is a strange, moody boy. It’s plain something disturbs him from time to time, otherwise how can one explain his apparent endeavors to escape from reality by disappearing to parts unknown? Perhaps Bob is trying to find himself.Jennifer refuses pointblank to discuss the boy whom she married and divorced, although her conversation betrays that she retains a very keen and high respect for him both as man and as artist. I’m afraid I worked an old interviewer’s trick on her to see if I couldn’t get her off guard. I said something not quite complimentary about Bob. Instantly, she flew to his defense with fire in her eyes and wrath in her voice. ‘Not one of those things has a grain of truth in it, ‘ she asserted vehemently. ‘Bob is a very honorable person and he has high ideals.’The sons of Jennifer and Bob are Bobby, now seven, and Michael, six. They live with their mother, but Bob visits them often. There’s a great mutual admiration society between Bob and his boys. They love him and think he’s a great guy. ‘And both of them look like him,’ Jennifer added.”102 Bob spent the summer of 1947 in a rented cottage in Malibu with his sons, Bobby and Michael.“Whatever stability and peace of mind he enjoyed that summer, he attributed to the loving companionship of his sons. He taught the boys to swim, and Van Johnson remembers ‘how happy the three seemed’ when he spotted them clowning around on the sandy white shores of Malibu.Jim Henaghan, who had a home-movie camera, took roll after roll of film of the three, later lost, which captured Bob at his very best.”103 “’He wasn’t interested in dating while the boys were with him,’ remembered Jim, ‘and he kept his temper in check. He never talked about the future, since the future he had once envisioned had been so unmercifully destroyed, but I never saw him in a suicidal mood. Never. Bob was living – ‘existing’ would be a more accurate description – one day at a time.’”104 Bob still had not heard from the studio about any upcoming film roles. In October of that year, he went home to Ogden to celebrate his twenty-ninth birthday.“He remained in Ogden for a couple of days, then took off for nearby Draper for a visit with a favorite aunt, Maude Walker, who taught grade school in that rural town.Mrs. Walker tentatively asked if Bob would consent to make a surprise visit to Draper Junior High School and give the kids a treat. ‘Sure,’ Bob agreed, ‘it might be fun. But keep it a secret.’On October 16, during the assembly period, Bob was introduced by a pretty teenage student, Delores Day, and given a ‘cheering screaming ovation’. When the furor subsided, he was peppered with juvenile questions about Hollywood. Bob observed the sea of eager faces and had no desire to disillusion the kids. He said all the positive things he was certain they wanted to hear.When the question-and-answer session was over, he spent an hour signing autographs – over 450 of them – then promised to get the names of the students present from his aunt and send the requested photographs to them as soon as he returned to Hollywood.It was a promise he diligently kept.”105 “Toward the end of December, Bob received word that he was being loaned to Universal International, together with another MGM contractee, Ava Gardner. They would costar in the screen adaptation of Kurt Weill’s 1943 Broadway musical One Touch of Venus. The basic story line – the romance of a department store window dresser – was retained, but only three songs from the lilting Weill score remained in the bastardized screenplay, and the musical’s stunning ballet, “Venus in Ozone Heights,” had been scrapped. Bob’s role of Eddie Hatch was one of the ‘oh gosh, oh golly’ genre which he had come to despise, but he docilely accepted the assignment.”106 “When he requested the services of Gardner and Walker for Venus, Mayer quickly complied. He felt the title role could bring his rising starlet to major stardom, and, additionally, he’d be recompensed for the thousands paid to the idle Bob Walker. To Mayer it was a no-lose deal.And for Bob – no-win. Whether he knew it or not, stepping onto the set of Venus was as reckless as stepping in front of a loaded gun.And whether she knew it or not, Ava Gardner was about to pull the trigger.”107 Ava Gardner had been married and divorced twice – from Mickey Rooney and Artie Shaw – and had begun an affair with Howard Duff by the time she was signed for One Touch of Venus.
Candid photo on the set of "One Touch of Venus"
“Shortly after starting work on Venus, Ava capriciously decided to add Bob Walker to her string of conquests. Their mutual disdain for MGM formed the initial basis for their friendship. Their propensity for alcohol led to frequent dates and eventually to what Ava considered a casual affair. Although charmed by his wit and sensitivity, Ava was more interested in Bob’s availability as a willing drinking companion.”108 Bob’s parents, Horace and Zella Walker, were vacationing in California at this time, and Bob had turned his home over to them. While filming Venus, he was living in his studio dressing room.Bob became infatuated with the beautiful Ava Gardner and was not aware of her continuing affair with Howard Duff. His friend, Jim Henaghan, tried to warn Bob not to become involved with Gardner, but Bob did not heed his advice. One day he discovered Duff with Ava in her dressing room, and when she was alone again, he entered and had a violent argument with her. In a rage and out of control, he struck her across the face. Shocked by his actions, he tried to apologize, but she would have none of it.At the end of his time at Universal, Bob became friendly with the actress, Shelley Winters. She says of him:“’In my opinion Bob was a consummate actor and had that same extraordinary quality that Spencer Tracy had: his eyes were truly a mirror of his soul. He never needed words to let you know what he was thinking or feeling. I saw The Clock, the film he did with Judy Garland, at least ten times. Watching him was a profound lesson in film acting. He had a special sense of humor that would make the audience laugh immediately after his most poignant moments. He never took himself or his problems seriously. It was a very difficult period of his life. When he was working on Venus, I believe he was avoiding MGM, his home studio, and used to hang around my set sometimes, because he was lonely and had nowhere to go. He used to tease me gently about my Blond Bombshell image. I casually mentioned once that I liked clowns and stuffed animals, and so whenever he came over to my dressing room, he would bring one.He took me all over Southern California to strange out-of-the-way places I didn’t even know existed. Somewhere in L.A. there is a Japanese garden teahouse that you can get to only by climbing a mountain. We also went to what surely must have been the first commune somewhere down the beach toward Laguna, where lots of kids, married and unmarried, lived in Quonset huts.Once we drove up to Big Sur, and he talked of buying a house and raising his children up there. I never raised any objections to these daydreams, because he was so obviously trying to put his life together again.He was a quiet, gentle, lovely young man.’”109 However, Bob’s mental health was deteriorating rapidly and as he himself would later say: “It was soon after the finish of ‘One Touch of Venus’ that Bob went, as he says, ‘completely off the rocker.’”110 Bob had met Barbara Ford, the daughter of legendary director John Ford, and after a whirlwind courtship, they decided to marry.
His friend, Jim Henaghan, tried to dissuade the two from the hasty marriage, since he was well aware that Bob did not love Barbara. As Jim Henaghan later recounted: “’I had known, when they married, that the two were headed for disaster, because it was so obvious that Jennifer Jones was the only woman he loved. I anticipated that he and Barbara would never make it. But I thought the marriage would last maybe six months. I didn’t expect a breakup in less than six weeks. In retrospect, I’d say Bob was taking his frustrations out on his bride because she wasn’t Jennifer; punishing her because she wasn’t Jennifer.’”111 Barbara left Robert Walker and returned to her parents’ house. She would give the following statement to the columnist, Louella Parsons: “’I have tried very hard, since we were married, to work out our problems and adjust our differences, but I know now that it’s impossible. I’m going to Catalina to get myself together.’”112 After completing “One Touch of Venus,” Bob’s career was in limbo with MGM, and there were no requests for him from any other studio.On one of his week-end visits with his sons, Bobby and Michael told him they were enrolled at the exclusive Black Fox Military Academy “where, they’d be dressed in ‘real soldier suits and caps – just like Private Hargrove.’ Bob had wanted his sons to have the best education money could buy. The academy’s scholastic and disciplinary reputation was flawless, and within a few weeks the boys adjusted to their new world, making friends and concentrating on their studies.Bob told Jim, ‘They’re still too young to decide on careers, but I just hope to God neither of them will want to become an actor.’”113 Dore Schary had joined MGM and would ultimately replace its long-time head, Louis B. Mayer. Schary called Bob into his office for a conference. He was very sympathetic and encouraging to Bob and felt he was an important asset to MGM. “After their meeting, Bob told reporter Harrison Carroll, ‘I had a talk with MGM’s new production boss, Dore Shary. He’s an understanding man. He promised to find me suitable roles. I believe in him, and I trust him. With this worry removed and with the lessons I have learned, I’m sure that I’ll be able to run my life on an even keel.’”114 This was not to be the case. Just a few days later, Bob and a date had a few drinks at a local bar and were pulled over by the police on their way home. Bob was removed from the car and give a sobriety test. “Later he’d tell Jim, ‘It was the silliest thing I ever experienced. The damn cops just stand there and give you about a twenty-foot start. They seem to encourage you to make a break for it. I couldn’t resist. I started to run
Bob and his companion were driven to the police station and booked as being drunk and disorderly. Becoming resentful of the treatment he was receiving, Bob fought with the officers, and a photographer took the photo of a belligerent, enraged Robert Walker, which was to appear on the front pages coast-to-coast.