Act Like a Man is a column examining male screen performers past and present, across nationality and genre. If movie stars reflect the needs and desires of their audience in any particular era, examining their personas, popularity, fandom, and specific appeals has plenty to tell us about the way cinema has constructed—and occasionally deconstructed—manhood on our screens.
For a generation of returning veterans, actor Robert Montgomery was the thinking man’s GI. In his roles in post-war American movies, whether they be war dramas or film noirs that he would both star in and direct, he carried an air of earned macho authority. He had a sort of inarguable stature that was supported as much by his real life as it was by his ironclad screen presence. A to-the-manor-born son from a failed business empire, Robert’s father Henry was head of the New York Rubber Company, making his childhood a privileged one—until the family patriarch went broke and jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge in 1922. Going out into the world, Montgomery had good reason to want to distinguish himself as his own man with his own road to success.
Standing an imposing, wiry 6'1", Montgomery had a sharply-etched chin and a face that—depending on the camera angle—could suggest both softness in his youth and increasing hardness as he aged. Looking back now, it’s strange to think that Montgomery—who is probably best remembered today for his role in John Ford’s terse, melancholic war drama They Were Expendable (1945)—began his career over a decade prior to that performance, and was twice nominated for Academy Awards before it. Cast in the early 1930s as a suave, debonair type in the vein of Cary Grant, his slicked-back hair and pillowy-faced boyishness allowed him to move between frothy comedies and romantic dramas at his home studio of MGM. He became the leading man of choice for Norma Shearer in five of her films, bringing him up the ladder at his studio—if he was a favorite of Norma’s, he could count on the protection of her husband, production head Irving Thalberg.
When war in Europe came along, Montgomery—a patriot and a life-long Republican—joined in the effort before America did, driving ambulances around France. Perhaps it was his well-to-do upbringing combined with his proactive, proud conservatism, but he never did seem like a down-at-heel type or ordinary blue-collar soldier; instead he held himself with the carriage and moral righteousness of an officer. That same righteousness earned him ire on studio lots. Bette Davis later called him "pompous and ridiculously right-wing"; historian Scott Eyman wrote he was one of the "chilliest" actors in Hollywood. His reputation was as a stoical, even humorless type, with a smug attitude to match.
In They Were Expendable, Montgomery plays a lieutenant, and having commanded PT boats in the Navy in real life, he brings with it the tired, knowing countenance of a man who’s lived it. Starring opposite John Wayne (who famously did not join the war effort) and under the direction of John Ford (who, conversely, was a fellow Navy man who had shot newsreel footage in combat situations), Montgomery put his experience to good use. He also tried his hand at directing for the first time, when Ford had to take time off for an injury.
The goodwill that came from Montgomery’s wartime achievement—retiring from service as a full commander in the U.S. Navy—would continue with the success of They Were Expendable. This allowed the actor to make his directorial debut in 1946. His adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake is well-remembered for its unusual point of view, with the camera-as-subject—and the first-person representation of Montgomery as Phillip Marlowe. Only occasionally glimpsed in reflection, Montgomery’s visual sidelining would hint at the actor’s keenness to control the way he presented himself to audiences. He would later master this in his long-running NBC television show Robert Montgomery Presents. Physically, Montgomery had also changed. He was forty-one years old at the time of They Were Expendable, but looked older; his large eyes had started to sag, giving their protuberance a downward pull at the corners that made them look melancholy. Any traces of handsomeness had faded into something more vaguely formidable. He had a traditionalist, patrician kind of respectability.
Montgomery’s follow-up film as director/star, Ride the Pink Horse (1947), tends to be the sort of film that’s mentioned as a footnote. It deserves a far greater reputation. By now looking thinner around the cheeks, like a more noble Richard Widmark, Montgomery excels as Gagin, the monosyllabic, mean-faced G.I. who comes to a remote Mexican border town to seek vengeance for a murdered fellow soldier. Ride the Pink Horse is a remarkably directed film for a sophomore feature. It shows genuine visual flair, helped along by the eye of cinematographer Russell Metty. Metty would go on to shoot another famous Mexican border noir: Touch of Evil.In Ride the Pink Horse, Montgomery’s persona combines the repressed traumas of wartime with the reassertion of masculine power so common to the immediate post-war period. As men returned from battle to domestic struggles big and small, Montgomery helped personify that leap with a forceful machismo. He had played a heel before, but it was rarely as convincing as it was here.
Montgomery’s credentials and political leanings square pretty well with his next moves. It was around this time that he appeared as a friendly witness for the House of Un-American Activities Committee. He did not explicitly name names, but spoke strongly about the dangers of Communism in Hollywood unions and in wider society, even earning a round of applause at the hearing. As film historian Thomas Doherty writes, Montgomery "radiated calm authority and seasoned professionalism": that same self-serious posture that had made real life bleed into his film persona and back out into real life again.
In the fifties, while Montgomery appeared weekly on TV sets across the nation, he also took on an unpaid position that was among the first of its kind in politics: as a television adviser to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Believing that the public "reacted to visual elements in television, not strictly the scripted materials," Montgomery essentially helped coach Eisenhower to appear stately in this fresh and powerful medium. Here, for maybe the first time, was an actor coaching a politician to come across as well as... an actor could. It’s not many degrees of separation from this to a fellow friendly witness at HUAC, a young B-movie man named Ronald Reagan. He would soon be cutting out the middleman and running for office himself. Robert Montgomery’s military heroics, his air of monied, macho authority, and his right-wing stance all bestowed various privileges to him. Onscreen and off, Montgomery’s image cut close to the reality of what we think power looks like, and how it behaves, to this day. Montgomery’s persona of "respectability"—though never without an inkling he could knife you in the throat if he so chose—was predicated on staying close to power in more than one way. Robert Montgomery was a respectable heel, if ever there was one.