Ronald Reagan holds the distinction of being the only movie actor to become President of the United States of America. When he ran for the office in 1980, many people sneered at his previous profession and the quality of his performances.
Whatever you think of Reagan as a president, that is not relevant here. What we are looking at today is his work as an actor. Contrary to popular belief, he was not a bad actor. He actually was more than satisfactory in some fine films, showing a gift for both light comedy and dark drama. Yet Reagan was not blessed with a steady stream of good roles. Many of his films were bland and mediocre, though Reagan himself was often a charming and likable presence.
Reagan came to Hollywood in 1937 as a contract player for Warner Bros. He was immediately cast in B-Movies, not because of a lack of talent but because he lacked acting experience: he was an Iowa radio broadcaster with no movie experience. Someone must have been impressed with Reagan, as he soon found himself playing Brass Bancroft, a tough Secret Service agent in a four-film series of B-level action flicks. These films have been unavailable for review for many years and are supposedly not very good; one of them, “Code of the Secret Service” (1939), was such a stinker that Reagan would later recall being chastised by a ticket booth clerk at a theater showing this flick.
After too many quotidian B-Movies, Reagan eventually graduated to A-list films, albeit in supporting roles. He was quickly typecast as the best friend to the film’s lead and he found himself offering cheery allegiance to the likes of Eddie Albert in “Brother Rat” (1938), Bette Davis in “Dark Victory” (1939) and Errol Flynn in “Santa Fe Trail” (1940) and “Desperate Journey” (1941). In these films, Reagan had relatively little to do with the plots and one can easily imagine his performances being handled just as well by any other actor. Yet he projected the image of a decent, fun-loving, and comfortable character who was genuinely happy to see his best friend go off with the pretty gal. This accounts for studio boss Jack L. Warner’s must-quoted quip when Reagan first ran for Governor of California in 1966: “No, no, you have it all wrong. It’s Jimmy Stewart for Governor and Ronald Reagan for Best Friend.”
Reagan, however, found himself two classic roles which were the apex of his film career. Both were supporting roles, but he managed to make them star-worthy. In “Knute Rockne, All American” (1940) he was genuinely touching as the dying football star George Gipp, who made the landmark deathbed request of urging his team to “Win one for the Gipper.” In “Kings Row” (1941), Reagan gave a shattering performance as the wealthy young man brought to financial ruin by a dishonest banker and physical wreckage by a sadistic surgeon who amputates his legs.
The strength of these films could’ve propelled Reagan to stronger roles, but World War II interrupted his career. Outside of his role as the Stage Manager in the 1943 musical “This is the Army,” most moviegoers would not see him on screen again until 1947. The absence from the screen killed the momentum he may have experienced and ultimately damaged his career.
Contrary to popular legend, Reagan was never considered for the leading role in “Casablanca.” The myth for that came from a press release announcing Reagan and his “Kings Row” star Ann Sheridan were slated to appear in the production, which had just been acquired by Warner Bros. But there is no evidence that Reagan was seriously considered for the role and he was already in the military when pre-production began.
After the war, Reagan returned to Warner Bros. and appeared in several fine films: “The Voice of the Turtle” (1947), “John Loves Mary” (1949), “The Hasty Heart” (1950), “Storm Warning” (1951). Although the films were well-received, Reagan never enjoyed any degree of audience or critical acclaim for his performances. This was a major shame, since his acting was quite deft and compelling, especially in “Storm Warning” when he plays a law enforcement officer who confronts a gathering of Klansmen at a cross burning and calmly identifies them one-by-one through their white-sheet hoods.
Stifled by what he perceived as the lack of studio backing for his career, Reagan left Warner Bros. in 1951 to take on free-lance assignments. Leaving Warner Bros. actually proved to be a major mistake. While Reagan did not enjoy the level of stardom as his Warner colleagues Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney, at least he found himself in a steady stream of classy productions. As a freelancer, however, Reagan quickly slipped into B-level mediocrities like “Hong Kong” (1952), “Cattle Queen of Montana” (1955) and “Hellcats of the Navy” (1957), the latter co-starring his second wife Nancy Davis. These lousy films, ironically, became his best known movies thanks to endless reruns on TV (his higher-quality earlier films were not as widely seen). Strangely, the best film of this period was the one which was later used to slur his career: the amusing 1954 comedy “Bedtime for Bonzo,” where Reagan gives a wonderfully funny physical performance opposite a scene-stealing chimp.
In the 1950s, Reagan began to enjoy steady work on television. He hosted and starred in many episodes of “G.E. Theater” and then took on similar duties for “Death Valley Days.” Neither show was remarkable for their dramatic content, but Reagan was a pleasant and inoffensive presence throughout. Within Hollywood, Reagan’s TV work was seen as a major demotion for someone considered to be a movie actor. While he reached wider audiences via television, he was excluded from consideration in film projects.
In 1964, he had his most unusual role as the crime boss in the feature film “The Killers.” This film was originally made for television but was theatrically released when the networks found it too violent for broadcast. Reagan’s decision to play against type as a cold-hearted villain was interesting and he could’ve essayed similar roles had he not abandoned acting for politics in the mid-1960s.
So where do we find Ronald Reagan as an actor? Contrary to sneering statements by his political rivals, he was quite capable of acting and on several occasions he rose to the full heights of his roles. If he received better scripts or had better representation, it is not difficult to imagine him taking challenging roles and scoring beautifully. His versatility was present but untapped. He had the range and skills to either play a dramatic William Holden-style part or a light comic Fred MacMurray role. But unfortunately, Holden and MacMurray got the good roles and Reagan did not.
Was Ronald Reagan a great actor? Outside of “Knute Rockne, All American” and “Kings Row,” he never had the opportunity to present great acting on the screen. When he had good material, such as “Brother Rat” and “Storm Warning,” he more than acquitted himself as a performer. Unfortunately, for most of his career he was stuck in quotidian flicks that would not be recalled today were it not for his presence. He did not have the power to raise middling films by the strength of his acting, but at the same time he never lowered a film by being in the cast.
But then again, if Reagan had the quality of roles afforded to his more prominent peers, such as Humphrey Bogart or Tyrone Power, he would probably never have gone into politics. Reagan fell out of acting and into politics; if Hollywood did not fail him, both Reagan’s life and the shape of the world would’ve been radically different.
Posted on June 8, 2004 in Features by Phil Hall
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