Regardless of one's opinion of Ronald Reagan the politician and two-term U.S. President - I'm not a fan - Ronald Reagan the actor was for a time a very real commodity in Hollywood, a nationally famous if second-tier movie star. From about the time he successfully ran for governor of California in 1966, detractors made hay of Reagan's supposedly lackluster film career, often pointing to Bedtime for Bonzo (1951), Cattle Queen of Montana (1954), and Hellcats of the Navy (1957), the latter co-starring Reagan's second wife, Nancy Davis (Reagan), as prime examples. In truth neither Reagan's performances nor even those films were anything worse than harmless; they certainly were not the career-killing embarrassments many assumed.
In any case those movies were made late in Reagan's acting career; he stopped altogether following Don Siegel's 1964 remake of The Killers, in which Reagan was effectively cast against type as a genuinely creepy, violent crime boss who likes to slap Angie Dickinson around. Conversely, The Ronald Reagan Centennial Collection covers Reagan's best period, his 15 or so years as a contract player for Warner Bros., from the late-1930s to the early-1950s. Included are eight films, most good showcases for Reagan even when he isn't actually the lead: Dark Victory (1939), Knute Rockne All American (1940), Kings Row, Desperate Journey (both 1942), This Is the Army (1943), The Hasty Heart (1949), Storm Warning (1951), and The Winning Team (1952). This pretty much covers all genres except the Western, in which Reagan made a few interesting contributions.
But-but-but. Warner Home Video has in recent years gotten into the very annoying habit of simply repackaging previously released titles while either ignoring their never-released ones or banishing them to movie-on-demand Siberia. This set is nearly identical to Ronald Reagan - The Signature Collection from 2006; it included the same titles (and same extra features) with the exceptions of Dark Victory, Desperate Journey, and This Is the Army. However, Dark Victory has been out on DVD at least six times already, as both stand-alone releases since 1997, as part of two different Bette Davis boxed sets, and a recent Humphrey Bogart one. Desperate Journey was one of five Errol Flynn Adventures, a TCM Spotlight release, while This is the Army, now in the public domain, is on a gajillion other labels, as well as Warner Home Video's Warner Bros. and the Homefront Collection from 2008.
This kind of thing drives classic film fans crazy. Who needs five copies of Dark Victory while probably close to two dozen of Reagan's other titles gather dust in Warner's vaults? Ironically, concurrent with this release, the Warner Archive Collection has just released Reagan's four-film "Brass Bancroft of the Secret Service," spy programmers made early in his career. (Each runs about an hour.) Why couldn't these have been included instead of this umpteenth reissue of Dark Victory, in which fifth-billed Reagan is in no way the star?
Not that Dark Victory isn't a fine film, in many respects the ultimate Bette Davis vehicle. But Reagan's probably onscreen for less than ten of the film's 104 minutes, and he's mostly on the sidelines at that, playing handsome but shallow playboy Alec Hamm. No, sir - this is Davis's film all the way. As socialite Judith Traherne, Davis smokes like a chimney and drinks like a fish until headaches and double vision cause a serious equestrian accident and, later, send Judith tumbling down a flight of steps.
Enter Dr. Frederick Steele (George Brent), who almost immediately sees the problem: Judith has a brain tumor requiring an immediate operation. The heiress is resistant; outwardly calm, inwardly panic-stricken. She doesn't want to face mortality and a possible death sentence. However, Frederick's bedside manner and the love of her best friend and secretary, Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald) finally ease Judith into the operating room.
Alas, while the operation is successful, the cancer has spread and Judith has but months to live, though Frederick - by this point in love with her and vice versa - with Ann's assistance, conspires to hide the truth in order to ease her suffering.
Though very dated in terms of its depiction of medical matters and unrealistic in terms of the emotional and physical toll of terminal illness, especially in light of more recent films like Terms of Endearment and Wit, to name two good examples, Davis's performance transcends all and her final scenes are quite moving.
The film also has star power to spare with Humphrey Bogart, unlike Reagan, in the Heathcliff-like major supporting of Irish stable master Michael O'Leary, with Bogie affecting a shaky Irish brogue.
Reagan is not the star of Knute Rockne All American (1940) either, but if many have forgotten this incredibly corny and clichéd biopic of legendary Notre Dame football coach Lars Knutson Rockne (decidedly un-Norwegian Pat O'Brien, looking pretty silly in his first scenes trying to play a teenager), they certainly remember Reagan's key supporting role as star halfback George Gipp. Stricken in the prime of his youth with an unnamed fatal illness - in reality, Gipp died of complications of strep throat, hardly glamorous - he extols Rockne to go out there "and win one for the Gipper."
As with Dark Victory, Reagan's barely in it - he's in and out in less than 15 minutes - though his part is more the mini-showcase than his intermittent scenes in Dark Victory, with Rockne transforming Gipp from lonely misanthrope to iconic team-player. O'Brien and Warner's departmental efficiency are the film's saving graces, but overall it's the kind of picture ripe for parody in the 70 years since.
I confess that despite its classic status I'd never gotten around to watching Kings Row until now - dissuaded, probably, by Reagan's prominence and comparisons of the film by others to Peyton Place. In fact Kings Row is just wonderful and Reagan, finally a genuine co-lead, gives one of his best performances.
Somewhat similar to Orson Welles's concurrent The Magnificent Ambersons, Kings Row is likewise set in turn-of-the-century small town America, with its rigid class structure closely-guarded secrets among the privileged class. Reagan's part in the story, like Tim Holt's in Ambersons, follows an untamed, spoiled youth who loses his inheritance, is forced into dangerous work, and finally gets his comeuppance and then some.
Reagan is Drake McHugh, who is in love with Louise (Nancy Coleman), the daughter of wealthy but sadistic local doctor Henry Gordon (Charles Coburn). Meanwhile, Drake's friend, Parris Mitchell (Robert Cummings), the polite grandson of a wealthy Madame von Eln (Maria Ouspenskaya), is sent to Dr. Tower (Claude Rains) to study medicine before formally entering medical school. Though Parris has been friends with Tower's daughter, Cassandra (Betty Field), since childhood, the entire family lives in seclusion and regarded with suspicion. Dr. Tower has no patients at all.
Nevertheless, Parris recognizes his genius and falls in love with the elusive, eccentric Cassandra. (Spoilers) But then tragedy strikes when out of nowhere Dr. Tower murders his daughter and commits suicide. Moreover, Parris's grandmother is terminally ill with cancer just as Parris leaves for Vienna. Drake, meanwhile, faces even greater obstacles: his money having been stolen by a crooked banker, he's forced to work in the train yards, though he does become reacquainted with former tomboy Randy (Ann Sheridan), who loves him.
Based on Henry Bellamann's controversial novel, the film of Kings Row is pretty sordid by 1942 standards, but even so had to be changed quite a bit to earn a Production Code seal. (In the novel, for instance, Dr. Tower has an incestuous relationship with Cassandra, and Parris ends his grandmother's suffering in a mercy killing.) Still, by suggestion the script slips many details past the censors and to its audience, such as the implication that Cassandra was pregnant by Parris when her father murdered her.
At its heart is the somewhat unusual theme of love between two men, Parris and Drake. I haven't read the novel, and it might very well imply or specifically state a sexual history between the two, but in the movie there's nothing to suggest anything other than a non-sexual bond, but it's also clearly a relationship that supercedes their relationships with various women: Drake and Louise, Drake and Randy (and who wouldn't fall for Ann Sheridan?), Parris and Cassandra, Parris and Elsie Sandor (Kaaren Verne), who moves into his grandmother's former estate. Cummings, an underrated talent too often dismissed for his breezy personality, much like Reagan's, is very good here, and both he and Reagan sell and make believable their close relationship.
Kings Row is classical Hollywood studio filmmaking at its finest, with the brightest lights of each department contributing mightily to the final product. The film features a monumental score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, cinematography by James Wong Howe, and production design by William Cameron Menzies. It don't get better than that.
In Desperate Journey, second-billed Reagan is the bombardier aboard an RAF plane shot down over enemy lines. As Flying Officer Johnny Hammond, he joins Flight Lt. Terrance Forbes (Australian Errol Flynn, cast against type as an Australian), Flight Sgt. Kirk Edwards (Alan Hale, Sr.), Flying Officer Jed Forrest (Arthur Kennedy), and Flight Sgt. Lloyd Hollis (Ronald Sinclair), the son of a World War I flying ace. After escaping the clutches of Nazi Major Otto Baumeister (Raymond Massey) with secret documents found in his office, the men wreak havoc across half of Germany and the occupied Netherlands.
Filmed soon after Pearl Harbor and America's entry into the war, when victory over the Axis forces was anything but inevitable, Desperate Journey pales next to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's subtler and more realistic ...One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), shot almost concurrently. (Admittedly, the films have differen goals if identicial premises.) Desperate Journey plays more like an antecedent to Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (2009), even though that film was more directly inspired by Euro-war movies made during the 1970s. But like Tarantino's film, Desperate Journey's heroes are wisecracking mischief-makers out to bag as many Krauts as they can before bee-lining it back across the English Channel. No one seems too concerned that death lurks around every corner, or the potential consequences of their merry-making.
Taken in this light the picture is quite entertaining. Flynn, as their leader, has the decided advantage of understanding German and apparently speaking it fluently. He certainly speaks German better than Massey, playing one. His terrible, American-accented German strongly contrasts the soldiers under his command, played mostly by native-born actors, including Sig Ruman, Rudolph Anders, and John Banner. Fifty-year-old Hale was much too old for this kind of thing, but his character's presence is amusingly explained in a scene when the dark-haired Kirk emerges from a shower with a shock of white hair (Hale's natural color by this time): he lied about his age in order to reenlist.
Director Raoul Walsh and screenwriter Arthur T. Horman maintain tension and excitement for the entire 107-minute film's running time, with seemingly insurmountable obstacles for our heroes to overcome in every reel. Reagan is also fine, his best moment coming when, seeming to cooperate with Massey's refined Nazi, Johnny feeds him a load of bull about his bomber's specs, speaking in outlandish doubletalk. (Sergei Hasenecz adds, "Bogart and William Demarest do a double-talk routine a year earlier to fool Nazis in All Through the Night. It's an old trick that got plenty of play once talkies came in. For instance, Clark Gable uses Pig Latin while facing Malay pirates in China Seas.")
Just about the ultimate wartime propaganda film, This Is the Army was an epic production designed to boost morale while raising funds for the Army Emergency Relief Fund. (After recouping its production costs, Warner Bros. donated all profits to this organization; the film was the highest-grossing film of 1943, earning $8.3 million in rentals, a huge sum.). Adapted from Irving Berlin's wildly successful 1941 play, itself a retooling of Berlin's World War I show Yip, Yip, Yaphank, the film version opens during the Great War, with a group of soldiers called overseas during a performance of Berlin's show - they literally march from the stage and out the front doors as the teary-eyed audience cheers them on. (Corny as it is, this scene is undeniably rousing.) During the war, dancing star Jerry Jones (George Murphy) sustains a career-ending leg injury.
Years later, at the outset of World War II, the now adult children of Jones's old unit enthusiastically follow in their fathers' footsteps, including (by this point) real-life Lt. Ronald Reagan as Jerry's son, Johnny Jones. When Jerry's old gang (including Alan Hale, Charles Butterworth, and George Tobias) reunites at their old army base to see the kids off, an idea is hatched to revive the show.
The Technicolor production is positively gargantuan; all the World War I scenes are epic, with what looks like the entire Warner backlot transformed into Main Street, USA, circa 1917, and all of the musical numbers are big and colorful. Reagan's not-insignificant role has him in a bind with girlfriend Joan Leslie: she wants to marry him right away but he wants to wait, having lost a friend to battle and seeing the impact of his death on the war widow and her fatherless baby.
The presentation is preceded by what's probably the longest and wimpiest disclaimer in the history of home video, apologizing for the film's minstrel number, thankfully retained. This is actually balanced by a (for-then) progressive and vaguely pro-integration number featuring black performers, including Sgt. Joe Louis. (Members of the cast and crew enlisted in the Armed Forces are billed with their rank.) Mostly though, This Is the Army is a faithful if all-star recreation of the original show, featuring a lot of actor-soldiers (including Ezra Stone, the Broadway production's director, later a prolific TV helmer) and talent one doesn't see in movies that often, including singers Kate Smith and Frances Langford.
Though its title suggests a Doris Day-Gordon MacRae musical, in fact The Hasty Heart is an adaptation of John Patrick's (The Teahouse of the August Moon) reasonably successful Broadway play, suggested by his years in Burma during the war. The play was adapted by Ranald MacDougall (Mildred Pierce), and filmed in Britain with a British and American crew, including American director Vincent Sherman.
Reagan plays "Yank," one of a half-dozen patients in a jungle hospital at the tail end of the war. Their nurse, Canadian Sister Margaret Parker (Patricia Neal), informs Yank and the other patients - Tommy (Howard Marion-Crawford), Kiwi (Ralph Michael), Digger (John Sherman), and Blossom (Orlando Martins) - that their newest arrival, Cpl. Lachlan "Lachie" MacLachlan (Richard Todd), has not been informed of his terminal illness. Though an operation to remove one of his kidneys was successful, during the procedure a defect was discovered in the surviving kidney; Lachie will be dead within a few weeks.
Yank and the others bend over backwards to make Lachie's last days as pleasant as possible, but the abrasive, misanthropic Scotsman curtly rejects every kindness. He's so rude toward the others, including Sister Margaret that everyone's patience is taken to the breaking point.
Though stagy, The Hasty Heart is a fairly effective piece and the three leads, including Reagan, are fine. The screenplay plays up both army and national stereotypes to the point of annoyance - a big subplot revolves around the ages-old question about Scotsman and their kilts - and Todd's Lachie speaks with an overemphatic Scottish burr. The dramatic conflict offers no surprises, playing out exactly as one might expect.
However, once Lachie finally lets some of his defenses down - he was a bastard child, dirt-poor, friendless - Todd's performance becomes genuinely moving. He's like an innocent little boy who after years of beatings meets the first real friends in his life and doesn't have the foggiest idea how to respond. His reactions with both the men and Sister Margaret are clumsy, child-like and believable.
Reagan, as the de facto ward spokesman, gives an amusing performance as the short-fused American (who, like Reagan himself, hails from Dixon, Illinois) driven batty by Lachie's antisocial behavior. An amusing running gag has Yank controlling his temper by closing his eyes and reciting the books of the Old Testament.
Storm Warning is a pleasant surprise, reminiscent of an earlier, hard-hitting Warner exposé, the terrific Black Legion (1937). Dress model Marsha Mitchell (Ginger Rogers) arrives in the small town of Rockpoint to visit her newly married kid sister, Lucy (Doris Day). However, fresh off the night bus she meets an unfriendly cabbie who refuses to drive her from the station, and when she tries walking the 10 blocks herself all the lights and businesses in town go dark. Just then, a mob of Klansman emerge from the local police station. As Marsha looks on helplessly from the shadows, the Klan's lynching gets out of hand and their victim is instead shot dead while trying to flee. When she finally reunites with Lucy, Marsha soon realizes that her sister's husband (Steve Cochran, a real slimeball here) is one of the Klansman. Ronald Reagan, second-billed after Rogers, plays the D.A. trying to bring the case to trial.
Co-written by Richard Brooks and featuring noirish cinematography by Carl E. Guthrie, the film is hard-hitting if peculiar, and the cast is much better than you'd think. Though an indictment of the Klan, the story's victim is a white newspaper reporter, and except for two extras in one shot, there are no blacks to be seen and no racism is expressed even indirectly by the Klan. The film is vaguely set in the south, but California palms are visible here and there, as the main location was Corona, a 90-minute drive east of Los Angeles. (That most of the picture, including interiors, was shot on location adds to its verisimilitude.) Conversely, other aspects of the Klan are authentically dramatized, including like Black Legion the notion of its leaders getting rich off the dumb rubes suckered into buying memberships and varied white-sheet sundries. Racial disharmony was really on the back-burner at the time the film was made; the Civil Rights revolution didn't kick into gear until the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, four years later, so in that sense Storm Warning, for all its faults, was a little bit ahead of its time.
Lauren Bacall was supposed to play the lead, but she opted to join husband Humphrey Bogart on location for The African Queen. Rogers is a bit too old to make a convincing model, but visually she's a good match with Day, and her performance is excellent, particularly an early scene where she stares down Cochran's husband - the steely-eyed contempt in Rogers's eyes is palpable.
The film is under-appreciated, possibly due to the irony that such a left-leaning film stars three of Hollywood's staunchest conservatives, two of whom were "friendly witnesses" on behalf of HUAC and Hollywood's blacklist. (On the other hand, at least two in the cast, Lloyd Gough and Ned Glass, were blacklist victims soon after).
Obviously inspired by The Statton Story (1949), directed by Kings Row's Sam Wood, The Winning Team plays like a half-baked remake. The story of telephone company lineman-turned-Major League pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander (Reagan, billed second), the film's center is Alexander's relationship with sweetheart Aimee (Doris Day, doing June Allyson).
Alexander is sidelined by an injury that causes double vision and vertigo, and which eventually leads to alcoholism and (unnamed) epileptic seizures for the despondent player. (Between 1911 and 1930, Alexander played for the Cubs, Phillies, and Cardinals.) As with The Jolson Story (1946), the hugely successful but outrageously false biopic that put the genre into overdrive for the next dozen or so years, The Winning Team plays fast and loose with the facts, glossing over Alexander's darkest final days in search of an inspiring, feel-good ending.
Day shows her growing range as a dramatic actress; it's really a shame that her later career was dominated by throwaway romantic comedies. Reagan, however, is really out of his element. He excelled playing dapper and breezy playboys and inspiring, gregarious team players, but he's almost never good in roles that require him to express anger, bitterness, or other anti-social behavior. Whatever his faults as a politician, as a film personality the nice guy clearly dominates.
Video & Audio
Neatly packed in a single case the size of a VHS cassette, each film in the Ronald Reagan Centennial Collection gets its own single-sided disc; no doubling up here. The full-frame transfers range from good to excellent, with The Hasty Heart coming off worst, though even that's perfectly fine. This Is the Army, the only color film, shows some matrix misalignment throughout, but this is pretty much limited to dissolves and other process shots rather than straight cuts. That title also includes a (long) overture and exit music. The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono audio is fine throughout as well; SDH English subtitles are included, along with French and Spanish ones (with the exception of This Is the Army, which has English and French subtitles only. The discs are region 1 encoded.
Supplements are identical to each title's previous release; Storm Warning and The Winning Team have only trailers, but the other titles are packed with short subjects, featurettes, radio adaptations, and in the case of Dark Victory, This Is the Army, and The Hasty Heart, audio commentaries.
Though Warner Home Video could have used a lot more imagination in repackaging these movies and should have included a few heretofore unreleased titles, what's included is definitely worth seeing and the set worth buying if you don't own these movies already. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.