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Ronald Reagan gets a solid "B" in the acting game, doing better than passable work at Warners from the late 30s on. His first few appearances were playing radio announcers, as he'd been a sports announcer before getting that all-important screen test. His roles were either in light comedies, where he sometimes looked uncomfortable trying to be natural, or as a sidekick to stars like Errol Flynn.
Reagan used a sober, "stand-up guy" persona in just about everything he did past 1940; his atypical Bedtime for Bonzo-type parts are a rather unfair yardstick by which to judge his talent. He ended up marrying two actresses and becoming more of a public political figure in the 1950s, and segue'd out of his film work into chores on scattered but lucrative television series. This Signature Collection presents his best films and some good examples of Reagan's dramatic range, which was narrow but reliable.
Knute Rockne All American
1940 / 98 min. / Available separately at 19.98
Starring Pat O'Brien, Gale Page, Ronald Reagan, Donald Crisp, Albert Basserman, Owen Davis
Cinematography Tony Gaudio
Art Direction Robert Haas
Film Editor Ralph Dawson
Special Effects and Montage Byron Haskin, Don Siegel
Written by Robert Buckner
Produced by Hal B. Wallis
Directed by Lloyd Bacon
This fairly corny sports story was phenomenally successful. A bio that seems to have been partially inspired by Boys Town, its really a rah-rah booster picture promoting college athletics as an essential part of American education. The star is Pat O'Brien, playing a revered cultural icon and making him seem even more of a God. This is said to be Ronald Reagan's big break, and it contains the famous halftime speech to "win one for the Gipper." The crazy thing is that, although Reagan gets prominent billing and his image was featured on the posters, he's in the picture for fewer than fifteen minutes!
Knute Rockne All American is Warners' valentine to American values, and the public ate it up. After his untimely demise in an air crash (like Will Rogers) Knute Rockne entered into the realm of legend; it's often assumed that he invented the forward pass when he simply made it popular in a spectacular win. The movie is probably the basis for all of those inspirational sports stories that emphasize character and nobility as the real glory of sports ... qualities that are indeed hard to find these days, although the sports media work overtime trying to synthesize them. The only problem with the film's thesis is that its really a "General Patton" view of life: There are only winners and winning. If you don't win, you obviously didn't have the right spirit (the Right Stuff?). That immediately divides the world into winners and losers. Eat worms, you lousy losers! We winners get bronze placques!
Reagan plays George Gipp, a real Rockne team member that it is hard to believe wasn't created to provide inspiration for a sports motivational speech. Initally a loner and something of a grump (which Reagan doesn't do well), Gipp has to be bullied into playing football. Then he becomes a model player, growing in heart and humility (which Reagan does very well) as he wins games. (spoiler) Then Gipp is felled by a sudden sickness -- nothing unusual back then -- and his last words are practically the stuff of homespun Americana: "Sometime when the team is up against it and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go out there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper!" Today it plays like something that belongs on a Hallmark card, but in 1940 these words were the living end in tear-jerk nirvana.
Knute Rockne All American is reasonably fast-paced and goes about its business with dignity; it's nowhere near as faux-devout as MGM's Boys Town movie. Pat O'Brien is very good, although at age 41 he's pretty funny trying to play a teenager. The movie is also a good opportunity to see Don Siegel and Byron Haskin's most desperate "time passing" montage: Postage stamps and envelopes fly across the screen as young Rockne labors at the Post office!
Donald Crisp and Albert Basserman are priest-teachers at Notre Dame, Gale Page plays Rockne's wife (the movie is supervised by the Coach's real widow) and John Qualen is affecting as Rockne's pop, speaking Norwegian. We're told that Jim Thorpe has a bit part, and that Brian Keith is in the movie somewhere as well. But you can't miss George Reeves; he plays a whining player who gets a dressing down from Rockne during a losing halftime.
Knute Rockne All American comes with a trailer, a radio-show version of the movie with O'Brien and Reagan, and a stunningly good-looking Technicolor historical-biographical short subject about Teddy Roosevelt.
1942 / 127 min. / Available separately at 19.98
Starring Ann Sheridan, Robert Cummings, Ronald Reagan, Betty Field, Charles Coburn, Claude Rains, Judith Anderson, Nancy Coleman, Kaaren Verne, Maria Ouspenskaya, Harry Davenport
Cinematography James Wong Howe
Production Designer William Cameron Menzies
Art Direction Carl Jules Weyl
Film Editor Ralph Dawson
Original Music Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Written by Casey Robinson from the novel by Henry Bellamann
Produced by Hal B. Wallis
Directed by Sam Wood
Kings Row is Reagan's best film and his best performance. Savant has reviewed it separately, here.
The Hasty Heart
1949 / 102 min. / Not available separately
Starring Ronald Reagan, Patricia Neal, Richard Todd, Anthony Nicholls, Howard Marion-Crawford
Cinematography Wilkie Cooper
Art Direction Terence Verity
Film Editor E. B. Jarvis
Original Music Jack Beaver
Written by Ranald MacDougall from a play byJohn Patrick
Produced by Russel Crouse, Howard Lindsay
Directed by Vincent Sherman
King's Row was reportedly a flop, but it added polish to Ronald Reagan's perceived acting ability, especially his anguished discovery waking up after an operation: "Where's the rest of me?!" This 1949 Anglo-American film was a reasonable success and has been mostly forgotten, but it's possibly Reagan's second-best screen appearance. Again, Reagan is a lead character but not really the top star, as The Hasty Heart really belongs to third-billed Richard Todd, a sturdy British actor just beginning a major career roll. It also has Patricia Neal in a good part, something I always consider a priority opportunity.
As a filmed play The Hasty Heart has nothing to apologize for; Vincent Sherman's fine character direction keeps the story lively even though it all takes place on just a couple of sets representing the Burmese medical camp. Sherman's instinct for camera placement let the story unfold smoothly, showing us only what we need to know; the film rarely looks stage-blocked.
The play is a showcase for Richard Todd, who was nominated for an Oscar. Todd uses a thick Scots accent on his sometimes infuriatingly pig-headed character. The play is about the need for human contact. Lachie was an illegitimate child and made to feel lesser for it. He's poor, proud and convinced the world laughs at him behind his back. As he knows he's slower on the uptake than other people, Lachie's erected a wall of hostility as a shield. The play has three sections. Lachie frustrates and angers everyone around him by refusing to accept their open offers of friendship. After their gift of an entire highlander's outfit (the kind with kilts) he swings the other way, showing his gnawing inner need for companionship. Emotionally, Lachie overcompensates, inviting everyone to come live with him on his planned farm, and even asking the kind nurse Parker to marry him. Finally, a revelation forces Lachie and the others to rebuild their relationship with the truth of his situation shared and understood by all (a spoiler not to be revealed here). The Hasty Heart is especially good as a reminder not to necessarily trust the outward actions and words of hurtful people, many of whom have adopted brusque manners to insulate themselves from social pain.
The most touching scenes are between Todd and Ms. Neal, whose nurse Parker cares so much for the Scotsman's feelings that she even agrees to marry him. That pushes the concept almost too far, as the authorities are being dishonest with Lachie by not telling him his true condition. (Spoiler in footnote) 1
Ronald Reagan's in this film, remember? He simply plays the 'Yank' in a ward with Britishers from several countries, including an African soldier who speaks no English. Yank is on point in trying to get Lachie to warm up, and takes the brunt of the Scotsman's insults. Reagan is really sour when he expresses anger or disgust, and not in a particularly adept way. That "he reads lines well" is about the best we can say for his work when he's fed up with the exhausting Scotsman. As soon as the tone gets lighter Reagan is terrific. His smile radiates warmth and good will and the movie cheers right up. But there's no subtlety to his earlier bad attitude.
Probably a big laugh-getter in 1949 but rather lame now is a running gag in which the other Brits try to determine if Lachie wears anything under his kilt. It may have been a part of the original play, but it comes across as an attempt to put a final smile on what is essentially a very sad story.
Warners' DVD of The Hasty Heart is a strong transfer of a film that always suffered on television when chopped up for commercials ... since the setting never changes the movie didn't seem to progress. Picture and audio are fine. Director Vincent Sherman died not long ago, but Warners wisely had him record commentaries for all of his films, so The Hasty Heart is covered by both Sherman and Reagan biographer John Meroney. Sherman's sharp memory is very helpful, but as there is no Bette Davis or Joan Crawford to dish dirt over, he's perhaps not as animated as in his other commentaries. A Joe McDoakes comedy short shares space with the interestingly titled cartoon The Hasty Hare. A trailer is included as well.
1951 / 93 min. / Not Available Separately
Starring Ginger Rogers, Ronald Reagan, Doris Day, Steve Cochran
Cinematography Carl Guthrie
Art Direction Leo K. Kuter
Film Editor Clarence Kolster
Original Music Daniele Amfitheatrof
Written by Richard Brooks, Daniel Fuchs
Produced by Jerry Wald
Directed by Stuart Heisler
Warner Bros. comes out swinging against the Klu Klux Klan in this 1951 throwback to its Depression 'social issue' films like I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang and Black Legion. Few if any movies about the Klan had been attempted in the sound era, probably because the studios didn't want to alienate the southern market, where attitudes didn't agree with progressive ideas of Hollywood writers.
Even with the powerhouse casting of Ginger Rogers Storm Warning remains a story-driven show, and there were probably plenty of viewers upset that Rogers didn't dance and co-star Doris Day didn't sing. Doris Day is apparently made-up to look as plain as possible so as to not show up Rogers, 13 years her senior. Ronald Reagan gets second billing in this film and has a substantial part, but his character is positioned outside of the main dramatic action.
Talk about biting off more than one can chew! Storm Warning is a taut and well-written thriller clearly produced in an honest attempt to show that normally conservative studio pictures could still make stories about human rights. The film predates the soon-to-explode Civil Rights movement. It proposes that, along with foreign "isms," an enemy of American Freedom might also be found in rural lawlessness, vigilantism and shady secret societies like the Klan. But the Klan as pictured here is missing one crucial element: Racism. A few black faces show up in the periphery of shots, and that's it. It's akin to making an exposé about the menace of wolves, while carefully omitting the part of the story about Eating Sheep.
The setting is the south, although the accents aren't particularly southern; the 'universal' (i.e., de-clawed) story is situated in a generic Midwestern town with moneybags bosses and uneducated working hicks like Steve Cochran's militantly loutish Hank Rice. If anything, the film seems to scapegoat Hank Rice for the evil of the Klan. Hank shot his rifle out of turn and is a total incompetent at handling a sticky situation. He even tries to rape his sister in-law, which should win an award for the most stupid villain behavior of 1951.
Director Stuart Heisler does a fine good job of generating suspense, especially in the opening scenes of Rogers arriving in a hostile town and walking up a dark street, there to find a mob murder in progress. The atmosphere of small-town Evil is completely convincing, with the conspirators (who seem to include almost everyone) gathering at bowling alleys and recreation centers to laugh about their ability to break laws with impunity. The unspoken message is that communal crime is what brings communities together!
The rather grim story can't quite get a grip on themes that wouldn't be perfected for twenty years -- the movies still had a lot of 'special pleading' filmmaking to get out of the way in well-intentioned pictures by Stanley Kramer, etc. These are the movies that show a specific injustice and end with vague sermons: "Cedar City isn't in trouble ... we're in trouble! Society's in trouble." Not until the post-Watergate years did movies simply come out and say that a particular situation might just be rotten through and through. Of course, negative messages like that were and still are largely considered unconstructive and Un-American.
Storm Warning attains clarity by falsifying the issues. The Klan intends to lynch a white reporter who dared investigate shady Klan dealings. The idea is that the Klan is a 'racket' that makes its leaders rich, and the proper way to get them is through tax evasion laws. Note that the lynching accidentally becomes a shooting: The Production Code forbade depicting such behavior.
Prior Klan lynchings in the town are referenced only as 'problems' without further embellishment, although in 1950 lynchings were still frequent in the south -- with the victims invariably being black. The Klan of Storm Warning is guilty of burning crosses, acting brutishly and covering up creative accounting. There's no mention of racial motivation whatsoever -- although much of the audience in 1951 was well aware of it.
The only film Savant has seen from this era that reasonably faces up to the issue of racism is Clarence Brown's Intruder in the Dust, a must-include title should Warners bring forth another Controversial Classics collection. Even though it ends with typical "it's really our problem" sermonizing, its story of an unjustly accused black man stays true to William Faulkner's source story.
Storm Warning provides plenty of dramatics for Ginger Rogers and Doris Day. Rogers' Marsha grows more conflicted as she sees how terribly the locals behave, and eventually takes a cowardly position under oath on the witness stand. She thinks she's protecting her sister Lucy but ends up doing the opposite in an old-fashioned climax that punishes all wrongdoers.
Prosecutor Burt Rainey is a perfect role for Ronald Reagan's talents and he gives the part some interesting touches. Rainey unyielding against community pressure, and the bad guys don't even think of trying to bribe or trip him up. Even his mother is as solid as the Statue of Liberty. As nobody ever testifies against anybody in this town, Rainey also has a strain of pessimism about his chances, and is initially unforgiving to Marsha when she perjures herself.
Steve Cochran is at his slimiest here, far outdistancing his work in White Heat and The Damned Don't Cry. Surely the thought of this slimeball touching Doris Day or Ginger Rogers sent audiences into shivers, and the movie substitutes Hank Rice's demise for getting at the real evil of the Klan. Cochran really never got much of a chance to play decent characters, even when he became a successful freelancer.
The finale works up a fury with good details of a Klan rally -- blood initiation oaths (with guns at one's head), the burning cross (without a mention of God) and a sadistic whipping for Marsha. Hooded Mothers hold up their hooded children to get a good look at the lady being punished! Although the drama goes absurdly haywire, the basic Klan spirit is correct, which makes the no-racism context all the more perplexing. Even 1937's Black Legion faced up to the problem of ethnic hatred of foreigners, but Warners wasn't ready, or wasn't able, to portray the truth of American racism. 2
Storm Warning is light on extras, having only the film's exploitative original trailer. A hooded spokesman is shown, and then his hood is ripped off to dramatize what the movie is supposed to do to the Klan.
The Winning Team
1952 / 93 min. / Not Available Separately
Starring Doris Day, Ronald Reagan, Frank Lovejoy, Eve Miller, James Millican, Russ Tamblyn
Cinematography Sidney Hickox
Art Direction Douglas Bacon
Film Editor Alan Crosland Jr.
Original Music David Buttolph
Written by Merwin Gerard, Seeleg Lester, Ted Sherdeman
Produced by Bryan Foy
Directed by Lewis Seiler
The final Ronald Reagan entry still sees him with second billing, behind Doris Day. The Winning Team is an inversion of Knute Rockne All American in that it champions the career of Grover Cleveland Alexander, a baseball star more or less felled by an injury, as in the successful James Stewart picture The Stratton Story. Most of the story details are okay, but the movie stops before Alexander's real-life events took a steep nose-dive.
Doris Day and Ronald Reagan do make a good "winning team" as promised on the poster, but Reagan doesn't seem all that committed to the movie ... some of his scenes are heartfelt, and others are just terrible.
This interesting baseball story is perfect for the movies, in that it's yet another example of the popular "athlete who overcomes all odds" fantasy. Grover Alexander is an uncomplicated guy who loves baseball and pitches beautiful shut outs, sometimes even against the Yankees and Babe Ruth. Since 'never giving up' is the credo being heralded, we forgive Grover when he tries to hide his affliction. When he passes out on the pitcher's mound he's called a bum and is bounced out of the game. This has to be a simplification, because Alexander's teammates would quickly notice that he didn't have alcohol on his breath.
Grover ends up in a sideshow as a Stanton Carlisle-like freak, until his wife Aimee finds him and prevails upon an old buddy to give him another chance. The screenwriters concoct a gimmick: Grover can keep his head straight and pitch games only when Aimee is in the stands to provide a focus for support. The big finale comes at a game when Grover's feeling ill but is asked to pitch at the last minute. Can Aimee get to the park in time to save the day?
A quick look at the web tells the whole story of Grover Cleveland Alexander. After the movie's note of triumph, the real ball player fell apart with his drinking problem, lost his wife, bummed around and finally died alone in a rooming house. Not a whole lot of inspiration in that. So there's again something wrong with Hollywood's need to create a "Winning" story out of a real life that doesn't cooperate: The only solution is to re-write real life, and fashion a national culture of glory based on lies.
Doris Day is finding balance in her dramatic acting and handles well the story's abrupt turns of fortune. She even sings a Christmas song in one scene, as if responding to audience demand. Her role as a booster and moral bulwark for her husband's troubles never gets around to asking what her own personal problems might be, as the 'winning team' theory seems to stress that the female side of the partnership has no identity except to serve her man. That was the message in 1951, anyway.
Ronald Reagan just doesn't seem to be putting much effort into the show. He carries most of the happy scenes but plays Grover's troubles with frowns and a bitter griping attitude. The worst moment comes when he's trying to thread a needle with double vision -- he plays it as would a five year-old. Grover is supposed to go from sick and dizzy to lost and frantic; to silly drunk and then to the lower depths on the Carnival. Reagan just doesn't have the range. When he finally comes back from a wretched state to play the crucial last game, his acting and intensity are no different than when he first had problems years before.
The movie has one nice thing to say about baseball. Early in his career, Grover lets Rogers Hornsby, a batter for another team (Frank Lovejoy) get on base because his catcher (James Millican) says Hornsby is on the verge of being fired for getting no hits. That baseball would allow such a thing makes the game seem a lot more likeable back then. Of course, Aimee Alexander collects that debt ten years later when Hornsby is a team manager, and her husband needs a break!
The Winning Team is a near-perfect transfer as well. The movie uses quite a bit of worn stock footage from old games, where we see authentic plays from the period and hear some different terminology. When Grover starts playing, the Umpire apparently stood behind the pitcher, not the batter. The only extra is a trailer
Acting for Ronald Reagan in the 1950s appeared to be more of a job than a career, as he quickly changed over to television work and only made nine more movies. Savant's reviewed only two of them. Reagan is fine in the terrible Hellcats of the Navy; it's everything else that lets the movie down, including the silly role given his second wife Nancy Davis. In Don Siegel's remake of The Killers Reagan plays a humorless bad guy and does a convincing job of beating up Angie Dickinson. That was Reagan's last theatrical film, and from then forward he mostly showed up on the news as a political candidate.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Without getting specific about Lachie's problem, let me opine that the efforts of the medical authorities to be kind to Lachie are intrusive and cruel. The stages Lachie goes through should be: Honest Disclosure : Shock : Hostility : Acceptance. Lachie's friends in the camp need to risk that Lachie won't shut himself off entirely. Ultimately, it's his problem alone. What happens in the film is: Dishonesty : Intervention to 'open up' Lachie and get him to accept friendship : Disillusion and violent rejection : Collapse : Begging not to be abandoned. Perhaps the camp's method is the best -- Lachie is the 'property' of the military, I suppose. In the long run, though, I think anyone in trouble deserves to be told the facts.
2. Interesting note on Storm Warning from Dick Dinman, 8.22.06: Hey Glenn, Here's another episode of "Am I Crazy But " ---- Am I alone in my belief that Warner's took 90% of the structural story-line of their previous A Streetcar Named Desire as their foundation for Storm Warning with Rogers, Cochran, Day and Reagan assuming the roles of Leigh, Brando, Hunter, and Malden? To test my theory I ran Streetcar first and followed with Storm ---- I wish I had the time to enumerate the similarities, so incredibly numerous are they, even down to the very first shot to the bowling alley hangout of the Cochran/Brando lout. Given the precarious situation that the Cochran character was in, the attempted rape of Rogers appears to be thrown in because Brando did it first ---- and better. Am I completely out of my mind (no other review of Storm has suggested this theory!) or should Tennessee Williams have sued Warners? As I sign off I'm pondering whether I should be committed. Be kind ---- I've always depended on the kindness of strangers. Cheers, Dick Dinman
Reviews on the Savant main site have more images, additional credits information and are more likely to be updated and annotated with reader input.