Politics & Policy

Before He Was President…

The Gipper on the Silver Screen.

It is an interesting irony that the same people who derided Ronald Reagan’s abilities as an actor, dismissing him as a B-movie bum, also frequently claimed that his success as a politician was entirely due to his acting ability.

The fact is, Ronald Reagan was much better actor than most critics have been willing to admit. As Reagan biographer Paul Kengor has noted, the future president succeeded wildly in his acting career. Kengor has described Reagan’s extraordinary rise to prominence: “By the 1940s, he was one of the top box office draws in Hollywood and received more fan mail than any actor at Warner Brothers except Errol Flynn.” Warner Bros. was one of the top three studios at that time, and its roster of talent included Jimmy Cagney, Bette Davis, Edgar G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, Olivia de Havilland, Dick Powell, and other big stars.

There is, of course, no commonly accepted and dependable system for rating actors’ effectiveness–awards and box-office receipts being among the least reliable indicators–and this is neither the time nor the place for a comprehensive analysis of Ronald Reagan’s film work. One can, however, perhaps make a few telling observations, discern at least the outlines of the truth, and tentatively judge the quality of a performer’s work in the brief scope allowed here. There is certainly much of interest in Ronald Reagan’s film work, and it reveals a good deal about his personal character and the sources of his great success as a politician.

In his early years in Hollywood, the late 1930s and early ’40s, Reagan played youthful, optimistic, self-reliant go-getters who dearly wanted to do some good in the world. In his first starring role, the 1937 action comedy Love Is on the Air, Reagan played a radio commentator whose attacks on the corrupt local city government result in his demotion to host of a children’s show. Undaunted, Reagan’s character forges ahead to expose the corruption, reclaim his position, and get the girl. Reagan’s strengths as an actor are evident in this early role: he is likable, forthright, affable, openly faithful both to his friends and his moral standards, witty, indomitable, handsome, and well-mannered.

These are quite obviously characteristics that Reagan reflected in his personal life. On the deficit side, Reagan the actor is somewhat opaque emotionally in this film, as he frequently was throughout his acting career. It is often difficult to see, for example, that he feels true passion for the people he encounters; instead, he seems to be driven most deeply by abstract ideals and moral passions. This, too, was sometimes manifested in Reagan’s personal life, especially in the contrast between his obviously deep and abiding love for his second wife and his oddly distant relationships with his children.

While serving as president, however, Reagan was often visibly moved by stories of other people’s travails, and he frequently used such examples in his speeches and even allowed them to affect his decisions. Evidently, then, the emotional reticence in both the actor and the person was a matter of reluctance to show emotions, not an inability to feel them. It is clear even in early films such as Love Is in the Air that Reagan’s characters often feel things deeply but restrain themselves from showing their emotions too readily. This emotional opacity does not appear to me to constitute a great flaw in Reagan’s film work, for it is merely the flip side of his idealism. It does, however, sometimes limit audiences’ ability to identify and sympathize with his characters, and that is indeed a weakness for an actor.

In the crime drama Accidents Will Happen, released in 1938, Reagan’s affability and moral probity were again at the forefront and were tested mightily. (His character passed the test, of course.) A year later, Reagan moved into A-picture territory in the Bette Davis film Dark Victory, but he also appeared in three wildly entertaining B movies as Brass Bancroft, a brave and devoted Secret Service agent plunged into bizarre, pulp-fiction-styled action plots. The Brass Bancroft films–Secret Service of the Air, Code of the Secret Service, Smashing the Money Ring, and the 1940 release Murder in the Air–are quite a lot of fun. They are fast, energetic, inventive, and deliberately humorous, and Bancroft’s passion for protecting the innocent is another good screen manifestation of Reagan’s idealism.

This idealism was also a powerful element in the 1942 picture Juke Girl, in which Reagan played a migrant fruit picker caught up in a labor dispute between farmers and a packing company in a small Florida town. Reagan’s character sides with the farmers, of course, as they are the underdogs. Their wealthy antagonist is trying to use the both the government and open violence to suppress the farmers’ freedom to bring their products to market wherever they choose. The film is notable for this interesting dramatization of economic politics. Reagan is impressive in his role, and he masters a fairly complex romantic relationship with the title character, played well by Ann Sheridan. (Incidentally, the rumor that Reagan and Sheridan were once slated to play the leads in Casablanca is entirely false, according to an excellent analysis on the Urban Legends Reference Pages; see here).

Reagan increasingly began to move into more prestigious pictures at this time, such as the excellent 1940 film Santa Fe Trail, and his fondly remembered and justly celebrated portrayal of Notre Dame football star George Gipp in Knute Rockne, All American, also released in 1940. Reagan’s depiction of the gifted, happy-go-lucky, but ultimately doomed sports hero played to his strengths–his optimism, cheerfulness, and devotion to ideals. There he was on his deathbed, thinking not about himself but instead of how he could help his favorite football team win a hypothetical future game that seemed out of reach–such a person is nothing if not selfless and idealistic. The role’s emphasis on this aspect of Reagan’s character was surely part of what led his friends fondly to nickname him The Gipper.

Reagan’s brilliant performance in the 1941 romantic melodrama Kings Row built on his work in Knute Rockne, All American and surpassed it impressively. His portrayal of an irresponsible playboy who pays an appalling price for his pleasures has long been correctly acknowledged as a truly great screen performance and his best film work. Reagan demonstrated a good deal of range in this film, and here he really does show the character’s emotions quite effectively. He later used his most famous line from that film, “Ma, where’s the rest of me?”–which marked the emotional climax of the character’s life–as the title of his autobiography.

Unfortunately, just as Reagan was on the rise as an actor, World War II put a temporary halt to his career. When he returned from the service, Warner Brothers seemed to have great difficulty finding films that suited his talents, and he was wasted in late-1940s nonentities such as That Hagen Girl and Stallion Road.

Politics, however, may have been what did the most harm to Reagan’s acting career. As president of the Screen Actors’ Guild from 1947 to 1952, Reagan, an FDR liberal, made a concerted effort to resist Communist infiltration of that organization and Hollywood as a whole, something that Soviet front groups in America were definitely interested in achieving. Reagan’s battles as president of the SAG were not a matter of ideological strong-arming on his part; he truly was a liberal at the time. On the contrary, his efforts were spent on thwarting people who were trying to deceive the acting community into supporting Communist programs disguised as politically and socially liberal activities.

Reagan was not fooled by any of these smokescreens, and he fought their purveyors hard as SAG president. It seems unlikely that his difficulty in finding good roles at this time was entirely a coincidence. Other excellent actors known as outspoken anti-Communists–such as Robert Taylor, Robert Montgomery, and Adolph Menjou–suffered the same fate. John Wayne was one of the very few who were big enough to survive the onslaught unscathed.

Nonetheless, Reagan persisted, and ultimately his proven box-office appeal sometimes overcame producers’ fear of political hot potatoes. Better roles started to come along in the wake of a couple of good but small-budget opportunities he had managed to obtain in the late 1940s. He gave excellent performances in films as diverse as The Hasty Heart, The Voice of the Turtle, The Last Outpost, The Winning Team, Hong Kong, and Tennessee’s Partner, among many others, though big roles in important films eluded him. In several of his 1950s films he broadened his range by playing complex characters undergoing difficult moral struggles–alcoholism in The Winning Team, mercenary greed and dishonesty in Hong Kong and Tropic Zone, vengefulness in Jungle Trap, and excessive vulnerability to the fairer sex in Tennessee’s Partner. In each of these cases, redemption of the flawed character is a central theme. In his last major screen role, Reagan gave one of his most impressive performances, in Don Siegel’s bleak 1964 thriller The Killers, in which he portrayed the villain.

A particularly popular target for Reagan’s political enemies, of course, was the 1951 comedy Bedtime for Bonzo. Here, too, however, the film itself does not bear out their claims. Despite its prominent use of a chimpanzee as a central character, Bonzo is actually a quite enjoyable romantic comedy with some intellectual meat to it, in the question of whether nature or nurture is more important in the formation of character. And Reagan did a fine job of staying serious enough to make the film truly funny–as W. C. Fields noted, it is no easy thing to play the straight man to an animal. In addition, it is interesting to note that no one ridicules Cary Grant for having starred in Howard Hawks’s 1952 comedy Monkey Business, an even sillier film (and a quite enjoyable one, too).

An actor who can make a success out of a chimp film certainly must have something special, and Ronald Reagan really did. He was a good actor: not one of the very highest rank, but a thoroughly competent and appealing performer who sometimes reached real heights of inspiration. Reagan never made great claims for his legacy as an actor, but his best performances make monkeys out of his critics.

S. T. Karnick is an associate fellow of the Sagamore Institute and an NRO contributor.


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