No other contract player at MGM in the early 1940s projected more boyish charm than Robert Walker. After several inconsequential walk-ons and one good supporting role, this immensely likeable actor achieved stardom in See Here, Private Hargrove (1944), one of the big box-office hits of World War II. His shy, bumbling manner made him the perfect choice to play the title role (a more amiable forerunner of Jack Lemmon’s brash Ensign Pulver) and other light comedy turns, requiring his fresh and appealing boy-next-door manner. Along with Tom Drake and Van Johnson, Walker was MGM’s fair-haired boy, distinguishing himself with a natural and disarmingly honest style of acting. He was earnest and unassuming, and moviegoers must have sensed the bright promise of his career. “
But there was a price to pay. His sudden rise to stardom was ruined by the loss of his wife and great love, Jennifer Jones, an extremely ambitious actress, caught in an obsessive relationship with one of Hollywood’s most powerful producers. The bright promise of Walker’s future would vanish into darkness and despair before ending in his untimely death from drugs, alcohol and a deadly sedative administered by his doctor. Today, at least five of his films have survived the test of time, and remain classics of their era – Bataan, Since You Went Away, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, The Clock (memorable opposite Judy Garland), and the sinister suspenser which provides a rare glimpse of his dark side, Strangers on a Train.
Walker, who had been treated by a psychiatrist as a child, was aware of his problems and offered some revealing comments on the shaping of his personality during a troubling phase of his career. “I basically felt inadequate, unwanted, and unloved since I was born. I was always trying to make an escape from life. I was an aggressive little character, but what nobody knew, but me, was my badness was only a cover-up for a basic lack of self-confidence, that I really was more afraid than frightening.” Years later, he would also admit in a 1945 interview: “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?”