Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Ronald Reagan's Top 8 Movie Roles

As a politician, the 40th American president was a superb performer, but for his earlier career in Hollywood,
the reviews are mixed.

Ronald Reagan's film career would ultimately be just one colorful chapter in the biography of the 40th President of the United States. But he did devote two prime decades to the minor if alchemic art of movie acting. And film work offered some returns on his investment. It lent Reagan the status of a marketable commodity. It landed him two actress-wives: the first, Oscar-winner Jane Wyman; the second, Nancy Davis, who would be his and America's First Lady. Film acting schooled Reagan in the hortatory oratory of movie dialogue speeches crafted to sell an ideal or an emotion, and still sound like the purveyor of plain-spoken common sense techniques he used so dynamically in politics. And it created the image of a part-real, part-fictional personage: "Ronald Reagan," an amalgam of the man, the actor he became and the roles he was given to play.

Love Is In The Air, 1937
On June 1, 1937, a 26-year-old with no professional acting experience strode into a $200-a-week contract at Warner Bros. Four months and a day later, his first feature was released. Reagan's visible attributes: a golden smile and a long, strong frame. His previous job: announcing baseball games on the radio.

Dark Victory, 1939
"No, no," studio boss Jack Warner famously said when he heard the actor was running for governor of California. "Jimmy Stewart for Governor. Ronald Reagan for Best Friend." Warner saw Reagan in a supporting role because that's how he'd cast the actor in his early years at Warners: as the boy next door to the male lead. Best friend. Genial loser. In the 1939 Dark Victory, above, he played the bon-vivant alcoholic who loses Bette Davis to George Brent and a brain tumor.

Murder In The Air, 1940
Reagan made 33 films in his first five years at Warners, or an average of one every eight weeks.


Million Dollar Baby, 1941
Before the war he got a few chance to prove himself in A material, and one was in this fluffy comedy (unrelated to Clint Eastwood's 2005 Oscar-winner). Reagan plays Peter Rowan, a rebellious composer who says he has "a sour disposition and a mouth to match"

Kings Row, 1942
One of those naughty novels that Hollywood did handsprings to sanitize, the Warners version of Henry Bellamann's best-seller touches, daintily, on all manner of small-town foibles

Desperate Journey, 1942
Warners had one more role for its budding star an RAF pilot in Desperate Journey, again supporting Errol Flynn before Reagan entered World War II as a stateside soldier. Kept out of action because of poor vision, he was assigned to the First Motion Picture Unit, making propaganda films for the armed forces.

Storm Warning, 1951
Many stars, Clark Gable and James Stewart among them, returned from World War II to reclaim their eminence. Reagan was not of their wattage, and he was also eclipsed by his soon-to-be-ex-wife Jane Wyman, who in 1949 won an Oscar for her role as a deaf-mute in Johnny Belinda.

The Killers, 1964
Long ensconced as the host of TV's General Electric Theatre and Death Valley Days, Reagan made his last film appearance as an out-and-out villain. It's a bit of a cheap thrill to watch Reagan play a crime heavy the liberal notion of a corrupt businessman who sums up his ethical code by saying, "I approve of larceny; homicide is against my principles."