We’ve come not to bury nor praise the life and politics of Ronald Reagan. Just his cinematic endeavors.
Let’s separate our opinions from our feelings about his career as a screen actor, for which many termed him “terminally bland.” A good start would be the just-issued eight-disc Ronald Reagan: Centennial Collection, put out on DVD in time to mark his 100th birthday.
Here, Reagan is represented by a cross-section of his work. For years, thanks to the efforts of Johnny Carson, Reagan’s best-known film was Bedtime for Bonzo (1951), a Universal farce with Ron as a college psychology professor putting a chimp to the test to see if environment or heredity has more of an effect on the primate.
Despite the film’s goofy title and the fact that it actually lands on the liberal stance of environment, the fact that the film was directed by Tonight Show producer Fred De Cordova probably had as much to do with Carson’s continual ribbing as Reagan’s lead performance. The movie even proved popular enough to spur a sequel, sans Reagan, called Bonzo Goes to College (1952).
As evidenced in the selections in the Centennial Collection, in most of his screen roles Reagan, a native Tempico, Illinois, was cast in a positive light, be it an a star athlete, a soldier, or a crusading DA.
Reagan’s best role, however, is often regarded to be Kings Row (1942), also part of the set. This soap opera set in the titular turn-of-the-century small Midwestern town features Reagan as Drake McHugh, a rich and popular young man loved by the daughter (Nancy Coleman) of a cranky local doctor (Charles Coburn) who forbids her to see him, and a tomboyish girl (Ann Sheridan) from a working class family who stands by him in the time of despair. Yes, it’s in this film, that Reagan, after his legs are amputated, asks “Where’s the rest of me?” “Other characters in the melodrama include a young, idealistic physician (Robert Cummings) and the neurotic “Cassie” Tower (Betty Field), shy daughter of another town doctor (Claude Rains).
Directed by Sam Wood (A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races; Groucho Marx’s least favorite filmmaker), photographed by James Wong Howe and scored by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Kings Row is “A” list Warner Brothers all the way. Reagan really went from steady working actor to headliner with his much-lauded but un-nominated performance here.
Of course, if you want a taste of Ronald the Wretched you’ll have to go to his last screen performance in Don Siegel’s version of Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers (1964). While the Universal film is not part of this set, it is worth seeking out, particularly for Reagan’s vicious turn as a mobster and sugar daddy to sexpot Angie Dickinson. For the record, NBC had slated The Killers as their first TV movie, but because of its unflinching violence and sexuality, it was released to theaters.
Still, there are other reasons to peruse the Ronald Reagan Centennial Collection. While Dark Victory (1939) remains a classic sudser with Oscar-nominated Bette Davis as the ill-fated socialite with a brain tumor, and George Brent and Humphrey Bogart in support, Reagan’s showcase there is relatively small, the kind of part he often got before King’s Row clicked. But he has more to do in the other entries. For sports movie rah-rah, you can’t beat Knute Rockne All American (1940), in which Pat O’Brien’s inspirational Fighting Irish title coach exhorts his team to win one for George “The Gipper” Gipp (Reagan, again in support) in his time of need.
Errol Flynn is the star of Desperate Journey (1942), a war adventure with a propaganda stamp from Raoul Walsh (White Heat) in which Flynn, Reagan and the rest of their Allied flight crew are downed in Poland during an aerial battle. But before striving to make their way out of hostile territory on foot, the airmen take the opportunity to sabotage a German bomber plant. Reagan had a memorable sequence where he bamboozled Nazi officer Raymond Massey; Flynn lobbied hard to switch the scene to his character, but producer Hal B. Wallis would have none of it. Meanwhile, the post-war opus The Hasty Heart (1945), directed by Vincent Sherman (The Young Philadelphians), showcases an Oscar-nominated Richard Todd in the lead, essaying the role of a Scottish officer recovering from war injuries in a Burmese hospital where (first-billed) Reagan is a Yank patient and Patricia Neal an understanding nurse. It’s an effective look at vets, released the same year as Pride of the Marines and before The Best Years of Our Lives.
A respite from the serious war themes can be found in Michael Curtiz’s This is the Army (1943), a hit all-star musical Technicolor flag waver adapted from Irving Berlin’s revue play and boasting such Berlin-penned tunes as “God Bless America” (sung by Kate Smith), “This is the Army, Mr. Jones,” “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Here, dancer and WWI vet George Murphy (future Republican senator from California) demonstrates to his son Reagan (future Republican governor of California and two-term President of the United States) how put on a patriotic USO show for the troops. So, we get music, dancing, soldiers in drag and even a black face minstrel number set to “Mandy,” which, oddly, has been included in the film after it was excised from its stage version.
Then there’s the post-Kings Row Storm Warning (1950), helmed by Stuart Heisler (The Glass Key) and co-written by Richard Brooks (Elmer Gantry) , in which New York model Ginger Rogers drops in on sister Doris Day while working an assignment down south, and discovers that brother-in-law Steve Cochran is a member of the of the local Ku Klux Klan. County prosecutor Reagan tries to put the kibosh on the Klan for racketeering (as the film rather downplays the group’s racist agenda) in this throwback to the socially conscious dramas of Warner’s Paul Muni-era offerings.
In The Winning Team (1952), Reagan delivers a solid turn as Grover Cleveland Alexander, the Nebraska farmboy who racked up Hall of Fame numbers as a baseball pitcher, although his career was often threatened by alcoholism and post-traumatic stress syndrome stemming from his service in World War I. Doris Day plays his long-suffering wife and major leaguers Bob Lemon, Gene Mauch, and Peanuts Lowry make appearances in this sports epic that neglects some important facts about its main character’s life (he suffered from epilepsy) in order to go for big dramatic moments.
(The one big quibble with this set: everything contained here has been previously available on DVD, be it in Ronald Reagan: The Signature Collection, Warner Bros. and the Homefront Collection, TCM Spotlight: Errol Flynn Adventures, or as single entries in some instances. Granted, Warner has kept the Reagan releases rolling through their Archives program, as evidenced by Juke Girl, Angels Wash Their Faces, She’s Working Her Way Through College, John Loves Mary, Love is on the Air, The Bad Man, and the Brass Bancroft set, as well as their most recent entries: Night Unto Night (1949), with Reagan as an epileptic scientist falling for depressed widow Viveca Lindfors, and Stallion Road (1947) in which horse breeder Alexis Smith attempts to help veterinarian Reagan after he contracts anthrax. Still, there are plenty of other worthy Reagan titles in their library—The Voice of the Turtle, The Girl from Jones Beach, That Hagen Girl—which have never been on DVD and could have graced this collection. )
So what is the verdict on Ronald Reagan’s acting abilities? It seems that he wasn’t as wooden as many have regarded him. In fact, in the right film, he was a solid if somewhat stoic leading man, sturdy enough to carry a story in the proper role. And in films where the material played to his strengths, like Kings Row and The Winning Team, he could even be forceful. It’s too bad he didn’t play more wild card parts as he did in The Killers, where his character smacks Angie Dickinson around and has lines such as “I approve of larceny, homicide is against my principles.” This was his last film. It was onto more TV and the governorship soon afterwards.
Now, about those politics…