On this thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a new statue of President Reagan has been unveiled across from the Brandenburg Gate, where in 1987 he challenged Gorbachev to "tear down this wall". As I discussed on the radio yesterday, all the smart people thought the line was idiotic. Yet two years later the wall was indeed torn down. With that in mind, I thought for our movie date this week we'd spend some time with Ronald Reagan on the silver screen.
If I recall correctly the Left's dismissal of Reagan back in the pre-wall-toppling Eighties, it's that he was a third-rate B-movie ham of no consequence and simultaneously such an accomplished actor he was able to fool the American people into believing he was a real president rather than a mere cue-card reader for the military-industrial complex. These would appear at first glance to be somewhat inconsistent characterizations, but they can be reconciled if you have as exquisitely condescending a view of the American people as, say, Gore Vidal.
Phrases like "bit player" and "B-movie" get bandied about a lot by the Reagan disparagers, especially in Europe. But they're both terms with precise definitions, and they don't apply to most of his quarter-century in motion pictures. He was a B-movie actor for a couple of years - and why not? He was a sports announcer at WHO radio in Des Moines who talked his way into a screen test at Warner Brothers, not some trained stage actor from Broadway trying his luck on the coast.
Max Arnow at Warner's liked the natural ease and the smile as broad as a prairie sunrise (in repose the mouth was a little too small). The hair was a problem - close-cut with a center-parting - and they thought the name sounded sissy. But they replaced the former with a prototype pompadour and, after that, the name didn't seem so bad. With slight modifications, he kept the pompadour right to the end.
They cast the radio announcer as a radio announcer. In Love Is on the Air (1937), he uses his microphone to take on the corrupt city government and finds himself downgraded to kiddie-show host. But he fights back, comes through and gets the girl (June Travis). Reagan's best B-movies are the peppy, pulpy quartet he made in 1939-40 as Brass Bancroft, Secret Service agent. He remains the only fictional Secret Service agent to wind up with his own detail of real Secret Service agents. Very cool. But the character's fun in his own right, too.
That same year, he got upgraded to a top-rank A-picture - Bette Davis's Niagara of a weepie, Dark Victory. Reagan plays Alec, a dissolute playboy. You know he's dissolute because he wobbles whenever he's standing up. Young Ron isn't really cut out to play a Long Island wastrel rich kid who's permanently blotto; he has the whiff of the heartland about him - too boyish and good-natured: "Mr Norm", as he once described himself in a movie-mag interview. But he gets a couple of good scenes. There's one marvelous moment in a nightclub just after Judy (Miss Davis) has learned she's dying: it's four in the morning, and she and Alec are sitting at the bar, smoking and chugging cocktails. Davis's performance in the movie is note-perfect: it's her show and Reagan knows not to get in the way. The gal singer has just done a rather pointed number called "Give Me Time". "Time, Alec," says Judy. "D'you ever think about that? It goes, Alec. That's the business of time. Tick tick tick... Before you know it, it's gone. Then where are we, my friend?"
"High and dry," says Alec.
What's unusual is how Reagan underplays the scene. I don't mean he does the decent-old-stick act of George Brent, to whom Reagan loses Miss Davis. Brent was her leading man in eleven pictures, and the only way you can tell the performances apart is that in half of them he's got a mustache and in the other half he hasn't.
Davis observed cryptically that Brent had "an excitement he was rarely in the mood to transfer to the screen". Reagan isn't dull; he's minimalist and modern. By comparison, Humphrey Bogart's chippy Irish stable boy, complete with extravagant brogue, is faintly preposterous. You can certainly make the claim that Reagan's is the best male performance in the picture.
He could emote in the right circumstances, usually from his death bed or sick bed, imploring the old team to "win one for the Gipper" in Knute Rockne, All-American (1940) and roaring "Where's the rest of me?" in King's Row (1941), after coming out of anesthetic to discover his legs have been amputated. But, when it came to romance, he chose not to lay it on too thick, and that eventually stalled his rise and shunted him into best-pal roles.
That said, unlike most other Warner's players, he was at home in anything - comedy, melodrama, war pictures, horse operas. And close your eyes next time a Reagan movie comes on: even when he doesn't look right, his line readings are bang on; he was just superb at dialogue.
After King's Row, he joined up - he wasn't in combat, as his critics never fail to point out (poor eyesight), but he was in the service. And, though he returned four years later, the big pictures never quite did. Reagan got middle-aged early, and nobody seemed to know what to do with a jowly "Mr Norm" with a big crease between his eyes. Bedtime For Bonzo (1951) is unfairly maligned: as chimp movies go, Reagan does a better job than Cary Grant does in Monkey Business or than Clint Eastwood did in the Seventies. And, as he said, "Bedtime For Bonzo made more sense than what they're doing in Washington."
Afterwards came Hellcats of the Navy (1957), his only film with Nancy. Whatever the intensity of their off-screen love affair, there's not a lot of evidence for it on-. In their couple of scenes together, even as he's explaining why he's so tortured with guilt he can never marry her, they look like a contented small-town couple heading for a night out at the local Rotary Club. Seven years later, in Don Siegel's The Killers, he played his first villain. The guy's problem is that his moll is getting a little too pally with one of the underlings. And that's how Ronald Reagan ended his movie career - slapping around Angie Dickinson.
It's a great performance, but by the time it came out he was stumping the country for Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign.
He was a natural actor who lacked only a natural role. And eventually he found one - to the surprise of his old bosses. On being informed Reagan was running for governor of California, Jack Warner is said to have replied, "No. Bob Cummings for governor. Ronald Reagan as his best friend."
But the supporting-role days were over. He didn't get it quite right at first. In his political appearances on TV in the mid-Sixties, he's too severe, as if he's trying to make us forget he was an amiable Hollywood leading man. Within a few years, he'd somehow yoked the conservatism to all the light charm and ease he had in Love Is on the Air and Boy Meets Girl, and the Reagan political persona was born.
I wish there'd been one last film. Late in his second term, he said he was contemplating a return to the movies now that Roger Moore was retiring as James Bond ...but he thought he was a little young for the role. There's something very appealing about Reagan in pictures - an average joe who's holding his own with Doris Day, Barbara Stanwyck and even Susan Hayward (Girls On Probation). And compared with the self-regarding solemnity of Barbra Streisand & Co, Reagan did a better job of bridging his two interests than most current celebrities. And so "Mr Norm" in the flickers became an extraordinary figure off-camera, bringing down the curtain on Communism: from Bedtime For Bonzo to bedtime for Bolsheviks. Can't beat that.
~For more on Ronald Reagan, see Mark's essay "Dutch Courage" in his book The [Un]documented Mark Steyn, personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available from the SteynOnline bookstore.
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