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Robert Taylor starred in Tip on a Dead Jockey near the end of his 25-year tenure with MGM. Of all the Golden Age stars, Taylor holds the record for the greatest number of years under contract to one studio, and his career benefited from the long-term guidance and stability provided by a major studio under the contract system.
Taylor signed with MGM in 1934 for $35 per week, making him one of the lowest-paid contract players in Hollywood. The studio groomed him in low-profile movies until he was ready for a major production. At the end of 1935, he starred in Magnificent Obsession, which turned him into one of MGM's most prominent leading men and garnered him a more fitting salary. The studio played up his dark features and classic good looks by touting him in publicity and promotion as "the Man with the Perfect Profile." During the 1930s, he became the designated "pretty boy" cast opposite the era's most glamorous female stars, from Loretta Young to Joan Crawford to Barbara Stanwyck, which reinforced his star image as the tall, dark, and handsome hero. Stiff and humorless, Taylor lacked the acting range of other male stars, though his demeanor could work to his advantage in portraying certain characters. His best films of the pre-WWII era include A Yank at Oxford (1938) and Waterloo Bridge (1940), which became Taylor's personal favorite.
Shortly after his star turn in the war drama Bataan (1943), Taylor joined the military, serving as a flight instructor with the Navy's Air Transport. He also directed 17 training films before his discharge in 1940. In the postwar era, a new shading to Taylor's star image emerged, one that can be traced back to his role in Johnny Eager. In that 1942 drama, a hard-edged coldness marks his portrayal of the title character, who is an unsympathetic racketeer. After the war, when age and experience had coarsened his still-handsome appearance, Taylor was cast in a number of films as a ruthless, dangerous, or callused protagonist, hardening his star image. The result was to roughen up the glamorous surface that had once defined his pre-war characters. In Undercurrent (1946), he starred as an unscrupulous husband; in The Bribe (1949), he was an unrelenting federal agent. His aged appearance made him a perfect choice to play the slightly grizzled western protagonist in Westward the Women (1951) and Devil's Doorway (1950), in which he gave a credible performance as an embittered Shoshone who has suffered the brutality of whites.
Released in 1957, Tip on a Dead Jockey features Taylor in a role that took advantage of the hardened edges of his postwar characters. Taylor plays Lloyd Tredman, an expatriate and former military pilot cast adrift in cosmopolitan Madrid, Spain. As an officer during the Korean Conflict, Tredman was forced to send many pilots on doomed missions. The cumulative effect of his guilt over their deaths is a kind of alienation from meaningful relationships and a productive career. His emotional problems are signified by his newly developed fear of flying. Without explanation, he tries to divorce his stateside wife Phyllis, played by Dorothy Malone, and he buries his real problems by hitting the party circuit and becoming too attached to his best friend's wife and child. Tredman's escapist lifestyle is headed on a collision course with reality when his wife tracks him down, he loses his bankroll on a horse race in which the jockey is inexplicably killed, and he's coerced by a shady smuggler into flying illegal currency into a foreign country.
With his limited range, Taylor tends to portray the troubled Lloyd Tredman as a man with a permanent scowl to indicate the character's bitterness and guilt, but his rapid-fire, terse delivery exposes his character's pent-up frustration and rage. Occasionally, an anxiety-ridden Tredman erupts into violence with disastrous consequences. He strikes the smuggler, played by Martin Gabel, in a fit of anger, but it only makes the crook more eager to double-cross Tredman and his friend Jimmy Heldon, played by Jack Lord. And, when Phyllis calls Lloyd on his behavior and the reasons behind it, he slaps her hard-typically an indicator of a male character out of control in an era still under the influence of the Production Code. Lloyd could admit his shortcomings and problems only to his constant companion and permanent houseguest Toto Del Aro, who is an offbeat mix of comic relief and faithful sidekick. The permanently downbeat Lloyd reveals in a conversation with Toto that, for him, the old war never ended, and, "I don't like myself very much." Toto is portrayed by esteemed French character actor Marcel Dalio, whose energy and extraverted personality makes a nice counterpart to Taylor's brittle demeanor and repressed emotion.
Tip on a Dead Jockey may have been still under the influence of the Production Code, but certain lines of dialogue and situations in the script reveal a softening of the Code's application by the Production Code Administration. The first shot of Lloyd Tredman finds him waking up in bed with Sue Ann Finley, a woman he does not remember from the night before. Both Ms. Finley and Lloyd are fully dressed, but the twin beds in his bedroom have obviously been pushed together. This was a detail audiences of the day would have surely noticed given Hollywood's standard practice of displaying twin beds far apart in all bedroom scenes, even those with married couples. In another scene, Toto decides to hit the town to "look for girls-and then, boom boom." As they watch Toto race out the door, Lloyd remarks to Phyllis that Toto often "uses his brains to hold his pants up."
While Tip on a Dead Jockey is a competently crafted film of the post-classic era, veteran director Richard Thorpe does little with either Taylor's performance or the solid script, which was written by Charles Lederer. A journeyman director with over 175 films to his credit-including 66 for MGM-Thorpe rarely rose above a conventional approach to the classic Hollywood style. In this film, his dependence on lackluster master shots to define interiors and medium-long shots to depict dialogue scenes tends to diffuse tension instead of adding to it. And, the widescreen format is not used to its best advantage. Thorpe worked with Taylor eight times during his career, including a pair of medieval epics considered to be among the director's best work. Ivanhoe (1952) and Knights of the Round Table (1953) were lush, big-budget, Technicolor adventures that turned out to be box-office successes and critically well received, with Ivanhoe landing an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.
Tip on a Dead Jockey was not as well received as the costume epics, and it has not been resurrected as a forgotten masterwork. However, it provides an interesting if lesser-known example of a 1950s trend for stories about disillusioned expatriates, which included everything from Hemingway adaptations such as The Sun Also Rises to the musical An American in Paris. Like those films, Tip on a Dead Jockey makes effective use of actual European locations and an international cast. More importantly, it offers Robert Taylor in a role that wisely took advantage of the best characteristics of his star image.
Producer: Edwin H. Knopf
Director: Richard Thorpe
Screenplay: Charles Lederer; Irwin Shaw (novel)
Cinematography: George J. Folsey
Art Direction: William A. Horning, Hans Peters
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Film Editing: Ben Lewis
Cast: Robert Taylor (Lloyd Tredman), Dorothy Malone (Phyllis Tredman), Marcel Dalio (Toto del Aro), Martin Gabel (Bert Smith), Gia Scala (Paquita Heldon), Jack Lord (Jimmy Heldon), Hayden Rorke (J.R. Nichols), Joyce Jameson (Sue Fan Finley).
by Susan Doll