Sunday, November 02, 2008

SALUTING THE LIFE & LEGACY OF RONALD REAGAN: Part I

“He took an America suffering from 'malaise'... and made its citizens believe again in their
destiny.”

- Edwin Feulner, President of the Heritage Foundation


It is a fair assessment that were it not for Ronald Wilson Reagan’s other career as commander and chief his film legacy might have gone largely unnoticed in the annals of Hollywood history.

For although Ronald Reagan was an amiable leading man during Hollywood’s golden age, who occasionally displayed the hallmarks of an exceptional acting prowess, and, in some very important starring roles in A-list movies (Knute Rockne: All American, The Winning Team, Kings Row The Hasty Heart and Storm Warning among them), Reagan’s tenure in films was made brief by studio shortsightedness -more so than from a general lack of either talent or will to succeed.

Realistically, today Ronald Reagan is readily remembered as the beloved 40th President of the United States; an inspired leader with an indomitable ‘can-do’ spirit: and this is as it should be.

What made the Reagan Presidency so indelible was that Reagan’s causes seemed to intently focus on the plight of each and every American. Even Reagan’s most ardent detractors in the political arena were, at one time or another genuinely moved into offering a kind word or even impassioned praise after one of his moving speeches.

Reagan’s politics crossed party lines. It inspired. It instilled a sense of value, not only in the office of the President, but in the country’s self worth and image and its’ importance as a progressive super power on the world stage. Reagan’s America was all about pride.

In recent months, the media has resurrected many a Reagan-ism to brighten the hour of the latest race for the White House. Growing up, I recall how we all looked forward with waited anticipation to the nuggets of wisdom from Ronald Reagan.


These nuggets often took on the form of a story conveyed with a wit, charm, an actor’s gift for memorization and a healthy dose of frank honesty; lengthy excursions perhaps, though never anything less than thoroughly engrossing to listen to.

Almost from his inaugural in 1981, Reagan’s presidency had momentum, optimism, prominence and distinction. Reagan’s was the personification of hard-headed determinism married to an imperishable and alluring sway – hypnotic and thoroughly beguiling. Reagan’s rapport with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher remains one of the all time great Anglo-American alliances of the 20th century.
While many of Reagan’s predecessors had adopted various façades to meet the changing political landscape they oversaw, Ronald Reagan engaged each new challenge with only one face; open, accepting, friendly, even tolerant of the media’s scrutiny and ridicule; yet granite-like and firm when pushed to reconsider any of the ideals he held strongly.

Reagan was not a sentimentalist, though at times when America needed to let its collective hair down – as in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster – Reagan could move his audience to the brink of a good heartfelt cry and then, just as easily, rally his people to stirring calls of cheer and a look to the future – with a wink, a smile and his personal renewal of a promise made and as yet unfulfilled; that America’s best days lay ahead of her.

In our memory then, Ronald Reagan has not aged. It is, of course, an illusion of the mind, for the man is no more. But Reagan gave us the impression that the sun would never entirely set on his time. Arguably, it never has. He remains one of the distinctly American, truly iconic figures of the 20th century; ensconced in our collective hearts and minds as eternal.

Hence, we have to remind ourselves that Ronald Reagan is gone. For in his thought, word and deed, Ronald Wilson Reagan left behind much more than a Presidential legacy. He gave American back its dream; a blueprint for the prosperity of a nation. While he lived, he provided guidance and wisdom in ample doses of Teflon-coated ideology. He stood tall and proud; and in the years since his presidency it is this seemingly intangible legacy of intrinsic values that remains the primary reason why Ronald Reagan – the man – endures.



LET’S START AT THE BEGINNING…

“Democracy is worth dying for because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man.”

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Wilson Reagan was born above a bank in Tampico, Illinois on February 6, 1911. Reagan's father Jack nicknamed him ‘Dutch’ in reference to his ‘fat little Dutchman-like appearance. In his youth, Reagan's family briefly lived in Monmouth, Galesburg and Chicago; though it was the family’s move to Dixon that made the most lasting impression on young Reagan.

At Dixon High School, Reagan indulged in acting and sports; acquiring a job as a lifeguard at Lowell Park in 1926. After high school, Reagan attended Eureka College where he majored in economics and sociology and also played football.


In 1932, Reagan landed his first job as a small town radio broadcaster for the University of Iowa football games; rating $10 per game. A full time staff announcer's job at WOC radio station in Davenport hiked his pay to $100 a month. But in 1937, while traveling to cover a football game in California, Reagan took a screen test that instantly led to his being offered a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers.

His first screen credit was the starring role in the undistinguished Love Is on the Air (1937). Though studio president, Jack L. Warner had a lot of faith in his new acquisition, Reagan’s early tenure at the studio was largely forgettable. He was unaccredited as a radio announcer in Hollywood Hotel (1937).

On April 29th of that same year, Reagan completed a home-study Army Extension Course and enlisted in the Reserves. He was assigned as a private to Troop B, 322nd Cavalry at Des Moines, Iowa, then appointed Second Lieutenant in the Officers’ Reserve Corps on May 25, and later assigned to the 323rd Cavalry on June 18th.
Warner Bros. recalled Reagan to their stable to star in one of the worst movies ever produced at the studio; 1938’s Swing Your Lady – a backwoods hillbilly musical that ironically also featured Humphrey Bogart. 1938 distinguished itself in another way for Reagan. On the set of Brother Rat, Reagan fell in love with his costar Jane Wyman.

Fan magazines dubbed it a love match and Reagan next appeared in support of Bette Davis in Dark Victory, a considerable effort in which he played Alec Hamm; a drunken ever-faithful friend to Davis’ Judith Traherne. In 1940, Reagan had his best role to date as ill-stricken George Gipp in Knute Rockne: All American. To inaugurate the year, Reagan married Wyman on January 26, 1940.

Reagan’s first attempt at functioning as something more than an actor within the Hollywood social structure came in 1941 when he was elected to the Board of Directors of the Screen Actor’s Guild as an alternate. That same year, Reagan’s eldest daughter Maureen was born.

As the war in Europe heated up, Reagan was ordered to active duty on April 18, 1942. Unfortunately, his nearsightedness classified him for limited service at Fort Mason, California as a liaison officer of the Port and Transportation Office.

Upon approval from the Army Air Force, Reagan was assigned Public Relations duties in the First Motion Picture Unit in Culver City, California. The move afforded Reagan the opportunity to serve his country while he continued making movies for his Hollywood bosses.

By far, Reagan’s most gripping performance to date came in Kings Row (1942); a poignantly dark and brooding melodrama about small town hypocrisy. He plays wealthy playboy, Drake McHugh, whose affair with Louise Gordon (Nancy Coleman) is objected to by her father; the sadist/Doctor Henry Gordon (Charles Coburn).

After Drake’s fortunes are liquidated, Drake falls on the mercy of his longtime friend, Randy Monaghan (Ann Sheridan); a poor girl who, with the help of her father, gets Drake a job working the railroad. As a quiet understanding and, later, romance develops between Randy and Drake, Louise falls into a deep state of melancholy.

An unfortunate accident leads to the summoning of Doctor Gordon to tend to Drake’s wounds. However, presuming that his own daughter could never love an invalid, Gordon deliberately and needlessly amputates both of Drake’s legs – sending him into an immediate and deepening depression.


Reagan always considered his performance in Kings Row to be his finest and reflected viewing of this film certainly bears out his assessment. There is a startling clarity to Drake’s transformation from amiable man about town to dissolute recluse; the resurrection of his spirit at the end of the film, with the aid of friend Parris Mitchell (Robert Cummings), in hindsight, a rousing glimpse into the eternally optimistic spirit Reagan would bring to his future calling in the political arena.

For now, Reagan contented himself with a series of forgettable roles in subsequent Warner product. A bright spot was his casting as Johnny Jones in Irving Berlin’s blindingly all-star tribute to the Armed Forces; This Is The Army (1943). In January 1944, Captain Reagan was ordered to temporary duty in New York City; a tenure that lasted until he was reassigned to Fort MacArthur in California on December 9, 1945.

By war’s end, and despite his lack of active duty, Reagan could be proud of the fact that he had produced over 400 training films for the army. On the home front, the Reagan’s welcomed the prospect of a second child. It would be the last happy news for their marriage.

Reagan became the Screen Actor’s Guild’s (SAG) third Vice President in 1946 and its’ elected President in 1947. That same year however, a second daughter Christine was born and died on June 26, 1947. Although the stigma of this loss was slightly eased by the adoption of a son, Michael that same year (Michael was actually born in 1945) Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman divorced one year later on June 28, 1948.

During Reagan’s SAG tenure and following his divorce from Wyman, he threw himself into work almost entirely, overseeing and bringing about resolutions to labor-management disputes within the film industry and also contributing to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) hearings.

In 1949 Reagan delivered one of his best performances as the compassionate solider of war – ‘Yank’ in The Hasty Heart. Though this film was ultimately a showcase for Richard Todd, Reagan’s presence distinguished itself in a sentimental and memorable story.

The year was also marked by a most fortuitous chance meeting between Reagan and MGM contract actress Nancy Davis. She had been mistaken for another Nancy Davis who was suspected of being a communist. As such, her name had been added to the McCarthy blacklist.

In his role as SAG’s President, Reagan helped to resolve this snafu for Davis and the two became immediate friends. “I don’t know if it was love at first sight,” Nancy would later muse, “But it was pretty close.”

In March 1952, Nancy Davis became the second Mrs. Ronald Reagan.

The last two remarkable movies in Reagan’s tenure were 1951’s Storm Warning and 1952’s The Winning Team. In the former, Reagan plays a District Attorney investigating small town racial bigotry and debunking the presence of the KKK – responsible for the murder of a man on a public street. In the latter, Reagan was cast as legendary baseball player, Grover Cleveland Alexander opposite Doris Day.

In between these two films Regan made his one glaring blunder as an actor in the infamously bad Bedtime for Bonzo (1951); cast as a Professor who befriends a chimp. It is largely due to the legendary status of this misfire that Democrats were quick to judge Reagan’s film career in totem as that of a forgettable B-movie actor.

In response to the allegation, Reagan jokingly replied that in his day “…they (producers) didn't want them good, they wanted them Thursday”. However, behind the scenes Reagan often held a bit of regret that his tenure in Hollywood was never again to be taken seriously.

Although Reagan was an early critic of television, the medium proved to be very good for his career in more ways than one. He became the host of General Electric Theater; a weekly series that netted him the then plush salary of $125,000 per year in this role.

From 1964 to 1965 Reagan would have a reoccurring role in the popular western series; Death Valley Days. But it was another burgeoning side interest that, by the end of the decade, had begun to garner real purpose for Ronald Reagan.

...to be continued...

@Nick Zegarac 2008 (all rights reserved).