The reports and books that were timed with Reagan’s 100th birthday last February tended to mention the Hollywood years as a mere afterthought. Moreover, most Reagan biographers typically focus on the more well-known movies such as “Kings Row and “Knute Rockne.”
But there are several films worth revisiting that have gone largely unheralded. At a time when Reagan has earned high marks from historians and academics for his time in office, the caricature of him as just a B actor persists. But Reagan’s uncommon human touch and affable
personality are on full display in films that are worth revisiting.
Furthermore, his conversion from New Deal liberalism over to Goldwater conservatism is directly tied in with Reagan’s Hollywood years. And, as Gorbachev learned during their summit meetings, Reagan could be a tenacious, shrew negotiator; a skill that can be traced back to his time as head of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) union.
The steel behind the congenial smile was forged during some of the more intense altercations with Hollywood communists intent on taking over the union and organizing the film industry. “Thugs” attached to the “red-dominated” Conference of Studio Unions were significant players here, Kengor informs readers in his book. They went after Reagan personally and even threatened to throw acid on his face. Reagan began to carry a gun for his own personal safety and did not give any quarter.
Another forgotten film that captures some of the toughness that later found expression in the political arena is "Storm Warning" (1951). Here, Reagan plays the part of a district attorney investigating a murder involving the Klu Klux Klan in a small southern town called Rockpoint. The film co-stars Ginger Rogers and Doris Day as sisters. When the Rodgers character arrives in town, she observes hooded Klansmen break into a jail to apprehend and murder a journalist who was framed on trumped up charges after exposing the activities in town.
Rodgers later recognizes her sister’s husband as one of the Klansman. She is pressured to remain silent and declines to tell full truth in court. Eventually Rodgers decides to come clean and confess to Burt Rainey, the DA played by Reagan.
Rodgers and Day are both kidnapped by the Klan. The film ends with Reagan’s DA and the police breaking up a KKK rally. The culprits are arrested, but Day’s character dies after she is shot by her husband.
The 1951 trailer captures the overall storyline including a clip with the skeptical, hard-nosed DA Reagan played as he squares off against the Klan in a bowling alley.
Once again, Reagan turns in a strong performance as a supporting character that emerges in the middle of action and assumes a greater importance as the film moves toward its climax.
Day and Reagan would co-star together again in "The Winning Team" (1952). Reagan played the part of Grover Cleveland Alexander, a hall of fame major league pitcher who struggled against alcoholism, epilepsy and myopia (double-vision). Alexander pitched for the
Philadelphia Phillies, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs.
With the help and encouragement of his wife, played by Day, Reagan’s character perseveres through career setbacks and bouts of depression. There is a genuine chemistry between Reagan and Day on screen, and some important life lessons mixed in with the drama on the pitching mound.
The opening sequence of the film shows Reagan’s Alexander allowing his ambition for baseball to get the better of him when he had planned on meeting up with his future wife, Aimee. Despite their marital strains, Aimee develops an understanding for her husband’s condition and is instrumental in his recovery. In the end, Alexander leads the Cardinals to victory over the Yankees in the 1926 World Series.
Some of key themes explored in "The Winning Team" frequently find expression in the political arena. The most successful presidents are the ones who endured through great difficulty and absorbed political setbacks. The character's namesake in the film, President Grover Cleveland Alexander is the only president who served two non-consecutive terms. Alexander lost his first re-election bid, despite winning the popular vote, but ran again and won.
Reagan lost the 1976 Republican nomination to incumbent President Gerald Ford, but came back four years later to the White House. Reagan also endured the "Iran-Contra" affair to bring closure to the Cold War. Like the pitcher he played on film, Reagan stepped out of public life in 1988 at the top his game. At the time he was first president since Dwight Eisenhower to successfully complete two terms.
The films provide insight into Reagan's infectious personality that was key to his political success. They are worth revisiting as the Reagan Presidency passes into history with high marks from academics and scholars from across the political spectrum.
Some important Ronald Reagan links to consider his acting legacy:
Reagan's Film Career
A Summary of his Finest Films
Reagan at PBS
Reagan and Hollywood