Obituary: Robert Allen
Saturday 17 October 1998
It is perhaps ironic that his death should follow so shortly after that of the two most popular singing cowboys of all time, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, for it was the advent of the singing cowboy that ended "Tex" Allen's career in the saddle in the mid-Thirties after he had established himself in a series of "Texas Ranger" westerns. Fortunately, Allen's talents extended beyond playing western heroes ("How nice to have a screen cowboy who is an actor," wrote one critic) and his acting career was to span 60 years of film, stage and television work.
He was born Irving Theodore Baehr in 1906, in Mt Vernon, New York, and was studying at Dartmouth College when he had his first taste of show business. In 1926 a film crew were using the campus as a setting for a Richard Arlen vehicle, The Quarterback, and asked Allen, a top athlete who excelled in boxing and polo, to do some stunt work on the film. Despite the disapproval of his father, who wanted him to join the family import- export business, the handsome young graduate decided to become an actor.
He worked as a model and airline pilot before Warner Bros signed him as a contract player in 1931 and gave him minor roles in three of that year's movies, Party Husband, Night Nurse and The Reckless Hour. Dissatisfied with his progress, the actor decided to gain stage experience, and appeared in a West Coast production of Zoe Atkins's The Greeks Had a Word for It. He made his Broadway debut in Arthur Hoerl's A Few Wild Oats (1933). Though the play ran for only four performances, Allen's performance as the earnest young man who tames the heroine with true love was well received.
He returned to Hollywood to play a starring role opposite Evalyn Knapp in a 12-chapter serial, The Perils of Pauline (1934), and critics noted that the athletic actor stole the limelight by featuring in more action- filled sequences than the heroine. Signed to a contract by Columbia, he was involved in more serial-like situations in his first film, Air Hawks (1935), which had spectacular stunts by the real-life aviator Wiley Post .
Allen then played the romantic lead to Grace Moore in Love Me Forever (1935), was Dmitri, the upright best friend of the murderer Raskolnikov (Peter Lorre) in Josef von Sternberg's powerfully moody version of Crime and Punishment (1935), and played the dashing lieutenant who loves the heroine of Roy William Neill's stylishly gothic horror film The Black Room (1935). After the villain, played by Boris Karloff, disposes of his good twin brother by hurling him to impalement in a pit of stakes, then falls into the same pit and becomes impaled on the stake protruding through his brother, Allen has the film's final words: "The older brother killed by the younger brother's knife . . . the prophecy has been fulfilled."
Despite sympathetic performances, Allen found himself overshadowed in these two films by the powerful presences of Lorre (a morphine addict at the time of his mesmerising Raskolnikov) and Karloff, while Craig's Wife (1936), in which he was the boyfriend of Rosalind Russell's niece, was dominated by Russell's star-making performance. But in the same year he made the first of his Texas Ranger series, The Unknown Ranger, billed as Bob "Tex" Allen. Directed by the action specialist Spencer G. Bennet (who had directed the first, silent, version of The Perils of Pauline), it was a fast-paced tale of cattle rustling that zipped speedily along for 57 minutes.
Allen was a hit with western fans, and made five more Ranger films, all under 60 minutes and all directed by Bennet. The best were The Reckless Ranger (1937), about the cattleman-sheepman conflict, which showed a rare sympathy for the sheepman, and Ranger Courage (1937).
In 1937 a box-office poll of western stars placed Allen second only to the long-time favourite Tim McCoy. "I thought, `Boy I'm on my way'," said Allen some years later. "But Columbia had signed Buck Hones to produce his own pictures and that gave them three western stars - Jones, Charlie Starrett and me. Being the low man on the totem pole, my series was dropped." He then negotiated with Republic Pictures, who were looking for a new western star. "The studio's casting director called me for an interview and said, `Bob, we want to build up someone to compete with Gene Autry. As you don't play the guitar we've decided to go with a kid from Ohio we have under contract at $75 a week, a boy named Roy Rogers.' That was the end of Bob `Tex' Allen."
He made one more film for Columbia, the Leo McCarey comedy classic The Awful Truth (1937), in which he had a small role as Cary Grant's chum, then accepted a contract with Fox, though the roles he was given were not important ones - by 1940 he was getting 11th billing in a B movie, City of Change. He persevered, though, and during the Second World War starred in a USO production of Ruth Gordon's comedy Over 21, which toured North Africa and Italy. After the war he appeared on Broadway in Luther Davis's comedy Kiss Them For Me (1945), as one of three naval officers on shore leave, and a hit revival of Show Boat (1946), playing Steve, the riverboat performer married to the tragic half-caste Julie (Carol Bruce).
During the next decade he worked steadily in off-Broadway shows, television, movies and commercials. By 1956, when he took over the role of the villainous lawyer Babcock in Auntie Mame on Broadway, starring his old friend Rosalind Russell, his name was familiar to a new generation of youngsters who were watching the "Bob Allen, Ranger" series of old movies on television. He starred in a television movie for Walt Disney, Brimstone, The Amish Horse, and in several soap-operas, but preferred live theatre and spent most of his later career on stage. He also became a real estate broker in 1964, but continued to take screen and stage work into the Seventies.
In 1934 he married the MGM actress Evelyn Pierce, described by Florenz Ziegfeld as "the prettiest woman in the world", and their marriage endured happily until her death in 1960. In 1964 he married the socialite Frances Cookman and they became residents of the sophisticated town of Oyster Bay, New York.
Irving Theodore Baehr (Robert Allen), actor: born New York 28 March 1906; married 1934 Evelyn Pierce (died 1960; one son, one daughter), 1964 Frances Cookman; died Oyster Bay, New York 9 October 1998.
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