on August 19, 2006
There are those who write off Ronald Reagan's acting talent as minimal, and his Hollywood career as a long list of 'B' movies, like "Bedtime for Bonzo". Nothing could be further from the truth, and "Ronald Reagan - The Signature Collection" offers the future President in movie roles that display his charisma, charm, intensity, and integrity, over a 14-year span. The choices made are all exceptional, and certainly worth watching (The only reason I don't give the collection 'five stars' is the lack of commentaries for any of the features other than "The Hasty Heart"; certainly, "Knute Rockne" and "King's Row" deserve them!)
The titles include:
"Knute Rockne All American" (1940) - Lloyd Bacon's sentimental, rousing biopic of the legendary Notre Dame coach became the signature role in Pat O'Brien's long career, and launched Reagan to stardom (with only ten minutes of screen time!) With script and actor approval, both Notre Dame and Rockne's widow, Bonnie Skiles Rockne, made casting difficult (James Cagney, the first choice for the lead, was nixed by the Catholic university for his liberal political stands), but O'Brien, a gifted mimic, could match the coach's staccato vocal delivery flawlessly, and with bleached hair and a false nose, made a convincing Rockne.
Reagan actually 'tested' for the role of George Gipp (Dennis Morgan was his major competition), and his natural athletic ability and likable cockiness won him the role. His 'dying' scene with O'Brien would become the stuff of legend, introducing the phrase "Win One for the Gipper" into the national consciousness.
While the film has glitches (the studio football uniforms don't match the actual game footage ones), and Rockne is incorrectly credited as 'inventing' the forward pass (it had been legal since 1906; his contribution was in using it as the major offensive weapon), the film, and the famous school fight song, have become a genuine part of our heritage!
"Kings Row" (1942) - Reagan's favorite film, and finest performance, in Sam Wood's moving production of Henry Bellamann's 'unfilmable' novel. Much as "Peyton Place" would cause an uproar, a generation later, "Kings Row", a thinly-disguised version of Fulton, Missouri, Bellamann's home, exposed the seamy underbelly of respectability, with incest, rape, medical incompetence, and malicious gossip...little of which would reach the screen. What did, however, made for great melodrama, with a starring cast of some of Warner's best young actors.
While Tyrone Power was the original choice for Parris Mitchell, with Dennis Morgan as Drake McHugh, Darryl F. Zanuck, remembering MGM's less-than-stellar treatment of Power during the filming of "Marie Antoinette", refused to 'lend' him to WB, and the studio went with Robert (later 'Bob') Cummings as the idealistic young doctor. Reagan, who had seen the script, knew he'd be perfect as McHugh (the likable wastrel who would lose his legs, and nearly his soul), and lobbied hard for the role; his instincts proved correct, as he was unforgettable, with incredible chemistry with both Cummings and Ann Sheridan (unforgettable as Randy Monaghan, the love from the 'Wrong Side of the Tracks').
While Cummings' character is 'too good to be true', and his dialog, a bit stilted, Reagan and Sheridan, with a supporting cast including Claude Rains, Charles Coburn, and Judith Anderson, make the film a classic...featuring a spectacular score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
"The Hasty Heart" (1949) - The finest of Reagan's post-WWII WB films, this Vincent Sherman-directed drama, based on a modestly-successful Broadway play, tells the story of a British M.A.S.H. in Burma, as the Japanese surrender, and the patients (led by likable 'Yank', played by Reagan) await transportation home. A new patient arrives (Richard Todd), a Scot wounded that last day, bitter about his situation, and in store for even worse news...he has only weeks, maybe just days to live. Under the care of nurse Patricia Neal, Reagan, and the other patients, Todd must come out of his shell, learn to accept his fate, and find redemption.
The often somber, yet moving tale, filmed in England, benefited greatly by 'discovery' Todd, who was brilliant in the central role, and would achieve stardom. Both Reagan, who had just been divorced by Jane Wyman, and Neal, separated from her love, Gary Cooper, while unhappy about working overseas, would match Todd's performance, and garner some of their best reviews.
The film was a hit (especially in England), and certainly discredits the claim that Reagan's career was 'finished' when the war ended!
"Storm Warning" (1951) - In, essentially, the kind of 'topical' crime film that WB specialized in, back in the 1930s, this drama of the vise-like grip the KKK has on a small town after a reporter is murdered, has terrific elements of Noir, and some genuine suspense, until the predictable climax.
Model Ginger Rogers (in a role intended for Lauren Bacall), in town to visit pregnant sister Doris Day, witnesses the Klan killing (in a frightening scene of building lights going out, and deserted streets), but discovers the killer is her brother-in-law (played with ignorant malice by Steve Cochran). Despite the earnest pleas of prosecutor Reagan, she refuses to identify the killer, and even recants a statement that the Klan was involved.
But things begin to unravel, as Cochran attempts to rape Rogers, and the Klan bull whips her (both depicted pretty graphically for a 1951 movie!) Can Reagan save her from the KKK? Are you kidding? This is the man who defeated Communism!
Reagan's role is decidedly secondary, and the studio 'cops out' a bit, in ultimately placing the blame on the greedy Klan leader (Hugh Sanders), rather than the organization, but the film does have it's share of great moments...
"The Winning Team" (1952) - In his last film at WB, Reagan was again teamed with Doris Day, in this glossy biopic of early baseball legend, Grover Cleveland Alexander.
The real Alexander's life was the stuff a great movie could be made from; beaned by a baseball, his head injury was aggravated during WWI, resulting in epilepsy and acute alcoholism. Despite all this, he'd make a comeback, becoming the hero of the 1926 World Series, and one of the first inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Sadly, much of his later life would be tragic (dying in a flop house, in 1950), but this being the 50s, expect the edges smoothed over, and a happy ending!
Reagan is actually very good as Alexander (if the oldest-looking 'rookie' since Redford in "The Natural"), as he captures both the pitcher's love of the game, and self-destructiveness that would wear him down. Even better is Day, as his loyal wife; their scenes together have a remarkable warmth and depth, and she captures the real Aimee Alexander's devotion to her ailing husband (she would actually marry him three times!)
With a terrific supporting performance by the wonderful Frank Lovejoy (as Rogers Hornsby), "The Winning Team" may not be the most accurate baseball movie, but it is one of the more entertaining ones!