"Return from Tragedy" Modern Screen - October, 1949 by Arthur L. Charles
"In a small,
sparsely-furnished room in a sanitarium in Topeka,
Kansas, a thin, harried man of 30 sits silently on a cot and stares
at the floor. The door opens and a professional-appearing man in a
loose white coat enters."
"The man on the bed doesn't look at him."
"The doctor says, "Do you want to have a talk with me today, Bob?"
"The patient grits his
teeth and shakes his head, never looking up.
The doctor leaves, but he'll be back again tomorrow."
"Don't get this wrong.
The man on the bed is a patient, yes. But
he's not insane. He's Robert Walker, movie star. The Menninger
Clinic, with its clean, attractive buildings designed and decorated
in the best possible taste, is no "snake pit." It is a mental
hospital, but here there is no restraint. It costs a lot of money to
stay at Menninger's, and if you can't stand the tariff or you really
want to go home, you don't have to make it over the wall in the dead
of night to get out. You check out -- as you would do at a hotel."
"Robert Walker wasn't
insane. His refusal to talk to the doctor was,
in a sense, the same attitude you show when you won't talk things
over with a friend after a quarrel. He was no menace. No menace,
that is, to anyone but himself. Then why was he there? Why was this
curly-haired, soft-eyed young man confined to an institution
dedicated to the treatment of the sick mind?"
"Freud said, and so
do most practicing psychiatrists, that what you
are today is a result of what you have been at some earlier time in
your life. And a good psychiatrist can take apart your character now
and read your biography. They pry into your dreams and memories --
not, as some people think, to brew a mysterious mental medicine, but
to get at the facts -- at the truth you think you dare not tell."
"Bob Walker was born
in Salt Lake City, Utah. His father was a huge,
lusty man, city editor of a newspaper and later a talented
advertising executive. His mother was a feminine woman who had given
her life over to feminine pursuits -- being a man's wife, and raising
her sons. Bob was no different from other kids, actually, but he
thought he was. He was very thin, gangly, afflicted more than he
should be, he thought, with acne. He was strong, but never robust.
His eyes were weak. That's all right, you say -- it sounds like the
kid in the next block. Well, maybe the kid in the next block will do
okay. Maybe he doesn't have the spark that makes great men. Maybe
he'll be satisfied to be ordinary. Bob Walker wasn't."
"The desire to be a
better man than anyone else was born in Bob. He
couldn't have helped any of the things he did if he had wanted to. A
course had to be run. A crisis met and passed."
"Certainly he was no
tough guy. But there wasn't a kid in the state
of Utah who could look crooked at him. He fought many a battle, and
he seldom won one. But he never gave up. He'd try again -- on a
"So Bob went off to New York to become an actor -- and he also
off to New York to be on his own. He wanted to be better than the
greatest stars in the business and take their places, and show the
kid in the next bunk at San Diego that he could do it."
"He wanted to have somebody ask him, "Who paid your rent
"And he wanted to answer, "I did!"
"Those two words are probably the key to Robert Walker's life.
did! Look at me. I'm kind of skinny, and if I take my glasses off I
can hardly see you -- but I can still knock your block off!"
"Well, there was a hitch. Bob had an aunt whom he admired very
much. She was one of the most noted self-made women in America. Her
name was Hortense Odlum. She was the wife of Floyd Odlum, the
industrial empire builder. Bob loved her and admired her more than
anyone else in his family. He went to live with her and started the
rounds of the casting offices. You may not think there is hardship
in walking out of a lavish suite in a fashionable hotel to pound the
cold, cold pavement looking for a chance to play Hamlet. But if you
want to play Hamlet more than anything in the world, it can mark you
for life! You may not go along with the premise that free room and
board in a swank home is cruelty. But if you want to pay your own
rent more than you want to live, it can stain your soul! Yes, Aunt
Hortense was a hitch."
"It was only a never-say-die spirit that kept Bob Walker going.
borrowed the money to enroll in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts
from his aunt (because now he had learned that he had to study his
trade) and moved to a small room in Greenwich Village."
"Now comes love. Sure, you've read about it. Shy boy meets shy
in a dramatic school and they ride out in a cloud. Bob Walker met
Phylis Isley. She was beautiful. She was retiring. She was a
stranger in New York. No, she wasn't particularly poor. Her family
owned theaters in Texas, and there's money in theaters in Texas. At
any rate, they met on a common ground, and probably the words they
said to one another sounded exactly like the words boys and girls
falling in love have always said to one another."
"Bob didn't know it at the time, but this is actually what he
saying to Phylis:"
"Phylis said she'd let him get them for her, and Bob married her
went after them. And at this point in his life, Robert Walker found
his first true happiness. He was better than any man he'd ever
known. He was showing the kid in the next bunk in San Diego."
"He got a flat in Greenwich Village. He bought a canary. He played
in the Cherry Lane Theatre for 50 cents a night, and he took home the
jewels and the furs and the wine and the pheasant. One night the
jewels would be a stick of bologna, and the wine a bottle of milk.
For furs, he brought a bargain silk housecoat and a shiny, wool-lined
rain cape. And they were divinely happy."
"Children came. Two of them. Bob became probably the most sought-
after actor in radio. He moved his family to Long Island. The
jewels became filets mignon and maybe once in a while a real jewel --
a brooch or a pair of earrings. The furs became furs. But it didn't
really matter. The happiness came from getting things by himself.
The Robert Walkers became substantial folk."
"The hardest thing in the world to do is to stand still. Phylis
Walker was an actress. She told her friends that she wasn't serious
about it any more. A husband, two kids, happiness -- who wanted
more? But suddenly she was asked to come to Hollywood to test for
pictures. She did -- and she was just as happy that things didn't go
so well. Then, David Selznick wanted to get a look at her and she
came out again and tested for 'The Song of Bernadette'. She not only
got the job, she got an Academy Award for doing it."
"And what about Robert Walker? Something was missing now in his
life. Call it responsibility if you want to. Call it the haven he
had built to bring his troubles to."
"Then, MGM was testing actors for a picture called 'Bataan'. The
producer was Dore Schary. He had New York send him the tests and
when he saw the thin, anxious-looking young man flashed on the
screen, he tossed the rest of the tests in the bucket and sent for
"In all fairness to Bob, it must be told that he really didn't
to come. He was doing all right in New York. He came because his
wife was in California, and because he took an instant liking to Dore
Schary. He was a big success in the picture. But he couldn't take
that back to lay at the feet of his wife. She was a bigger success."
"Let's pass over a few years. A divorce was as certain as a flame
when you strike a match. What ever happened to love? Nothing! It
"Let's get analytical for a moment and scan the signs of the
degeneration of a character. A man has too much to drink. He pokes
a bigger man in the nose. He gets his name in the paper. Why?
Because he's famous. A man gets into his car and drives 500 miles.
It causes a national sensation. Why? The man's famous. A man gets
drunk and gets arrested. He offers to fight or foot race the cops,
and he tells them he'll always be drunk. It makes some of the most
colorful photos ever printed in a newspaper. Why? The man is
famous. What's the name of the devil? Fame! What's the curse of a
man's life? Fame!"
"Robert Walker called MGM and told them he wanted to quit. They
thought he was crazy. You've got everything, they said. What do you
want? If he had told them he wanted a small room in Greenwich
Village, a place to bring home a stick of bologna or a bargain
raincoat, they wouldn't have understood. So he didn't tell them. He
told it to himself, and he had to drink to make himself understand --
it was so long ago and so far away that he had to fog the present to
get the perspective for memory."
"And what about Phylis, now Jennifer Jones? Didn't she still love
him? Sure she did. If she hadn't, he could have found someone
else. But you can't steal back a dream and give it to someone else
when part-owner of the dream -- in this case Jennifer Jones -- hasn't
given it up."
"There never had been a time when Robert Walker was in trouble
Jennifer Jones hadn't come to take care of him. You've read reams of
copy on the great romance between Jennifer Jones and David Selznick.
Their recent marriage proves that there was foundation to these
stories. It was confusing to you, and I'll tell you why. The love
between Robert Walker and Jennifer Jones lasted five years longer
than you thought it did! It smoldered, burst into flame, very nearly
died at times. It was a secret love, shared by four people; Bob,
Jennifer, Robert and Michael Walker. They didn't live together. But
they were a family. They shared the last days of their love
jealously. Until Bob married another woman, his children didn't know
their parents were divorced!"
"If Dore Schary hadn't gone back to MGM, this story would probably
never been written. Bob Walker was on his last legs when Dore Schary
called him into the studio for a talk. He put his cards face-side up
on the table. He told Bob he could leave pictures, go make another
life for himself, drink himself to death or do anything he wanted
to. He called in Bob's father and they all talked. Dore Schary
didn't give Robert Walker another chance, as they say. He asked Bob
to give the world, and the movies, another chance. What for? For
Bob, for his sons, for his father, his mother, the millions of kind
people who adored him. Bob said yes -- but he meant no."
"At any rate, he agreed to go to the Menninger Clinic in Topeka,
Kansas, to see if they could help him."
"Want to talk with me today, Bob?"
"Bob Walker didn't look up. He just shook his head."
"Then one day, another man came into the room with the doctor.
was Bob's father. He ruffled his son's hair and told him to get his
clothes together. "It's no use," he said to Bob. "They can't do
anything for you unless you help them...I'm sorry, son. Very sorry."
"Nobody except Bob, his dad, and the Menninger doctors know what
happened then. Maybe the spirit of love and kindness that had always
been at Bob's elbow got through to him. Maybe the little boy who had
felt inadequate suddenly grew up and knew that life was more than a
single battle. Bob asked to be allowed to stay, and promised to
"In the talks he had with the doctors in the weeks that followed,
Walker found out about himself. He learned that a selfish design for
living is a false one. That a goal a man reaches is only a step to
another goal. That a man can have many shrines, each with an equal
dignity. He found out that man's greatest enemies are his
frustrations. He learned what his frustrations were and whipped
"Now he's back in Hollywood. Healthy in mind and body. The first
laugh at a joke, and the first to feel sympathy for another man's
sorrow. He's even discovered he likes the reporters he once
scorned. He lives a quiet life in a home he bought with money he
"Bob's got that old desire again. He's determined to be the biggest
and the best movie star in Hollywood. And he has somebody to bring
his prizes home to -- two small boys, Robert and Michael Walker."
Copyright Modern Screen