Friday, October 28, 2011

Montgomery Word

Today's featured actor might best be described as sturdy and reliable. There was little in the way of spectacular with regards to his career and his roles, but he remained a popular and busy star for quite a few years. When that phase of his life came to a close, he was able to turn to other skill sets in order to remain a success. Typically cast (sometimes by himself) in heroic parts, he also demonstrated some fine physicality along the way, which is but one more reason why we like him in The Underworld. He's virtually forgotten by most contemporary movie fans, but maybe after today he'll gain another fan or two.

George Montgomery Letz was born to parents who had emigrated from Ukraine in Brady, Montana on August 29th, 1916. The youngest of 15 children (ouch!), he spent his childhood raising cattle and otherwise filling in on the duties of a large ranch. Thus, from the time he was old enough to sit in a saddle, he was a cowboy. One of his duties was to rid the farm of rodents in exchange for money that he would then spend at the Saturday matinee. Initially, he attended the University of Montana, majoring in architecture, but after one year decided he'd rather try his luck in Hollywood. The angular-featured, strapping 6'3” hunk pursued a career in professional boxing while awaiting his chance at movie-making. (Not the face, please!)

He didn't have to wait long to work in movies, though his start was hardly auspicious. He was a stuntman with limited dialogue in the 1935 Republic western The Singing Vagabond. Known then as George Letz, he continued to toil uncredited in low-budget westerns, sometimes opposite major star Gene Autry. In 1938, he had a slightly larger role in the serial The Lone Ranger as one of a half-dozen men suspected of being the masked hero and it marked the first time he had any billing.

His fortunes shifted for the better when he was signed on with 20th Century Fox in 1939. There, he lost his last name and used his middle name instead, becoming George Montgomery. First up was a featured role in the Cesar Romero film The Cisco Kid and the Lady. 1940 saw him working up from supporting parts, buried in the list of credits, to costarring roles in minor movies. He made Star Dust (with Linda Darnell and John Payne), Young People (a lesser-known Shirley Temple flick, her last at the studio), Charter Pilot (with Lloyd Nolan) and Jennie (with Virginia Gilmore.)

In 1941, he played a rodeo rider (named Lank Garrett) in The Cowboy and the Lady, which was probably more up his alley than some of the other things he'd been working on lately. With Accent on Love that same year, he finally won top-billing in a movie. He played a wealthy man-turned-ditch digger who leaves his wife for an immigrant girl he's met, becoming a champion of the poor in the process. I don't know what movie the shot of him above right is from, in the tropical get-up, but I wasn't about to omit it.

Here's a fun little “Guess Who.” See if you can readily identify the person he's shown with in this press photo. It's from 1941 and the very cute and eligible Mr. Montgomery is escorting a (very lucky) seventeen year-old debutante to a movie premiere. And do take a gander – as if you could help it! - of that raging pompadour hairdo. It's a far cry from the lady's most famous signature look. Despite the obvious fun she was having with Georgie-baby, this girl would go on just a short while later to marry for the first time (still aged seventeen) to another man, an alleged mobster. It was the first of four marital unions for her and that one only lasted until 1945. She had been left a $4 million trust fund at the age of fifteen months when her father died. Her fourth marriage, to actor-turned-writer Wyatt Cooper, resulted in two sons, one of whom is quite famous today in his own right. Yes, the lady in the shot is Anderson's mother, heiress, artist and clothing designer Miss Gloria Vanderbilt!
Now trusted as a leading man in B films, Montgomery rounded out the year with the westerns Last of the Duanes and Riders of the Purple Sage. His last film that year was Cadet Girl, opposite Carole Landis, who he developed a brief relationship with. 1942 brought more diverse roles and more important parts. Roxie Hart starred Ginger Rogers and was a version of the play Chicago that later became such a smash musical. Here, the story had to be augmented somewhat in order to fit in with the rigid Production Code. In the film, he plays a reporter recounting the tale and even got to dance with Rogers in flashback.
Ten Gentlemen from West Point had him starring with Maureen O'Hara as a raw recruit at the famous military academy, run by an imposing Laird Cregar. He immediately butts heads with fellow cadet John Sutton, O'Hara's fiance, and soon they are both vying for her despite a developing camaraderie between them. Directed by Henry Hathaway, this was another step up for him career-wise. His next 1942 film was Orchestra Wives and again he was top-billed. He played a trumpeter who attracts the attention of Ann Rutherford (best known as one of Scarlett's sisters in Gone with the Wind.) Finally, there was China Girl, in which he played a reporter who is also a pilot who falls for the title character played by Gene Tierney. He has to try to rescue her from Japanese attack when her father's school is targeted. Somehow in all this, he managed to date and briefly become engaged to Hedy Lamarr! It didn't pan out in the end and she married John Loder the following year.

In 1943, he costarred with Betty Grable in Coney Island, a colorful musical. He played a shifty, turn of the century con artist who weasels his way into position as her agent, much to the dismay of her boyfriend and boss Cesar Romero. Thus, another love triangle was the focus of much of the story. This role had originally been earmarked for Tyrone Power, but with Ty off to take part in WWII, Montgomery filled in. He would himself be enlisting after just one more film, the morale-boosting German prison escape film Bomber's Moon. This picture gives off a George Reeves vibe to me for some reason.

In 1943, he joined the United States Army Air Force. That same year, on December 5th, he married popular singer Dinah Shore. (See to the right where they joined "Cokes" in public. How daring!! Ha!) George and Dinah would emerge in the years to come as one of those Hollywood fairy tale marriages. They had a daughter together, Melissa Ann (who went by Missy) in 1948 and then adopted a son John (who went by Jody) in 1954. Their idyllic home life would be spread across magazine layouts, photographers seemed to capture every magic moment and there were even paper dolls of them. I'm still kicking myself for not buying a set of these when I was in a little antique shop about two years ago. Get a load of the kitchy '50s packaging! It should be noted that George's doll came dressed in shorts and a shirt, not in underwear, which may be how I was able to resist shelling out that $15.00 at the time!

Montgomery served in WWII, like most other eligible actors of his era, before returning to Hollywood – and Dinah – at its close. His first film upon returning to 20th Century Fox was Three Little Girls in Blue, a colorful musical with June Haver, Vivian Blaine, Celeste Holm and Vera-Ellen, but hardly a rousing welcome back. He replaced Victor Mature, for some reason, after Mature had already been filming the picture (Cesar Romaro was also removed from the film, replaced by Frank Latimore.)

In 1947, he played private eye Philip Marlowe in The Brasher Doubloon. Things were obviously not reigniting as he might have hoped after his service during the war. Doubloon marked the final film under his contract. In 1948, he paired up with Dorothy Lamour for two independently made films, Lulu Belle and The Girl from Manhattan, both of them (especially the former) showcasing her over him.

Montgomery had been shown the craft of making furniture while growing up on his family's Montana ranch. To help fill in the days between jobs (which were scarce indeed in these first few years after the war), he began to explore this skill again. What resulted was the creation of a cabinet-making company that he owned and operated for many years, complete with close to two-dozen employees. He also took an interest in bronze sculpting and, in time, would teach himself how to partake of this art and became quite noted for his talent with it. This photo above left, from a later stage in his life, depicts a Queen Anne two-seater desk he made along with some of his bronze pieces atop it.

In 1950, Montgomery starred in Davy Crockett, Indian Scout. Thing was, he was actually playing Crockett's (fictional?) nephew of the same name! The story was set after Crockett had already died. Concerning a wagon train headed through Indian territory that is betrayed from the inside, it was a patched together affair using stock footage from the film Kit Carson. A few years later, when Fess Parker played the character in a Disney film and set off a country-wide obsession, Montgomery's black and white film was slipped back into theaters in order to win a few more fast bucks.

This film was the first of what would be an almost endless succession of westerns, with an occasional adventure movie or swashbuckler thrown in, though it was steady work and the pictures were popular. He and Rod Cameron costarred in Dakota Lil (in which Marie Windsor played the title dame), there was The Iroquois Trail in which he played Hawkeye of Last of the Mohicans fame, and The Texas Rangers. His inborn mastery of horseback-riding made him a favorite of directors of the genere because his ease and comfort with it made for fewer issues and delays.

A departure from the tumbleweeds and horseshoes came with 1951's The Sword of Monte Cristo. Here, he was a Dragoon Captain under Napoleon's leadership sent to sniff out a gaggle of rebels (improbably led by a masked swordswoman played by Rita Corday.) That's none other than deep-voiced character actor (later to be known as TV's Cannon) William Conrad administering some torture to our hunk.
By now, he'd struck a deal working for Columbia Pictures in a raft of adventuresome films. Several of the titles (which almost tell all one needs to know) include Cripple Creek (in which he went undercover to thwart gold smugglers), The Pathfinder (where he was the title figure, a white man raised by Indians), Fort Ti (set during The French and Indian War) and Gun Belt (with him playing the older brother of little Tab Hunter.) Battle of Rogue River, The Lone Gun and Masterson of Kansas carried on the tradition. He was a long and lean gunslinger, almost appearing as the ideal that one might find on the covers of sagebrush novels or perhaps even gay-oriented fetish periodicals.
In 1955, Montgomery made his television acting debut on Studio One in Hollywood. The episode, called The Conviction of Peter Shea, starred Skip Homeier as Shea and costarred Inger Stevens. He had previously appeared on TV in wife Dinah's episode of This is Your Life in 1953. The westerns continued onward with Seminole Uprising, Robber's Roost and Canyon River. In 1956, he and Mona Freeman starred in something called Huk! (and, no, it's not a musical version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn!) It involved Montgomery returning to The Philippines, where he was raised, only to become enmeshed in guerilla warfare from the Huks, fanatical marauders who are pillaging the plantations of the islands. Not only did Freeman appear to get smushed up against Montgomery realy good, but she also got to see him in some clingy wet clothes! Yum.

At this point, Montgomery was still making minor westerns, some of which are perfectly enjoyable and often short and colorful, while also doing the occasional TV role. Again, the titles tell a lot: Last of the Badmen, Gun Duel in Durango, Pawnee (in which he, again, portrayed a white man raised by Indians) and Black Patch (playing a one-eyed marshal and happening to be the very first film that Jerry Goldsmith ever scored.)

1957's Street of Sinners was a rare contemporary outing in which he played a police patrolman. It was almost unfathomable for him to play anything but a stalwart hero or rescuer, even if there were occasional hints at an underlying dark nature.

1958 was a busy year for Montgomery because not only did he have several more westerns in the chute, but he also took part in his very own TV series, Cimarron City. He played the mayor of an old west Oklahoma boom town, with young sheriff John Smith at his side. He wasn't required to star in all of the episodes, however, sharing that task with Smith and alternating starring episodes with supporting ones. A lot of money was poured into the show in a bid to outdo the then-popular Wagon Train, but it never caught hold and was cancelled in 1959 after 26 episodes. This negative for this photo of him is actually flip-flopped, but since he signed it this way, I'm not going to correct it. To see him the way he actually looked, go hold your laptop or monitor up to a mirror. LOL
After his next two big screen efforts, King of the Wild Stallions and Watusi, Montgomery decided to take the matter of his career into his own hands and began producing the films he would be starring in. Watusi, by the way, was a bit of a cash-in on King Solomon's Mines, with Montgomery playing the son of the explorer Quartermain and also in search of fabled treasure. In it, fortunately, he seemed to have a great deal of trouble buttoning (or sometimes even putting on!) his shirt. His costar was Taina Elg, who got to act and pose longingly with the still quite fit actor. (He was forty-three and in those days, forty-three was not the same as it is now!)
He made his directorial debut with 1961's The Steel Claw. As producer, director, co-writer and star (take that, Eddie Murphy!), he stuck to a subject he was already familiar with (Japanese invasion of the Philippines) and kept costs low by filming on location there (with no other star salaries to pay.) Playing a soldier with one hand replaced with a steel hook, his character was there to help defend the islanders and strategize victory against the enemy. While the film is not regarded as anything special today, at least he was controlling his own career, including the financial aspects of it.

He dipped into the same well with 1962's Samar, in which he also produced, directed, co-wrote and starred. This time, he shot in color and had veteran actor Gilbert Roland on board as a costar. Samar being an island in the Philippines, he was able to at least provide that bit of authenticity when he filmed there again. Here, he played a doctor who becomes a political prisoner under the surprisingly tolerant and compassionate commandant played by Roland.

Another adventure yarn, which by now was a specialty for Montgomery, the cast (including a wildly exotic and curvaceous love interest played by Israeli actress Ziva Rodann) trudged through mud and swampland while on the run from mosquitoes and head hunters! With few, if any, aspirations toward anything higher, it was a colorful time-killer that gave Montgomery plenty to do. Samar was released in 1962, a year that would be of special note to Montgomery for all the wrong reasons.
In the first place, his two-decade-long marriage to Dinah Shore finally came apart. I don't know what broke them up, exactly, and there has never been a tremendous amount of either information or speculation, but the fact remains that one of Hollywood's more seemingly solid couples was finished. His 3-month stretches in the Philippines certainly helped to weaken what had become a superficial, uncommunicative union. The divorce wasn't final until 1963, but the marriage was over by the spring of '62. Dinah would, of course, continue with success as a television talk show hostess, the founder of a golf invitational that still exists today and take part in a highly publicized relationship with the twenty years younger Mr. Burt Reynolds. She wasn't the first cougar, but she was one of the more famous ones to stir the public's attention. As it was, she and George remained on friendly terms and he even appeared on a 1977 episode of her chat show Dinah!
1962 was an even worse year for Montgomery due to the fact that he was victimized by a crazed ex-housekeeper who had nursed a crush on him since previously working for The Montgomerys. (Yes, folks, stalkers are nothing new.) According to her, there had been a brief romantic relationship prior to her firing a year or so before. On August 27th of 1962, she accosted him on his porch when he came home from a date, argued with him, then entered his house, grabbed a hidden gun and fired, intending to shoot him dead and then commit suicide thereafter! He was able to foil her plans and the case against her went to trial the following November. This whole episode, understandably, put a crimp in his ability to continue working, but it wasn't long before he was back at it again.

Believe it or not, his next film concerned the Japanese invasion of the Philippines! 1964's Guerillas in Pink Lace was about a gambler (Montgomery) who, trapped in the island nation in the wake of Pearl Harbor, must disguise himself as a priest in order to try to get off the island on a military pass. Unfortunately, the transport plane, which is also carrying a bevy of American showgirls, crashes into the ocean and from there on out it is up to “priest” Montgomery to rescue himself and his charges. Again, he wore the same four hats for the production.

He made occasional TV series appearances during this time frame, such as on Hawaiian Eye, Bonanza and I Spy. He also had a role in the all-star war epic The Battle of the Bulge. Then in 1966, he somehow wound up working in a hooty mess called Hallucination Generation. Cast against type as a zoned-out LSD pusher who coerces young people into doing his bidding, he reveled in the brief chance to play someone unsympathetic. The black and white programmer featured color sequences during the LSD trips. Even in this, at age fifty, he could be seen cavorting shirtless on the beach, albeit in goofy '60s sunglasses.

Though he was far from maintaining a career as a household name actor, he continued to stay busy. He had three films released in 1967. He headlined a Yugoslavian effort called Bomb at 10:10. He also starred in another western, albeit quite an old-fashioned one for 1967, called Hostile Guns. It at least had the benefit of some other well-known names to round out the cast such as Tab Hunter (his old costar from Gun Belt), Yvonne De Carlo and Brian Donlevy.

Then it was back to the Philippines (hey, when something works....) for Hell of Borneo. This one he again produced, directed, starred in and co-wrote. The next one, Warkill, was directed by his longtime Philippine collaborater and co-writer Ferde Groff Jr. This time, Montgomery only starred in the film, playing a moustached guerilla leader who is a brutal killer. However, as costar Tom Drake finds out, Montgomery sees the error of his violent ways and decides to defend a group of Japanese prisoners who have been targeted by their own nation's army for surrendering.

As the '60s drew to a close, Montgomery filmed two more westerns, one in South Africa (Strangers at Sunrise) and one in Spain (Django the Condemned.) In 1970, he made another South African film called Satan's Harvest, all about his inheriting a ranch that is being used for the cultivation of marijuana. A cheapjack production that barely saw the light of day in the U.S., it costarred Tippi Hedren, who was no doubt there as part of her ongoing mission to preserve and protect African wildlife. Oddly enough, this also marked the sole acting appearance of vocalist Matt Munro, who reportedly wasn't bad at all in it.

By now, Montgomery was still in charge of his cabinet company, had become a rather renowned self-taught sculptor of western subjects and busts of family and friends and was designing and building furniture and even houses for those who wished to partake of his talents. His association with woodworking led to a commercial deal with Pledge furniture polish and he appeared in their advertisements for a time. In between appearances on TV shows like Alias Smith and Jones and The Six Million Dollar Man, he would make another low-budget film. 1972's The Daredevil is all but forgotten now, but remains a cult favorite among the few who remember it. He played a stock car racer who is coerced into driving for a drug lord who also dabbles in voodoo! There certainly seemed to be no big effort to disguise his age in the rather garish poster for the movie.

After one more appearance in a Yugoslavian war film in 1986 (called Dikiy veter), he retired completely from acting on screen. He was seventy years old. In between that time and his death in 2000 at the age of eighty-four, he lived quietly in Rancho Mirage, California, dabbling in his various interests and continuing to create works of art. He also had a relationship for about twenty years with a lady named Ann. His statuary and sculpture (often intricately designed - see pic at left of Indians on their way to The Little Big Horn) continues to be displayed and occasionally auctioned to the delight of collectors. A rough and ready, masculine movie hero on screen, but an upstanding, dependable and even gentle man off, he has slowly developed into a favorite of mine. He made over 90 films, but few, if any, are considered "classic" or "important" depsite the hard work he tended to put into them. If you should see one of his movies pop up on TV, give it a try and see if you find him as appealing as I do.

2 comments:

Topaz said...

Very classically handsome, and thanks for the shirtless shots that I always appreciate so much!

Michael O'Sullivan said...

I remember seeing WATUSI as a kid - it was really a virtual remake of KING SOLOMON'S MINES using a lot of footage from it. Like Mitchum and Hayward in Fox's African saga WHITE WITCH DOCTOR Montgomery and Taina never left the MGM backlot !