To commemorate the centenary of a movie star-president, the Ronald Reagan Centennial Collection
serves up a patriotically packaged batch of films from Reagan's relatively brief movie-star prime. He was a second lead in good movies and leading man in lesser properties, and Reagan's athletic, corn-fed, and energetic persona in these movies foreshadows the qualities that voters would later see in the politician. The eight titles, previously available on DVD, are unlikely to convince anybody Reagan was a great actor, but you can see how he could embody an idea.
Reagan is a playboy in the ensemble surrounding queen bee Bette Davis in 1939's Dark Victory, which is by no stretch of the imagination a Reagan movie but which holds up nicely as a potent Davis weepie, in which she nails the role of a gadabout socialite struck by a serious illness. Reagan himself discovered the value of meeting a tragic fate in Knute Rockne, All-American, the 1940 biopic of Notre Dame's legendary football coach. Pat O'Brien has the title role in this boilerplate Hollywoodization, and although Reagan's part is small it is pivotal--and it would follow him for the rest of his life. He plays ill-fated Notre Dame player George Gipp, whose deathbed plea to Rockne--"Win just one for the Gipper"--became a national catchphrase. It's an efficient, cornball picture, and a fond childhood memory for anybody who encountered it at an early age.
Kings Row (1942) is consensus pick for Reagan's finest screen hour. A big, juicy, and really quite weird melodrama, the film cruises through the creepier side of small-town life, with Reagan in a very appealing groove. He plays the more rascally of the two male leads (Robert Cummings is the sensitive hero), a breezy charmer whose talent with the ladies gets him in trouble. The most lurid twist in the movie leads to Reagan's line "Where's the rest of me?" which became the title of his autobiography. An extremely entertaining movie, with director Sam Wood inestimably aided by James Wong Howe's lush cinematography and Erich Wolfgang Korngold's classic music score.
Raoul Walsh's Desperate Journey (1942) has Errol Flynn as the Aussie leader of a multinational bomber crew that crash-lands in Germany (where the Germans actually speak German) and must make its way across hostile territory to safety--a suspenseful setup that takes on an oddly joshing tone. Ronald Reagan plays a flippant US flyboy, and enjoys one of his best moments onscreen with an engaging scene of double talk.
In 1943's This Is the Army, Reagan is a GI named Johnny Jones, swept up in an all-star patriotic musical revue that serves as a marvelous showcase for a slew of Irving Berlin tunes (Berlin himself appears, singing "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning" in World War I garb). The film is no classic, but fans of the American songbook will not be disappointed. It was a huge hit, and has the distinction of featuring a future California senator (George Murphy) and governor (you know who).
Reagan's career cooled after the Second World War, and he plays a second lead in 1949's The Hasty Heart, an adaptation of a hit play. Set in a military hospital in Burma just after the war, the story hinges on a group of patients concealing a fatal prognosis from an ailing Scotsman (Richard Todd). The creaking of the play is all too apparent, although Todd's performance is expert. Patricia Neal, still new to movies, plays the nurse in charge. Reagan gets to display his photographic memory by reeling off the books of the Old Testament by rote. The commentary track for the film has the (possibly unique) feature of having the director, Vincent Sherman, begin weeping as he's talking about it.
Storm Warning (1951) is an effective but strange hybrid: part film noir, part socially conscious picture. Ginger Rogers witnesses a Ku Klux Klan killing as she's stopping off in a small town to visit younger sis Doris Day; Day's hubby Steve Cochran is one of the killers. In one of his best roles, a laid-back Reagan plays the uncompromising local district attorney. The film has some superb noir shots in it, but the exposé of the KKK is truly tame: although the word lynching is used, there's no racial angle to the movie at all. It's more like the Klan is a crime syndicate that needs to be cleaned up. In The Winning Team Reagan plays famed baseball pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander, whose struggles with illness and alcoholism form the spine of the tepid plot. Doris Day, now top-billed, costars as Alexander's supportive wife. The movie pays proper tribute to a legendary baseball moment: Alexander's heroic performance in the 1926 World Series. It's another win for the Gipper. --Robert Horton
8 IMPACTFUL MOVIES FROM THE MOVIE CAREER OF OUR FUTURE PRESIDENT. Dark Victory (1939) A young socialite is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and must decide whether she'll meet her final days with dignity. Bette Davis enjoyed one of her signature roles as a spoiled socialite facing terminal illness – with friend Reagan among those helping her toward a last chance to give her life meaning. • Run Time: 104 minutes Knute Rockne All-American (1940) “I’ve decided to take up coaching as my life work,” Knute Rockne says. Coach he does, revolutionizing football with his strategies, winning close to 90 percent of his games, and helping establish the University of Notre Dame’s “Fighting Irish” as a gridiron powerhouse. But victories alone do not mean success to Rockne. He wants to shape his players into responsible and honorable men. This famed sports biopic combines a passion for the game (and footage of actual Notre Dame contests) with two superb performances: Pat O’Brien in the title role and Ronald Reagan as George Gipp, the gifted but doomed halfback whose deathbed plea to “win one for the Gipper” remains one of cinema’s most memorable quotes. And for the rest of his life, Reagan would often be called the Gipper. • Run Time: 97 minutes Kings Row (1942) It’s a quaint turn-of-the-century small town with shady streets, swimming holes and the clip-clop of horse and buggy. But that peaceful exterior conceals human lives twisted by cruelty, murder and madness. Kings Row is one of Warner Bros.’ most distinguished productions, highlighted by an outstanding cast, haunting James Wong Howe cinematography and a somber, emotion-laden Erich Wolfgang Korngold score. Oomph Girl Ann Sheridan, Robert Cummings, Betty Field, Claude Rains and Charles Coburn give indelible performances – and Ronald Reagan’s portrayal of Drake, a cheerful ne’er-do-well shattered by tragedy, has been hailed as a career high. Nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Picture, Kings Row is a powerful American saga of dreams, despair and triumph. • Run Time: 127 minutes Desperate Journey (1942) When Flight Lt. Forbes and his crew are shot down after bombing their target, they discover valuable information about a hidden German aircraft factory that must get back to England. In their way across Germany, they try and cause as much damage as possible. Then, with the chasing Germans about to pounce, they come up with an ingenious plan to escape. Errol Flynn leads Reagan and other flyboys in a rousing wartime spirit-lifter. • Run Time: 98 minutes Irving Berlin’s This is the Army (1943) Irving Berlin’s beloved songs propel a Technicolor musical spectacular based on the hit stage revue with an all-GI cast plus Hollywood’s Reagan, George Murphy and Joan Leslie. • Run Time: 125 minutes The Hasty Heart (1949) Monsoons drench them. The sun scorches them. Still, the Allies fight doggedly through Burma in 1945. For easygoing Yank (Ronald Reagan) and hard-headed Lachie (Richard Todd), the road to victory ends at a jungle hospital. With the help of a devoted nurse (Patricia Neal), they face a new battle called recovery. The Hasty Heart playwright John Patrick drew from his own wartime service in a British ambulance unit. Vincent Sherman (The Hard Way, Mr. Skeffington) directs this sensitive adaptation sparked by the performance that ranks with Kings Row as among Reagan’s best. The future President wasn’t the only one to draw accolades. Todd won a 1949 Best Actor Oscar nomination and a Most Promising Newcomer Golden Globe Award as the valorous, wounded Scotsman who doesn’t know that his new fight is his last. • Run Time: 102 minutes Storm Warning (1951) A mob in hooded white robes. A man running for his life. Gunfire. In the South to visit her sister Lucy, Marsha Mitchell witnesses a Ku Klux Klan murder. Once safely with Lucy, Marsha relays the terror she has seen…then recognizes her sister’s brut