Asked by Bob Hope what it felt like to be president, Ronald Reagan replied, "it's not a lot different than being an actor, except I get to write the script." The leading man in that script was similar to many of the screen roles Reagan played during his Hollywood career - decent, optimistic, a bit of a square, a believer in God, family and country. As a recent book of the diaries Reagan kept as president shows, he was ever mindful of the Production Code, avoiding swear words, and writing "hell" as "h__l" and "damn" as "d___".
Born in 1911 to working class parents in Tampico, Illinois, Ronald Wilson Reagan had a typical Middle American childhood and youth, working as a lifeguard and playing football. As a student at Eureka College, he developed interests in both politics and acting, becoming a leader in a student strike against the school administration's plans for cutbacks, and joining the dramatic society. After graduation, he landed a job as a radio sportscaster in Des Moines, Iowa. During a trip to California to report on the Chicago Cubs spring training in 1937, Reagan was introduced to an agent, who got him a screen test at Warner Bros. His film career took off with unheard-of ease and speed. The studio immediately signed him to a seven-year contract, and just as quickly cast him as the lead in a B film, Love Is on the Air (1937). The role was not much of a stretch - he played a crime-solving radio announcer - and the trade papers called the newcomer "likeable," and "pleasing."
After that starring debut, the reality of being a studio contract player sank in, when Reagan played an unbilled bit in Hollywood Hotel (1937), and a barely-billed role as a sports reporter in Swing Your Lady (1938). He made eight films in 1938, going from leads in B pictures to smaller roles in A films. One of the best of the latter wasBrother Rat, which displayed Reagan's flair for light comedy, when he played a hell-raising cadet at a military academy. It was also his first film with Jane Wyman, whom he would marry in 1940.
1939 was more of the same for Reagan, eight films, a mixture of A pictures and B movies but higher on the ladder of both. Dark Victory, a superb Bette Davis melodrama in which she plays a rich girl dying of a brain tumor, was the most prestigious film he had appeared in to date. The fifth-billed Reagan plays one of Davis' beaux, a boozy playboy who never stands a chance with her. That same year saw Reagan playing second fiddle to the Dead End Kids in not one, but two films: Hell's Kitchen, and Angels Wash Their Faces, a follow-up to the film that had made the Kids famous, Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). James Cagney, who had co-starred in the latter with the bumptious Kids, advised Reagan how to handle them: "Just tell them that you look forward to working with them, but that you'll slap the hell out of them if they get out of line."
1939 also brought Reagan his own B-movie adventure series, Secret Service of the Air. He played Lt. Brass Bancroft, a pilot who joins the U.S. Secret Service. He churned out two more in the series that year, Code of the Secret Service and Smashing the Money Ring. The fourth and final film of the series was Murder in the Air (1940).
Reagan began 1940 by marrying Jane Wyman, with whom he'd been having a made-for the-fan-magazines courtship. Columnist Louella Parsons, who had announced their engagement, gave the wedding reception at her home. The couple would have two children, Maureen, born in 1941, and Michael, adopted in 1945. There was more to celebrate in 1940, as Reagan played one of his favorite roles, Notre Dame football legend George Gipp in Knute Rockne - All American. It was a role he campaigned for, even when Warners bosses told him he didn't look like a football player. Reagan tested for the role, and Pat O'Brien, who played Rockne, supported him by doing the test scene with him. Reagan would forever be identified with the role -- he was often referred to as "The Gipper" during his presidency, and the phrase, "Win one for the Gipper" became a national catchphrase. For the first time, Reagan got great reviews for his performance, and a major career boost. Reagan's other A film in 1940 was Santa Fe Trail, in which he played second lead, and lost the girl (Olivia de Havilland), to Errol Flynn.
Reagan's next important film was Kings Row (1942), considered by many to be his finest performance. Playing a happy-go-lucky young man whose life takes a tragic turn, Reagan won the best reviews of his career. Unfortunately, he could not take advantage of the buzz. The nation was at war, and as an Army reservist, he had to report for active duty in April of 1942. Before leaving, he had completed two other films,Juke Girl, a tough drama about migrant workers, and Desperate Journey, a rousing Yank-in-the-RAF adventure with Errol Flynn directed by Raoul Walsh. Soon he would be back in Hollywood, starring in and helping to produce training films and patriotic extravaganzas like This Is the Army (1943) for the duration of the war.
Like many returning veterans after the war, Reagan found that a lot had changed while he'd been serving his country. New stars had emerged to replace those who were serving in the military. His wife had become a major dramatic star, and had been nominated for an Oscar® while his own best chance of top-tier stardom had passed him by. One of Reagan's best films of the post-war period was one he did not want to make, One for the Book (1947), a sophisticated romantic comedy based on John Van Druten's play, The Voice of the Turtle. John Huston had offered him the part eventually played by Bruce Bennett in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), and it could have taken Reagan into character roles. But studio head Jack Warner refused to allow it, and insisted he do the Van Druten comedy instead. Reagan was fine in it, but his mind was on other matters.
By this time, the seemingly ideal Reagan-Wyman marriage had fallen apart, and the couple divorced in 1948. One of the reasons was said to be Reagan's growing involvement in politics. His movie career had led him into politics in the first place, when he became a member of the Screen Actors Guild board as a young contract player in 1938. Reagan had proved adept at bargaining and mediating. He had resigned from the board during his wartime service, but was reappointed when he returned from the war, and in 1947, he was elected SAG President, presiding over the union during five of its most turbulent years. That same year, he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Although he had been politically liberal before the war, he became concerned about what he saw as the communist threat in Hollywood, and his views shifted to the right.
Still under contract to Warner Bros., Reagan's film assignments decreased to only a few a year. John Loves Mary (1949) was another genial comedy about the romantic problems of a returning soldier. The Girl From Jones Beach (1949) was also a comedy about an illustrator of feminine pulchritude in the mold of Vargas or Petty. Night Unto Night (1949) was a murky psychological melodrama directed by Don Siegel which was intended to introduce a new Swedish star, Viveca Lindfors. What it lacked in coherence, it made up in moody atmosphere, thanks to superb cinematography and music, and in excellent performances by Reagan and Lindfors. Reagan spent four miserable months in war-deprived England making The Hasty Heart (1949). It was one of his best films, and he was very good in it, but the acting honors went to Richard Todd as a dying Scottish soldier.
Reagan's contract with Warner Bros. still had three years to run when he renegotiated a deal that would allow him to work for other studios while making one film a year for Warners. The quality of his remaining films varied, from the very good Storm Warning (1951), in which he battled the Ku Klux Klan, to the silly but entertaining Bedtime for Bonzo (1951), in which he played a professor babysitting a chimpanzee. One of the freelance films he chose was the timely Prisoner of War (1954), made at MGM, about the brainwashing of American POWs during the Korean War. An experienced horseman, Reagan also enjoyed making several westerns, including Cattle Queen of Montana (1954), with Barbara Stanwyck. He also found time for romance, marrying starlet Nancy Davis in 1952. The couple had two children, Patti and Ron Jr.
In 1954, Reagan became the host of the television anthology series, The General Electric Theater and a spokesman for the company. He had resigned as president of the Screen Actors Guild in 1952, but had remained on the board, and was elected to a second term as President in 1959, helping to settle a strike. He made his final feature film, Hellcats of the Navy in 1957, which co-starred his wife Nancy Davis. A made-for-television movie, The Killers (1964) was deemed too violent for TV, and was released as a feature, with Reagan playing an uncharacteristic role as a brutal gangster. It was an odd finale to a film career of one of the movies' quintessential nice guys.
Just two years later, the ex-actor was back, with one of the strongest second acts in American history, Reagan was elected Governor of California and served two terms. Then, in 1980, he was elected President of the United States. It was in politics that he found the fame and acclaim that had always eluded him in Hollywood. At last, Ronald Reagan was not just a star, but THE star. But he never disavowed his movie career, speaking fondly of his days as an actor, peppering his speeches with movie quotes, and frequently hosting his Hollywood friends at the White House. He died in 2004.
by Margarita Landazuri