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Warner Home Video has found another marketing hook in the celebrations commemorating the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's birth. Their handsomely packaged Ronald Reagan Centennial Collection gathers eight titles from the president's acting career but contains no new releases. Never a front-rank star, Reagan was a solid performer in many films and distinguished himself in three or four notable roles. He had the right filmography for his political ambitions, with notable successes in a nostalgic sports classic and several war movies. It's difficult to say if Reagan was ever happy as an actor, as Warners never found exactly the right roles for him. He spent the war fighting "the battle of Culver City", appearing in countless Signal Corps training films. Blessed with a terrific announcer's voice and a hearty microphone presence when speaking in public, the handsome actor was a shoo-in for politics. Like more than a few ambitious politicians of the 1950s, he made anti-communism a main theme in his rise to prominence. Relating the cheerful and inspiring fantasy Reagan plays in movies to the later politician seems an odd thing to do, but a majority of Americans accepted the image as offered.
Half of the films in the Centennial Collection have Reagan in supporting parts, and a couple of those are really minor. Other larger roles are subordinated to bigger stars like Bette Davis, Errol Flynn and Doris Day. He's given top billing in only one of the pictures, but that ranking is misleading. These quickie reviews have been adapted from earlier Warners collections, especially 2006's Ronald Reagan Signature Collection.
1939's Dark Victory is classic Bette Davis picture; most fans will forget that Ronald Reagan is in it, as his part is so small. So don't expect Ronnie to pop up at the conclusion with a big scene.
Along with Now, Voyager, Dark Victory is the quintessential film in the 'women's picture' subgenre, a slick product designed to fulfill a specific viewer fantasy for a specific time. Some of the story details are almost laughably dated, but once one gets beyond the wish-fulfillment fantasy of a monied class pursuing its entitlements the emotions are true enough. Dark Victory dares to be about sickness and death in fairly direct terms; the average Dr. Kildare feature of the time is nothing but pseudo-medical nonsense.
Hard-drinking & headstrong Judith Traherne (Davis) jumps horses like a pro and lives a wild life of hunting, riding and partying on her New England estate. Loyal secretary Ann King (Geraldine Fitzgerald) is also her best friend, and together they take on the taunts of Judith's obstinate horse trainer, Michael O'Leary (Humphrey Bogart). But neurosurgeon Dr. Frederick Steele (George Brent) postpones his retreat to do research in the country to attend to Judith's problem - migraines, blurred vision and loss of feeling. His operation buys her a few months of symptom-free living, but both he and Ann withhold the truth from Judith: Her prognosis is negative, and she's going to die.
Davis's Judith Traherne is afflicted with the original glamorous 'movie sickness,' the kind that can be predicted down to the final symptoms, yet leaves the victim free to be glamorous and find the correct noble posture to adopt on her way out. Yet, for dramatic truth at the character level Casey Robinson's intelligent script and Bette Davis' performance hit the nail on the head.
In many ways Judith is a selfish pain. The entire world seems to revolve around her personal daybook and she treats everyone in her life as if they were contract players and she the star. She measures how important a party is by the number of dresses she throws on the floor before making a choice. She's so dismissive of her friends, we're surprised anyone will associate with her. The hitch is that Bette Davis makes Judith a likeable identification figure for practically every woman alive. The vibrant woman is flawed but eventually moves to a position of greater self-knowledge.
The opening stages of Judith's 'movie sickness' are fairly realistic. The neurological symptoms are obvious but the bovine Dr. Steele (eternal costar for powerful females George Brent) frequently tells people that he won't bother them with highly technical explanations. He complains about the mortality rate for brain surgery, which in 1939 must have been pretty dismal. After the operation, he has to watch as Judith blithely walks about believing she's cured when we know she's living on borrowed time. It's actually rather amusing, to see Brent staring at Davis as if her head were about to split open, like Dr. Frankenstein wondering when the stitches will start falling out of his latest monster.
This is one of those movies in which poignancy is created by the withholding of vital information: "Oh, (sob!) I didn't know." (Spoiler) Ann and the Doc conspire to let Judith think she's cured, to give us a dramatic reversal every few minutes. Davis waxes enthusiastic about her new lease on life, while Ann and the Doc shudder and look guilty. Then Judith learns the truth and goes on a wild bender that at first gives the impression that she's sleeping with every man she meets. At least, that's what the matrons think and what John Ridgeley makes a crack about until the good Doctor slugs him in the head. Gee, nobody talks about Ridgeley's blood clot and subsequent horrible death due to the good doctor's powerful right hook.
But it turns out that Judith has been a good girl after all. This is also the kind of movie in which young handsome research doctors fall madly in love with their patients, and they go off to find peace together and learn simple rustic values -- with a passel of servants to keep doing the work, of course. Judith barges into Doc's bio lab, ruining any experiment he might be trying to do, but the interruption is laughed off and in just a few weeks he cooks up a promising lead toward curing 57 varieties of human sickness, or whatever. If he were a good Frankenstein, he'd be finding a way to put Eleanor Roosevelt's brain in Judith Traherne's body.
The film would be dreck if it weren't for the conviction of Davis' performance. There's no denying that in her key vehicles, the actress is everything -- the production doesn't support Davis, she holds up the whole show like a female Atlas. The (choose one) morbid/life-affirming ending is brilliant in its simplicity. Thanks to the incredibly accurate timetable of death, Judith is able to find dignity by facing the darkness all on her own. (spoiler spoiler) The most brilliant weepie touch is having Judith send hubby away ignorant that she's already blind and sinking fast -- a zillion women probably debated whether that was indeed the right thing to do.
Among the actors designated to orbit The Star are Geraldine Fitzgerald, quietly concerned and a barometer for dramatic typhoons to come; Ronald Reagan is a forgettable playboy and Humphrey Bogart is a smart-talking Heathcliff of the tackle room. We can tell Davis is a desperate woman the way she leads him to make advances, and then pushes him away. Yeah, he's got the right hormones and she doesn't give a damn, but there are limits. I mean, he's on the payroll. He's not even in the Blue Book.
Dark Victory hits some things on the head. Judith's series of reactions (denial, rage, blame, depression, acceptance?) resemble the standard sequence psychologists would later associate with patients coming to terms with impending death. There's also something right about Judith's Earth Mother response to doom, even though the details are a bit corny. She plants flowers, pets the dogs and bursts with Spring's joy, even on the way to the morgue. Davis makes the image worthy of the romantic poets, and not just a morbid irony.
The disc carries a commentary with Jim Ursini and Paul Clinton, a featurette about the films of 1939, and a trailer.
Ronald Reagan made a strong impression in Knute Rockne All American, a fairly corny but phenomenally successful sports story. A bio that seems to have been partially inspired by Boys Town, it's 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 (Billy Sheffield as a child) comes with his family from Norway and takes to sports with the neighborhood kids. As a young adult Rockne (Pat O'Brien) works for years in the Post Office to be able to attend Notre Dame, a fairly obscure Catholic college where he does well both academically and on the gridiron. In the 'teens, Rockne and his pal Gus Dorais (Owen Davis Jr.) stun the Army opponents by using a legal but untried maneuver called a "forward pass," and football is transformed. Rockne continues at Notre Dame as a chemistry teacher but soon concentrates on coaching, beginning a legendary career that wins games and brings fame to his school.
The American public immediately pre-war ate up this valentine to American values. 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 plaques!
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. Initially a loner and something of a grump (which Reagan doesn't do well), Gipp must 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. 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: as young Rockne labors at the Post office, postage stamps and envelopes fly across the screen!
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, a stunningly good-looking Technicolor historical-biographical short subject about Teddy Roosevelt and a cartoon, Porky's Baseball Broadcast.
Kings Row is Reagan's best film and his best performance, by far. Savant has reviewed it separately, here. It's an odd movie to come out just as WW2 began, dealing as it does with unspoken class barriers, promiscuity, horrifying death pacts and willful mutilation. It's also an extremely affecting drama that pairs Ann Sheridan with a surprisingly effective Ronald Reagan. It's been reported that the studio delayed Kings Row by a year because its downbeat story was too depressing for audiences already disturbed by the war.
Also released in the early days of WW2, the next film in the collection is an escapist war adventure, a feel-good picture to raise civilian spirits. Desperate Journey is a preposterous tale of Allied derring-do behind enemy lines, starring Errol Flynn, Ronald Reagan and their gung-ho buddies making fools of the Nazis in their own back yard.
When their flight commander is killed, co-pilot Terry Forbes (Errol Flynn) crash-lands his bomber deep in the heart of Germany. After escaping from Major Otto Baumeister (Raymond Massey), Forbes and his four surviving comrades flee westward to Holland. They blow up a chemical factory, hitch a ride on Herman Goering's private railroad car and make fools out of every German in their path. Beautiful underground activist Kaethe Brahms (Nancy Coleman) helps them escape from the authorities, and they barely survive a trap set by Gestapo agents. After a breakneck car chase in Holland, the survivors see their chance -- the Germans are preparing a captured Allied bomber for a raid on London. Can our intrepid heroes hijack it and flee back home?
Any comparison to real-life commando action inside Germany makes Desperate Journey seem like total idiocy. But the movie takes itself seriously only when characters pause to deliver $10 morale speeches about the need to win or the sacrifice of "good Germans" resisting their evil leaders. The rest of the time it's a Vaudeville act, with the players telling jokes as they hoodwink the enemy. Alan Hale pesters German guards with spit-wads and laughs himself silly when his appetite is compared to Goering's. Smart aleck Johnny Hammond (Ronald Reagan) confuses the dimwit Major Baumeister with fast-talking word games and smart remarks. Our boys behave like the Dead End Kids, leaving the Germans standing around looking embarrassed. Escaping from these dodos is all too easy. The violence is on a par with gags in a Three Stooges movie, except that some of the straight-man comedy targets get shot dead.
Ex-child star Ronald Sinclair later became an editor for Roger Corman; this is his last movie as an actor. He plays the green recruit among the fugitives, while Arthur Kennedy's Jed Forrest constantly reminds the jolly commandos that they have a serious mission to perform. Star Errol Flynn barely gets to hold hands with Nancy Coleman, and delivers the painful verbal jokes in Arthur T. Horman's original screenplay with a breezy attitude. More than a few punch lines riff on Flynn's personal reputation. Stranded on a roadside, Terry Forbes quips, "This is the first time I ever ran out of gas while I was with two men!
Director Walsh's brisk work keeps the story from dragging, aided by Bert Glennon's glossy camerawork. The budget crunch is seen in various WB studio facilities enlisted to serve as a German chemical factory. Max Steiner's rousing score is almost too refined for this escapist frivolity. Desperate Journey achieved its mission by giving wartime audiences a chance to laugh at the enemy.
The extras for Desperate Journey include the full "Warner Night at the Movies" lineup of a newsreel, trailer and cartoon. Also included is The Tanks Are Coming!, an elaborate Technicolor short subject.
Irving Berlin's This Is The Army is a large-scale Technicolor musical venture with the famous composer to produce a rah-rah morale builder. Proceeds from the film were donated to the Army Emergency Relief Fund. Warners' begins the disc with a disclaimer to excuse the retention of the film's blackface number, which is far better than cutting the film up. They've also found long overture and exit music, which extend the feature to 125 minutes in length.
The first act introduces a number of soldiers who become performers in a WW1 show called "Yip, Yap, Yaphank". George, Murphy, George Tobias, Charles Butterworth. As is traditional with these films, in the last show the soldier-performers march off the stage and into trucks to take them overseas Twenty years later the next generation has taken over, although Alan Hale is still a sergeant. The new show, "This Is The Army" tours with a huge cast of performers, including Kate Smith and Frances Langford. The songs are Berlin standards; he himself sings the final "How I Hate To Get Up in the Morning." The minstrel blackface song is Berlin's familiar "Mandy", and another uses authentic black soldiers to sing about a new fashion coming to Harlem -- Army green. Boxer Joe Louis works out on a punching bag in the number.
One halfway distressing aspect of the movie is that few female performers are in it - instead, male soldiers go in drag to play women. The effect is weird, with everybody doing their darndest to telegraph to the audience the message that "we're just kidding here."
Ronald Reagan is stage manager and backstage presence. The movie's big romance shows him holding off hot-to-wed Joan Leslie because he doesn't want her to become a war widow. When she shows up in a Red Cross uniform wailing 50 reasons why he's being a jerk, Reagan gives in and marries her ... in an alley. The soldiers march off stage and off to fight, and the show is over.
This Is The Army looks fine overall, but in a few scenes the Technicolor registration is a bit off. The disc comes with a commentary with Joan Leslie and Drew Casper. A "Warners at War" featurette is narrated by Steven Spielberg. An outtake from the film is included with a trailer. "Warner Night at the Movies" extras include a newsreel, another Army Band short subject and a B&W cartoon, Confusions of a Nutsy Spy.
The 1949 Anglo-American film The Hasty Heart has been mostly forgotten, but it's possibly Reagan's second-best screen appearance. Reagan is given top billing but the film's main character is the 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 viewing opportunity.
The war ends in Burma but Scottish soldier Corporal Lachlan McLachlan (Richard Todd) is wounded by shrapnel just before the armistice. Recovering in a field hospital, the emotional and somewhat immature soldier becomes furious when he's kept behind as the rest of his outfit moves out. His bunkmates call him "Lachie" and try to be friendly, but McLachlan is stubbornly suspicious of all overtures. Nurse Sister Parker (Patricia Neal) treats Lachie with special consideration and asks the other men to do the same. She's been given special information on the wounded soldier, which he himself doesn't know.
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 lets the story unfold smoothly, showing us only what we need to know; the film rarely looks stage-blocked.
The play is about the need for human contact. It's a showcase for Richard Todd, who was nominated for an Oscar. Todd uses a thick Scots accent on his sometimes infuriatingly pig-headed character. 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 Lachie knows he's slower on the uptake than other people, he's erected a shield of hostility around him. The play has three sections. Lachie frustrates and angers his bunkmates 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.
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. 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.
Warner Bros. comes out swinging against the Klu Klux Klan in Storm Warning, a 1951 throwback to its '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 local 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. 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.
Dress model Marsha Mitchell (Ginger Rogers) stops off in a small town to visit her married sister Lucy Rice (Doris Day), and inadvertently witnesses a murder by hooded members of the Klu Klux Klan. She recognizes two of the killers, mill owner Charlie Barr (Hugh Sanders) and the actual shooter. He turns out to be Marsha's own brother-in-law, Hank Rice (Steve Cochran). A tense twenty-four hours follow in which Marsha is pressured by prosecuting attorney Burt Rainey (Ronald Reagan) to testify, while Hank, Charlie and even Lucy beg her to remain silent -- for the good of the town, and for Lucy's unborn child.
Talk about biting off more than one can chew! Storm Warning is a taut and well-written thriller clearly produced to show that normally conservative studios could still make movies 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 on the periphery of shots, and that's it. It's akin to making an exposé about the menace of wolves, while carefully omitting any mentions of wolves 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 scapegoats 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 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 convincing enough, 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 remains 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 good role for Ronald Reagan's talents and he gives the part some interesting touches. Rainey is unyielding against community pressure, and the bad guys don't even think of trying to bribe him 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.
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 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 details are accurate enough, but the movie stops before Alexander's real-life story took a steep nose-dive. Doris Day and Ronald Reagan indeed make a "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.
Telephone lineman Grover Cleveland Alexander (Ronald Regan) wants to buy a farm and marry his sweetheart Aimee (Doris Day) but he can't stay away from bush-league baseball. His pitching is so good that he makes it to the majors, but there's a hitch: he's hit right between the eyes by a ball and spends a year suffering from double vision. Grover recovers and goes out to the pitcher's mound again but the injury eventually catches up to him in the form of uncontrollable vertigo attacks. Unfortunately, Grover tries to hide the problem. His coaches and the public misinterpret it as alcoholism, which indeed becomes his real problem when he turns to the bottle.
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's attempts 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 shows up 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 chosen 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 graced with a near-perfect transfer. 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, Umpires 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,
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T'was Ever Thus.