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2x Oscar Nominee Volunteers for WWII at 37: The Story of Robert Montgomery

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
January 23, 2024 3:02 am

2x Oscar Nominee Volunteers for WWII at 37: The Story of Robert Montgomery

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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January 23, 2024 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Robert Montgomery was one of the first movie stars to volunteer for service in World War II and when Dwight D. Eisenhower ran for the Presidency in 1952, Montgomery was his television coach. When General Eisenhower became President, Montgomery stayed on in his role as television advisor to become the first show-business professional to occupy an office in the White House. Here to tell another Hollywood Goes to War story is Roger McGrath.

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When General Eisenhower became president, Montgomery stayed on in his role as television advisor to become the first show business professional to occupy an office in the White House. Here to tell another Hollywood Goes to War story is Roger McGrath. McGrath is the author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes, Violence on the Frontier, a U.S. Marine and former history professor at UCLA. Dr. McGrath has appeared on numerous History Channel documentaries and is a regular contributor here at Our American Stories.

Here's McGrath. Robert Montgomery was an actor, director, and producer in Hollywood in a career that spanned more than 30 years. He appeared in more than 60 movies and was nominated twice for Best Actor.

He won the Tony Award for his direction of the Broadway stage version of The Desperate Hours. He was awarded two separate stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for his work in motion pictures and another for his work in television. His daughter and his son followed him into Hollywood.

The daughter, Elizabeth Montgomery, became especially prominent with her starring role as Samantha, the beautiful and lovable witch in the television series Bewitched. Robert Montgomery is born Henry Montgomery Jr. in Fishkill Landing, New York in 1903, according to New York birth records, but is commonly said to be born in 1904. His parents are of Scottish and Irish descent. He's raised in a middle-class home during his early years, but his father's business fortunes turn sour, forcing the sale of the Montgomery home, and the family moves into a boarding house. The father becomes depressed and commits suicide by jumping from the Brooklyn Bridge when young Henry is 18. By the time his father dies, Henry has grown into a lean, six-foot-one young man with dark hair and blue eyes. He has hopes of becoming a writer and acting on stage, but right now he needs money and secures a job as a deckhand on an oil tanker.

He spends nearly two years at sea earning and saving money before returning to New York City and renting a small flat in Greenwich Village. He's among writers and actors, and they urge the handsome young man to audition for plays. Montgomery's first appearances are nothing more than walk-ons with an occasional line or two, but he's soon cast in substantial roles in plays featuring several of the top actors of the 1920s. In 1928, Montgomery stars in four Broadway plays, which brings him to the attention of Hollywood and a contract with MGM in 1929. MGM allows him to keep his last name, but changes his first name to Robert. For the years out, he appears in five movies as Robert Montgomery, albeit in minor roles.

Nonetheless, he gains prominence as Hollywood's newest up-and-coming star. He appears in seven movies in 1930, usually as a male lead. His co-stars and supporting actors include Joan Crawford, Buster Keaton, Lionel Barrymore, Norma Scherer, Wallace Beery, Chester Morris, and Dorothy Jordan. Robert Montgomery is now on the A-list. Montgomery is the leading man in six movies in 1931, and his leading ladies include Greta Garbo and Constance Bennett. It's another 15 movies for Montgomery from 1932 through 1934.

Added to his list of leading ladies are Marion Davies, Tallulah Bankhead, Rosalind Russell, and Myrna Loy. Montgomery is at the top of his game, and in 1935, he's elected president of the Screen Actors Guild. He will be re-elected in 1936 and again in 1937. His new duties don't slow down his film production a bit. He appears in 20 movies from 1935 through 1941, and is nominated for Best Actor twice. The first nomination is for his role in Night Must Fall, and the second for his role in Here Comes Mr. Jordan.

Movies, money, critical acclaim, and fame are all his. However, Robert Montgomery has a patriotic streak in him, and in 1941, with war clouds looming, he applies for a commission in the U.S. Navy. It's a logical choice of branches of service since he sailed when growing up in New York, and later spent nearly two years at sea on an oil tanker. The Navy also thinks it's a good match, and on April 28, 1941, he's commissioned Lieutenant J.G. in the Naval Reserve. At the age of 37, Montgomery is old for Lieutenant J.G.

Moreover, he's married with three children. He wouldn't be drafted should the United States go to war, and he would be assured of staying in Hollywood, making movies and raking in big bucks. But Robert Montgomery feels he has a duty to serve his country in this time of need. Montgomery's first duty station is at the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations in Washington, D.C. After a month of orientation, he's sent to the U.S. Embassy in London as an assistant naval attaché. His duties include tracking British ships in the Atlantic. In September, he's designated a special naval observer and sails aboard British destroyers patrolling the North Atlantic in search of German U-boats.

Following Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Lieutenant J.G. Montgomery is recalled to Washington. While there, he narrates a radio program, This is War, broadcast to the entire nation.

He fears this will be his war, making radio broadcasts and appearing in war documentaries. At his request, he's sent to the Navy's Motor Torpedo Boat School in Rhode Island. The PT boats are wicked little craft, quick and agile, but they're made of wood and are very vulnerable.

After graduating from the school, Montgomery has made Skipper a PT-107. He spends the next six months patrolling the waters off the Panama Canal and is promoted to lieutenant. He's then ordered to the Solomon Islands, where the Marines are battling the Japanese for control of Guadalcanal. Offshore, the U.S. Navy is fighting one epic sea battle after another.

So many ships are sunk, both Japanese and American, that the waters between Guadalcanal and nearby Savo and Florida Islands get the nickname Iron Bottom Sound. Montgomery serves first on a light cruiser and then on a destroyer on the staff of the commander of a destroyer squadron. Montgomery is decorated with a commendation medal for his excellent service as assistant operations officer and intelligence officer in, quote, assisting the commander in his planning execution of operations to prevent the enemy from supplying and reinforcing his forces on Guadalcanal. This was accomplished while in almost continuous combat with the enemy, including bombardment of enemy troops and installations and engagement with enemy aircraft. He contributed materially to the hampering of enemy operations and furnishing gunfire support and screening during landings of our forces. And you've been listening to Roger McGrath tell the story of actor Robert Montgomery. And what a story it is indeed. Two Oscar nominations. What does he do at the age of 37 in 1941? War clouds looming.

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Subscribe now to Variety Confidential wherever you get your podcasts. And we continue with our American stories and with Roger McGrath sharing the story of Robert Montgomery, another part of our Hollywood goes to war series. Let's pick up where McGrath last left off. In March 1943, Montgomery is promoted to lieutenant commander, but his days in the Solomons are numbered.

He's been suffering from dengue fever and has lost 20 pounds from his already lean frame. In April, he's flown back to the states to recover. In May, he's assigned to the operational training command in Seattle and remains there until August when he's transferred to the small craft training command at San Pedro, California. In February 1944, Lieutenant Commander Montgomery joins the staff of the commander of Destroyer Squadron 60, which is preparing for the invasion of Normandy in Operation Overlord. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Montgomery is aboard the destroyer Barton, which along with other American warships, bombards German coastal defenses.

Barton is immediately offshore and in the thick of the action. During the first hour of the invasion, while under heavy fire, Barton rescues 31 American soldiers from a sinking landing craft. Day two and three are more hot action for Barton until German coastal defenses along the landing beaches at Normandy collapse. Barton continues bombardment of German positions along the French coast and gets in a particularly hot engagement at the port of Cherbourg on June 25.

German coastal batteries score several hits on Barton before effective fire from the destroyer silences the enemy guns. For his role aboard Barton during D-Day and the days that follow, Lieutenant Commander Montgomery is awarded the Bronze Star with Combat V. His citation reads in part, by his cool and courageous performance of duty in the face of frequent, devastating enemy aerial attacks throughout the entire assault period. Lieutenant Commander Montgomery contributed essentially to the success of his unit during this critical period of vital combat operations. And his gallant conduct was in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S.

Naval Service. Montgomery is later awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government. For the summers out, Montgomery is promoted to commander and ordered back to Washington. He spends two months on special assignments and then is released from active duty to make a movie with John Ford honoring the daring do and sacrifice of the PT boats in the Philippines during 1942. Who could be a better choice to play the skipper of a PT boat than Commander Montgomery? In February 1945, John Ford began shooting They Were Expendable, starring Robert Montgomery and John Wayne. Montgomery plays Lieutenant John Brickley, a character based on the real life PT boat skipper and Medal of Honor recipient John Buckley, who led a squadron of six PT boats in fighting the Japanese invasion of the Philippines during the first six months of the war.

It was Buckley who commanded the PT boat that evacuated General Douglas MacArthur from Corregidor in Manila Bay and made a 700 mile dash to the island of Mindanao at the southern end of the Philippines. John Wayne plays Lieutenant Rusty Ryan based on the real life Robert Kelly, who served with Buckley and was the recipient of the Navy Cross, two Silver Stars and the Purple Heart. By the middle of May 1945, the filming of the movie is nearing completion when John Ford breaks his leg in a fall from a set. From his hospital bed, Ford announces that Robert Montgomery will take over as director.

For the next week, Montgomery both directs and acts. In a cast, Ford returns to direct the last sequence of scenes. After watching the footage of the last weeks of shooting, Ford is highly pleased and tells Montgomery, I couldn't tell where I left off and you began.

Released in December 1945, They Were Expendable is both a box office and critical success and is nominated for two Academy Awards. John Buckley thinks the movie is almost like a documentary, but with good actors. Years later, he said, quote, If you look at the movie carefully and me when I was much younger, Montgomery and I look alike.

Furthermore, our habits and the way we work, the way we lead, we're very close together. Ford got someone who could copy my mannerisms and my speech. Good performance by Montgomery. Robert Kelly is not as happy with his portrayal by John Wayne. The character, Rusty Ryan, is courageous, to be sure, but also impetuous and hot tempered. Kelly thinks those latter characteristics were exaggerated.

Buckley thinks the portrayal is accurate, saying Kelly is a very rambunctious Irishman, very difficult to get along with. But he's a very brave man. He's got a Navy Cross.

He's a good man, good sailor, but he's a stubborn bastard. In 1946, Robert Montgomery stars in and directs Raymond Chandler's Lady in the Lake. It's also in 1946 that he's elected to his fourth term as president of the Screen Actors Guild.

As president, he's instrumental in fighting communist influence in the film industry. Montgomery will appear in seven more movies and direct four of them in the late 1940s and 1950s. Robert Montgomery retires from Hollywood after directing and co-producing The Gallant Hours, starring James Cagney as Admiral William F. Halsey. The movie focuses on Admiral Halsey's campaign in the Solomon Islands during the battle for Guadalcanal. This was also the time that Montgomery was serving there as a lieutenant, first aboard a light cruiser and then a destroyer. Montgomery knows what Admiral Halsey faced and the almost daily critical decisions the admiral was forced to make. Nothing less than the fate of the war in the Pacific hung in the balance with Montgomery directing and Cagney acting. The Gallant Hours seems more like a documentary than a movie. During the 1950s, Montgomery produces and hosts his own television series.

Robert Montgomery presents. He not only produces the series, but also acts in many of the episodes. His stature in Hollywood enables him to attract many of the finest motion picture actors from the 1930s and 40s to the new medium of television. Throughout the 1950s, they appear in episode after episode of the series, which has top ratings and runs for eight seasons. Also making appearances in the series are many of Hollywood's most promising young up and coming actors who do some of their first work in the series, including James Dean and Grace Kelly.

Robert Montgomery's own daughter, Elizabeth Montgomery, makes her first appearance on television in the series. Actor, director and producer Robert Montgomery dies in 1981. He is remembered as one of Hollywood's leading men during its golden era. But he should also be remembered as a naval officer who led men in battle during World War Two and received the Bronze Star, the Commendation Medal and the French Legion of Honor.

And a terrific job on the editing, production and storytelling by our own Greg Hengler and a special thanks to Roger McGrath. Again, he's the author of Gunfighters, High Women and Vigilantes, Violence on the Frontier. And he's a U.S. Marine and former history professor at UCLA. And you can see him often on the History Channel. And he is a regular contributor here at Our American Stories.

And we're grateful for our partnership. In 1944, Montgomery finds himself in the thick of it in the most important battle of not just the 20th century, but maybe of all time. That was D-Day on June 6th.

And not just in the thick of the action for a day or two, but for what it turns out to be weeks to follow. And he received the Bronze Star for that work. And he would soon be named the commander.

In 1946, he became the president of the Screen Actors Guild. And one of his chief concerns, fighting the communist influence on the movie industry. The story of Robert Montgomery. The story of service. The story of valor.

And the story of so much more, here on Our American Stories. Welcome to Sunday's star-studded AFC vs. NFC flag football finale at Camping World Stadium. Be there live for an action-packed weekend. The Pro Bowl Games, presented by Verizon, Sunday, February 4th. Tickets start at just $30. Go to ProBowl.com slash tickets to get yours today.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2024-01-23 04:35:22 / 2024-01-23 04:43:32 / 8

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