On February 8, 1950, some of Hollywood’s brightest lights gathered at the Beverly Hills Hotel for the kind of glamorous, star-studded soiree typically held on Academy Awards night. While it was Oscar season in Hollywood, the event for which Cecil B. DeMille, Harry Cohn, George Burns, Ed Wynn, Jane Wyman and some 600 others turned out had nothing to do with the film industry’s annual awards ceremony. Instead, it was a formal tribute to Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan? The same Ronald Reagan who supposedly had a B-grade movie career and was a failure as a leading man? Why would he be feted with such fanfare, more than 15 years before he was elected governor of California?
In those days, the view of Reagan was far different from today’s conventional wisdom about his work in Hollywood. That night at the pink palace on Sunset Boulevard, people were honoring a genuine movie star, labor chief, and accomplished political activist. The Friars Club hosted the evening, but the ambience was far from humorous. The account in Variety describes a “note of seriousness rarely demonstrated at a Friars get-together. This was not a roast.” It was unique, “a heartfelt tribute to a real guy.” When Al Jolson spoke, he said his wish was that his son would grow up “to be the kind of man Ronnie is.” Despite Reagan’s enduring popularity with the American people, one would be hard pressed to find that same sentiment among the arbiters in today’s Hollywood. For decades, Reagan’s career has been marginalized and caricatured by the establishment here as well as in the top film schools. Among those who determine what is deemed worthy of attention and study in film, Reagan is persona non grata.
That is what makes it intriguing that two of Reagan’s most compelling films are reappearing on the big screen this week in Los Angeles as part of an industry salute to the late director Don Siegel. He worked with Reagan in two pictures, Night Unto Night, released in 1949, and Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers, which appeared in 1964.
Sponsored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, a leading force behind film preservation and restoration, the salute to Don Siegel commenced last month at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a special event held at the Academy’s theater in Beverly Hills. Filmmakers such as Oliver Stone, Robert Towne, George Lucas, Robert Altman, and Steven Spielberg regularly take part in and attend these affairs. This time, the writer-director Curtis Hansen hosted the kick-off tribute to Siegel, and Clint Eastwood appeared to reminisce about the director who gave him one of his signature roles in 1971’s Dirty Harry and has since inspired his own directing.
Los Angeles Times writer Patrick Goldstein, author of the weekly “Big Picture” column, managed an entire piece about the ongoing Siegel tribute without mentioning the rather significant fact that at least part of Siegel’s historical relevance is that he directed two pictures starring a president whom both sides of the political spectrum agree was one of the most consequential of the last century. In the printed program for the Siegel series, Reagan is barely acknowledged even though he stars in two of the featured pictures. When Reagan’s name surfaces at industry events similar to this one, it’s customarily referenced with sarcasm and contempt. At one Academy event, the audience hissed when Reagan appeared on screen.
Witnessing that causes flashbacks to the salad days of the Reagan presidency when the film capital was red hot with hostility. In 1981, insurgents at the Screen Actors Guild, where Reagan once presided, mounted a campaign to strip him of his life membership in retaliation for his firing the striking air-traffic controllers. Clint Eastwood quelled the movement by coming to Reagan’s defense, saying that SAG leaders owed the American people an apology. “How the government solves the legalities of a strike is its business–not some screen actor’s,” he said.
“Warm, Handsome, Charismatic, and Accessible
One reason it’s difficult to make a case for Reagan’s Hollywood success is because so few of his 55 films are commercially available. Even Reagan’s own supporters have fallen victim to the storyline that depicts him as a disappointment. In the Face of Evil, a recent conservative documentary chronicling Reagan’s battle with Communism, characterizes his talent as “questionable” and asserts that “in the unforgiving calculus of the studio system, Reagan was weighed, measured, and found wanting. Leading man status would never come, and the brass ring of stardom would forever be beyond his grasp.” (The documentary also erroneously claims that in 1947 Reagan “urged the House Committee on Un-American Activities to abandon witch hunts and the naming of names.” Actually, Reagan resented the allegation of a “witch hunt” because there were Communists in Hollywood. Furthermore, he regarded the Communist party as a criminal conspiracy. Party members were the only ones who could accurately “name names” because membership was secret. Reagan admired those who were courageous enough to testify.)
Film historian Robert Osborne was much closer to the truth about Reagan in Hollywood on a Turner Classic Movies salute to Reagan last summer. “He may not have had the acting chops of Spencer Tracy or Sean Penn, but he was exceptionally likeable on film. He was warm, handsome, charismatic, and accessible–all the ingredients required to be a very successful leading man during the 1930s and ’40s.” Osborne said Reagan made solid films during Hollywood’s golden age: “In all of them he more than held his own with actors who ran the gamut from Bette Davis and Errol Flynn to Olivia de Havilland, Ginger Rogers, Doris Day, and Jane Wyman.” Osborne isn’t surprised that Reagan’s critics have attacked his movies. “They particularly kidded him about ‘Bedtime for Bonzo’ in which he shared most of his scenes with a chimpanzee. But as a movie star he had much more going for him than working with a chimp. He was immensely likeable on film,” Osborne said. “Reagan was talented. I mean, you can’t carve out a 27-year career in Hollywood and win worldwide recognition as an actor unless you have something very special going for you.”
The perception of Reagan as a failure in the movies began long before he first ran for public office. Its genesis was in the days of the so-called blacklist era ’40s and ’50s. Those outspoken against communism were disparaged in whispering campaigns. In a town that runs on rumor and hearsay, such innuendo is death. Screenwriters Morrie Ryskind, James McGuinness, and Martin Berkeley have had their critical and historical reputations reduced to footnotes. With few exceptions, the Hollywood anti-communists have been written out of history. John Wayne is one who continues to ride high despite decades of critical assault.
On the other hand, Communist filmmakers such as Ring Lardner Jr., Dalton Trumbo, and Paul Jarrico continue to benefit from Hollywood’s own special style of compound interest. Today their pictures are regarded as masterworks of courageous, path-breaking mavericks. Politics helped their career reputations immeasurably; it poisoned Reagan’s. It isn’t too farfetched to imagine how Reagan’s film career would be appreciated for nuance and genius had he defended the Communists, remained a left-wing liberal, and written a weepy memoir about the “dark days” of the blacklist. Without that kind of track record to buoy his standing, Reagan is relegated to status as a “bureaucrat of McCarthyism, and a short-sided searcher after redness” in David Thompson’s influential Biographical Dictionary of Film.
In the fall of 1946, Reagan was learning how deceptive the Communist party could be. His real life was starting to look like pages from James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential. When he stepped before the cameras on Night Unto Night, Reagan was far from the “happy warrior” known to most Americans. Off-stage, as an officer of the S.A.G., Reagan was taking stands, subsuming himself in the bloody film industry labor strikes that made Los Angeles a cauldron. (Night Unto Night was the only Warner Bros. picture in production during that dangerous time.) Reagan was becoming convinced that the Communist Party had a hand in the upheaval, and that honest strikers were being manipulated. Some people he considered allies were in fact enemies; backstabbing and betrayal seemed to be lurking around every corner. “I found myself misrepresented, cursed, vilified, denounced, and libeled,” Reagan wrote years later.
The timing for Night Unto Night was also fitting. In mood and spirit, Reagan’s world was beginning to resemble that of his character, John Galen, a professor of applied biology, suffering from epilepsy. Galen is a picture of tragic despair; as he comes to grips with the gravity of his illness, he slips into anguish and skepticism. Life is a mere “mechanical phenomenon” to him. Asked about his view of death, Galen answers, “I’m a self-determined not-knower.” Similarly, Reagan himself had become somber. His notions of communism and left-wing politics were being fundamentally challenged. Politics had become deeply personal. According to one observer, “His stock grin was replaced by grim, tense facial expressions; his lanky frame looked too lean to be healthy. He was under great mental and physical strain.” Don Siegel captured that. Knowing the circumstances surrounding Night Unto Night makes the film especially haunting. Even with the eerie twilight atmosphere, at heart the picture is about the realization of love and miracles. Metaphorically, the narrative is similar to critical parts of Reagan’s life.
By 1963, when Siegel set out to make his version of Hemingway’s short story, Reagan was at a far different position in his emotional and professional life. Like his John Galen character years before, Reagan had emerged from the wilderness and lived to tell about it. Surviving the death of a child, depression, divorce, and other trials made him a new man. Hosting and often acting in the acclaimed anthology series “General Electric Theater” for almost a decade on CBS Television put Reagan in more than 20 million households every week. It gave him a level of public notoriety that eluded many of his erstwhile colleagues in film.
In Don Siegel’s autobiography, the director writes that it was Universal mogul Lew Wasserman, once Reagan’s talent agent, who suggested Reagan for the role of Browning, the picture’s leading villain. Siegel described the character as “well educated and charming, yet rugged when necessary. He is in direct conflict with the killers, Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager.” Reagan, however, was resisting. “Ronnie and I are good friends and the part’s interesting,” Siegel told Wasserman. “I’ll make it awkward for him to turn me down.”
Don Siegel knew how to stage a persuasive power lunch, and he had a smooth pitch when Reagan came to meet him at the Universal Studios commissary. “Many of your friends have played villains,” Siegel said, listing Cagney, Gable, and Bogart, all actors whom Reagan admired, as examples. “Do you remember ‘Treasure of the Sierra Madre’? Did playing ‘bad men’ hurt their careers? These actors were not only good friends of yours, but were loved by millions of people throughout the world,” argued Siegel. “Now that you’ve finished your salad and I haven’t started mine, you do the talking–I’ll do the eating.”
Siegel said that Reagan watched him eat and finish his salad. “The trouble with you is that you make sense,” Reagan responded. “I’ll get in touch with my people and find out if a deal can be made. You still crossing your fingers when you make a take?”
Siegel was definitely blessed with good luck. His version of Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers is now considered classic. Two years ago, it was released on DVD as part of the prestigious Criterion Collection. It includes a revealing interview with Clu Gulager who says Reagan was “brilliant” in the picture. Even Lee Marvin, who bragged that his own performance would “bury” the rest of the cast, found Reagan highly adroit.
On Thursday night, Gulager will be on hand in the UCLA theater, watching Don Siegel’s handiwork and remembering his scenes with a colleague who became president, regardless of whether Hollywood chooses to forget.
– John Meroney is at work on American Destiny, a book about Reagan’s life in Hollywood.