TCS Daily

Reagan, the (Good) Actor

By Shaun Chang - June 7, 2004 12:00 AM

The chattering class is too quick to denigrate Ronald Reagan's acting career. Despite the derision of cultural elites, Reagan was an accomplished performer who enjoyed a successful career spanning three-decades and some 50-plus film titles that any aspiring thespian would envy. While the quality of his films was, at times, pedestrian, he made some good films through the years and worked with some of Hollywood's greatest stars and directors.

Reagan began his acting career as a Warner Brothers contract player in the 1930s and 1940s during its heyday. Warner Brothers distinguished itself from the more blandly opulent MGM studios during this time by making grittier films that championed the plight of the common man, hence its use of such comparatively less-glamorous leading men as James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. Reagan fit the Warner Bros. mold by embodying the qualities of the likeable and reliable guy-next-door.

Warners used him in supporting roles for their more prestigious films, as well as leads in their "B" productions. He was effective as dying Bette Davis's drunken, yet supportive, playboy friend in "Dark Victory" (1938) and he was a ruggedly handsome hero in a quartet of "B" action programmers playing Secret Service agent Brass Bancroft. These films -- "Secret Service of the Air" (1939), "Smashing the Money Ring" (1939) "Code of the Secret Service" (1940) and "Murder in the Air" (1940) -- usually ran just under an hour each, but they moved at a lightening pace and were just good fun. He also acquitted himself admirably in a pair of Errol Flynn vehicles, "Santa Fe Trail" (1940, where he played George Armstrong Custer) and the WWII adventure "Desperate Journey" (1942).

His most respected roles were in "Knute Rockne All American" (1940) and "Kings Row" (1942), but there were other, more interesting films that one could call his best work in the cinema. One title is the surprisingly racy sex comedy, "The Girl from Jones Beach" (1949) filmed towards the end of Reagan's long tenure at Warner Brothers. Reagan plays a successful commercial artist who is being pursued by publicist Eddie Bracken in order to learn the identity of "The Randolph Girl," the model that Reagan uses for all his painted print advertisements, who has become the sensation of the nation. Reagan eventually reveals to Bracken that The Randolph Girl is really a composite of different body parts from 12 different fashion models that he is currently dating, and who each believe that THEY are The Randolph Girl.

Reagan eventually pursues Virginia Mayo because she looks like the model Reagan has created. Mayo turns out to be a school teacher who wants to be appreciated for her brains rather than her looks, and Reagan pretends to be an illiterate Czech immigrant and enrolls in Mayo's night school class for new American citizens to get closer to her. Complications arise when Reagan finds himself falling for Mayo, the 12 different models figure out that they've been lied to all along, and Bracken inadvertently gets Mayo fired from her job when he has a bikini photo of her printed in all the newspapers.

For a movie made 55 years ago, "The Girl from Jones Beach" has a startling amount of double entendres and innuendos. The very witty script was penned by I.A.L. Diamond -- director Billy Wilder's frequent collaborator -- and raises interesting issues about whether women and men should be appreciated for their brains or their beauty. Mayo's character initially wants a man who appreciates her intellect, but expresses concern when Reagan seems unimpressed by her looks. Reagan, on the other hand, finds himself charmed and challenged by Mayo's intelligence. At the end, Reagan daydreams seeing Mayo dressed in a smart looking dress when she's really wearing a bathing suit, while Mayo daydreams seeing Reagan in a bathing suit when he's really wearing a dapper business suit. Reagan is absolutely terrific in the lead role. It's enlightening watching him play a rake, but he does it with assurance and good humor. His best moments in the film are when he attends Mayo's night school class, affecting a bizarre European accent that changes from minute-to-minute.

Reagan also shines in the 1950 melodrama "Storm Warning." Ginger Rogers plays a fashion model who wanders into a Southern town to visit her little sister, Doris Day, and witnesses a murder committed by the Ku Klux Klan. Reagan played the crusading DA who tries to convince Ginger to testify against the culprits. Things get dicey when it transpires that little sister Doris is married to one of the Klansmen. Co-written by Richard Brooks (who later directed "In Cold Blood" and "The Blackboard Jungle"), it's an underrated film noir melodrama that deserves rediscovery. The movie is so tense and suspenseful -- one fears for Rogers's safety all through it -- that audiences who have seen the film are grateful for Reagan's reassuring presence. Reagan purportedly told Ginger Rogers years later when she visited the White House that he never understood what the title of "Storm Warning" meant until he dealt with Tip O'Neill.

Reagan ended his film career on a high note, giving one of his best, most offbeat performances as a ruthless mobster in his last feature film, "The Killers" (1964), directed by acclaimed auteur Don Siegel. He rarely had a chance in his career to play people who were anything but true-blue, so it's startling to see him chew the scenery, slap Angie Dickinson around, double-cross Lee Marvin, and wreak havoc with anybody who crosses his path. On the page, "The Killers" sounds campy, but it's really a riveting movie with one of the greatest, ironically sarcastic last lines of all time. (When the dying Lee Marvin is being manipulated by the scheming femme fatale Dickinson to spare her life, he simply says "Lady...I don't have the time!" and shoots her.)

He was not a brilliant actor but always performed his roles with strength and conviction. However, his most lasting legacy in Hollywood might be for something he did off-screen, rather than on. While he was the President of the Screen Actors Guild, he initiated the union's pension plan where actors receive an additional lump sum payment based on a percentage of their salary from producers that goes into a retirement plan. Reagan was aware that actors were in the precarious position of having money embezzled by unscrupulous business managers.

As a result, many actors have unexpectedly found they had money set aside for them in the twilight of their careers. Some actors were mad at Reagan for not negotiating a SAG contract with the studios that would have allowed actors to receive residuals for each TV airing of films made before 1961. Those critics, however, did not take into account that TV stations tend to avoid airing older films and not EVERY movie is aired enough times to generate enough income for the actors in them. So while many actors continue to say derisive things about Ronald Reagan because of a difference in political views, most of them are being taken care of in their old age by something he helped initiate.


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