Unsung Aussie Filmmakers – Grant Taylor: A Top Ten

July 29, 2019
Grant Taylor (1917-71) should have been the biggest Australian film star in the world. He had it all: looks, talent, charisma, a relaxed masculinity, sex appeal, likeability and a star part in a big fat hit.

But while he had a long, distinguished career he never quite made it as a star. Stephen Vagg looks at his career.

1) Dad Rudd MP (1939)

Taylor was a Pom whose family emigrated to Australia when he was young. He drifted around for a bit, working as a merchant and having a decent career as a boxer, before deciding to try his hand at acting in the late 1930s.

Australia had a small, yet decent industry at the time – but it had a chronic lack of male juveniles i.e. handsome lunks who could play the romantic male lead. If they were any good they tended to go overseas (Errol Flynn, Frank Leighton) or they were from overseas and just here on a brief holiday (Billy Rayes, John Longden) or they disappeared mysteriously at sea (Brian Abbott, who no kidding disappeared at sea sailing from Lord Howe Island to Sydney).

So, Grant Taylor’s complete lack of experience didn’t bother Ken G Hall when looking for someone to play the juvenile in Dad Rudd MP, the fourth in his Dad and Dave franchise. Taylor had looks, swagger and charm, albeit a hairline that was already receding. He was a man. His performance was well-received and he was launched as an actor.

Clip from the film here.

2) Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940)

Taylor was promoted to lead for his second film, Charles Chauvel’s look at the 1917 Battle of Beersheba by the Australian Light Horse. It was a great role – Red Gallagher got to brawl Poms, sing in a nightclub, romance a French girl in a towel, get captured by Germans, ride horses and save the day. Because it was an Australian, not Hollywood, film his character even got to have sex before being married.

The film – joyous, exciting, enthusiastically Australianising Hollywood tropes – was a huge success locally and overseas. It also launched the career of Taylor’s co-star, Chips Rafferty, but Rafferty was very much a sidekick – the film was Taylor’s. There had been other notable leading men in Australian films – Snowy Baker, Errol Flynn – but it was really Taylor who was the first tough Aussie star type, that would be so exemplified by Rod Taylor, Jack Thompson, Mel Gibson and Bryan Brown.

It has been said a Hollywood career beckoned for Taylor – though I’ve never read of any hard offers. But World War Two intervened. Taylor joined the militia and his career never regained this momentum.

A talky clip from the film here.

Some of the best bit, the charge at the end, can be seen here.

3) 100,000 Cobbers (1943)

Like most actors in the armed services, Taylor was allowed time out to appear in propaganda shorts. Easily the best one was 100,000 Cobbers, directed by Ken G Hall, a look at civilians joining the army, which is so slickly made that one wishes it could have been a full length feature. Taylor gets to do scenes with the leading female juvenile of the time, Shirley Ann Richards, and they make a fantastic team. Richards soon afterwards went to Hollywood and had an okay career in American films as “Ann Richards”, a sort of back up Greer Garson for MGM. Taylor stayed behind.

A complete copy of the film is here.

4) The Rats of Tobruk (1944)

Chauvel arranged for Taylor to be released from the army to star in this unofficial follow up to Horsemen, with Rafferty returning as a best friend and Peter Finch thrown in for good measure. I’m not quite sure what Taylor did during his war service, but it was having its impact already by the time of this film – Taylor looks puffier, more balder, less enthusiastic. He’s still pretty good, just not as good as in Horseman – like the film itself really, which was a commercial disappointment.

The US trailer is here.

5) Eureka Stockade (1948)

Taylor got out of the army in 1946 but struggled to recover his career momentum. Admittedly, there weren’t many films being made around this time but there were some, such as Smithy (1946), a biopic of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, for which Taylor would have been an ideal leading role candidate… but the only serious contenders appear to have been Peter Finch and Ron Randell (who got the gig).

There was also Chauvel’s Sons of Matthew (1949), where the lead role again would have been perfect for Taylor (he was attached to the project in 1945 when it was known as Green Mountain), but it went to Michael Pate.

The McCreadie brothers made two melodramas, giving the lead roles in both to Charles Tingwell. Ealing Studios made The Overlanders (1946) but gave the lead role to Chips Rafferty, and the male juvenile part to Peter Pagan. Then they did Eureka Stockade (1949); Taylor would have been perfect for Peter Lalor but director Harry Watt wanted Peter Finch and was forced to use Rafferty; Taylor has a support role.

What happened? Why did Taylor go from a leading man to support player in such a short period of time? Did he deteriorate physically too much? Look too old? (He was only around 30.) Difficult to deal with? Did he charge too much money? (That may have been a consideration for the very long film shoot of Sons of Matthew.)

Another reason may have been that in the late ‘40s Taylor became in great demand as a stage actor. This meant he would have to go on tour with shows, which made being available for films more difficult.

Nonetheless it feels a great shame that such a charismatic star actor type did not play more leads. In hindsight, he should have gone to England like Taylor’s co-star Peter Finch did. But he elected to stay.

6) Inland with Sturt (1951)

The Australian government held a festival to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Federation. Part of this involved a re-enactment of Charles Sturt’s row down the Murrumbidgee and Murray Rivers. (Not very well remembered today, mostly because no one died heroically.) This was done by a troop of Duntroon graduates and two actors fit enough for the job – Grant Taylor, who played Sturt, and Rod Taylor (no relation) as his offsider. The re-enactment was a huge success, greeted by thousands along the way, and was turned into a short film. Rod Taylor was a similar actor in many ways to Grant – tough, two fisted, “masculine” type, fond of a drink yet capable of sensitivity. It would be Rod Taylor who would have the far greater international career.

A newsreel clip of the trip can be seen here.

7) Captain Thunderbolt (1953)

Taylor did play one more lead in a feature film – a biopic of the famous bushranger, Captain Thunderbolt. An action adventure story with a vaguely left wing slant, it struggled to find distribution.

Taylor looks to be in good shape, so it’s a mystery that people didn’t think of him more for lead roles around this time. Sure, only one or two films were made, but there were some for which Taylor would have been suited like Walk into Paradise (1956) and Dust in the Sun (1958).

8) Long John Silver (1954)

By the mid ‘50s Taylor mostly worked on stage and radio but he appeared in the occasional film. Hollywood director Byron Haskin hired him and some other Australian actors to play support roles in His Majesty O’Keefe (1953), a Burt Lancaster south seas adventure tale shot in Fiji. Haskin liked Taylor and cast him as a pirate in Long John Silver (1954) a film and TV series that was an unofficial sequel to Treasure Island. Robert Newton played the title role, and Taylor was his sidekick Patch. It was a good chance for Taylor and he’s great fun. His son Kit played Jim Hawkins. Rod Taylor was in the film, playing Israel Hands – he used it as a springboard for a Hollywood career but Grant Taylor elected to stay at home.

The complete film is public domain and can be seen here.

You can also see episodes of the show here.

9) Funnel Web (1962)

By the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Taylor was a big name in Australian theatre, notably for JC Williamsons. He would play the occasional support role in a film like Smiley Gets a Gun (1958), The Siege of Pinchgut (1959) and On the Beach (1959). By now he looked tubby and overweight – the years had not been kind to his looks. He experienced personal tragedy in 1956 when his wife died after a fall. His acting had gotten richer and deeper though, as demonstrated by the reviews for his appearances in some of the (rare) live TV dramas that aired on Australia in the early 1960s. The most notable of these was Funnel Web, a Dial M for Murder type take where Taylor played a murderous businessman. It’s frustratingly hard to get copies of these – why can’t they just be put online?

A review of the play is here.

10) Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

Eventually Taylor, like pretty much every Australian actor from the ‘40s to ‘60s, decided to give it a crack overseas, and he headed to England in 1964. He had some decent roles on TV – including a production of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll and a part in Gerry Anderson’s UFO.

His last feature film performance was as a policeman in the super smart Hammer sci-fi horror classic, Quatermass and the Pit, looking chubby and unwell, as if he was about to have a heart attack.

Taylor died of cancer in 1971, aged only 54, looking older than his years. Ironically that year saw Jack Thompson reach TV screens in Spyforce playing a character very much in the Grant Taylor mode – swaggering, cocky, humorous, tough, brave. Thompson would go on to be Australia’s leading star of the ‘70s until, ironically also like Taylor, he prematurely shifted into character roles, in part because he put on weight. Someone like Peter Finch or Bryan Brown, who kept the weight off, remained a leading man for much longer.

It was tough for Australian actors to make it in movies in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, but many of Taylor’s contemporaries did it – Ron Randell, Chips Rafferty, Peter Finch, Charles Tingwell, Rod Taylor. Was it a lack of ambition? Something else?

Nonetheless, he left behind one great star performance, and for that Australian film fans should be grateful.

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