Mr. Appellate Judge Dave Ryan, tear down this wall!
"Tell them to go out there with all they've got, and win just one for the Gipper."
Ronald Reagan, a handsome Irish kid from Dixon, Illinois, was a successful actor in the Forties and Fifties, appearing in multiple films, predominantly for Warner Bros., over a productive career. He retired from showbiz after a stint hosting television's Death Valley Days in the Sixties. He died in 2004 of complications of Alzheimer's Disease.
Oh yeah—he was president for a while, too.
This box set from Warner Bros. collects five of Reagan's films together in one package. As a cross-section of Reagan's Warner work, the set gives a pretty clear view of the sort of career Reagan had in cinema. He was an actor of decent, if not spectacular, talent, but most of the time he was cast for his geniality and looks and not for his acting skill. As such, he did a lot of…well, a lot of crap. (Pardon my French.) Thankfully this set spares us the worst of the B-movies Reagan appeared in, but it's not exactly chock full of Godfather-level material. But given Reagan's historical significance, it's definitely an interesting glimpse into the first (and somewhat less important) phase of his life.
Facts of the Case
Knute Rockne All American (1940)
Rockne becomes head coach of the team in 1918. By the time of his death in 1930 in a plane crash, Rockne had become the most famous and most successful football coach in history. Along the way, he coached and molded several Notre Dame legends, including the university's first All-American player, George Gipp (Reagan). Gipp's death from pneumonia in 1920 became a touchstone for the team when Rockne, facing defeat at the hands of the mighty Army team, recounted Gipp's dying request (probably made up by Rockne, in all truth) to have him tell the team to "win one for the Gipper" when the chips were down.
Kings Row (1942)
The Hasty Heart (1949)
Storm Warning (1951)
The Winning Team (1952)
• Knute Rockne All American
Yes, Ronald Reagan is in this film for only about ten minutes, so it's hardly a "Ronald Reagan" film. But it's a memorable ten minutes that gave Reagan his "Gipper" nickname—and any Reagan collection is going to include it. Reagan had been working in Hollywood for only three years when he landed this role—a coup for his young career. Rockne was an immensely popular figure; his screen biography was sure to be a huge hit. Sure enough, the film lifted Reagan out of the relative obscurity he had been in, leading to better, A-list roles—such as his part in Kings Row. But more on that anon.
Knute Rockne All American is really Pat O'Brien's film. It's also a bit anachronistic in style, even for its era; a lingering relic of Thirties cinema. It has the rapid-fire dialogue style of an early James Cagney film (or a Nick & Nora Charles film), and the static framing of a silent film. Scenes are short and to the point; acting is more along the lines of stage drama (i.e. fairly unsubtle). To modern eyes, the film will seem hokey and forced. The fact that it's somewhat preachy and patriotic, and absolutely adoring of its subject (after watching the film, I'm surprised Rockne hasn't been canonized yet), doesn't help. Yet it's still a highly entertaining film. Today we view it as formulaic mainly because so many sports films have subsequently followed its pattern.
O'Brien's performance is strong—strong enough that you voluntarily overlook the fact that the balding 40-year-old is playing the 24-year-old freshman Rockne without any makeup, which looks fairly ridiculous. When called upon to make the Big Speech (which he does several times in the film), O'Brien is commanding and visceral. (He probably would have made a good football coach in real life.) His style is very much like that of Cagney, with whom he appeared in several films. The rest of the cast is almost superfluous (including Reagan). This could almost be a one-man Broadway play. But for the fact that all these people existed, and were important parts of Rockne's life, they probably wouldn't have been included at all. About the only interesting thing in the casting department is the inclusion of famous coaches Glenn "Pop" Warner (Pitt, Stanford), Amos Alonzo Stagg (U. of Chicago), Bill Spaulding (UCLA), and Howard Jones (Iowa, USC) as themselves.
As far as the film's content goes, I don't know how much of this history is accurate. Some of the football history is clearly inaccurate: the film seems to imply that the Notre Dame team Rockne played on was the first team ever to use the forward pass, which is incorrect. It is true, however, that Coach Rockne was one of the main forces in popularizing its use. Rockne, as noted above, comes off as almost a saint, which is probably pouring on a bit thick. But I do think that Rockne was probably a pretty decent person, just because so many of his players and students (he taught chemistry at Notre Dame for a spell) spoke so highly of him. Therefore, this glossy biography probably isn't totally undeserved. His coaching ability is unquestioned; in fact, many of his players went on to highly successful coaching careers of their own. The film has a strong patriotic tone as well, emphasizing the role of sports in keeping our youth from being "soft," and the value of hard work and discipline. Plus, but for Rockne's untimely death, it's quite a feel-good story: young immigrant boy rises to national fame as a football coach. This is no surprise—it's exactly the sort of message that viewers in 1940, buffeted by both the Depression and the spectre of imminent war, would desire.
Picture quality on the transfer is acceptable. There's a good deal of flicker in the contrast, betraying the apparent age and relatively poor quality of the print from which the transfer was taken. However, while not spectacular, it's adequate for the job. Sound is the original mono track, which is clear and distortion-free. As with other similar Warner titles, a short film (in this case, the Teddy Roosevelt mini-biography Teddy, The Rough Rider) and a cartoon are provided, to allow you to recreate a Saturday matinée feeling in your living room. More substantially, an audio-only recording of the Lux Radio Theater's version of the film, with O'Brien and Reagan (and hosted by none other than Cecil B. de Mille), is provided in its entirety (albeit without any sort of visual presentation—the menu screen remains throughout the performance). This does concatenate the screenplay into an hour's worth of drama, but other than that, it's basically the same material as the film. (The other significant difference is the casting of King Kong's Fay Wray as Rockne's wife Bonnie, replacing the film's Gale Page.) Of the lot, the Porky Pig cartoon is probably the best extra, but they're all decent.
This is the second time I've watched Knute Rockne All American in my life. The first time, in 1993, I watched it with Ronald Reagan. (I was an intern in Reagan's Century City office while I was in law school.) Reagan was in his early eighties at the time, increasingly suffering the effects of Alzheimer's Disease. (We all knew—we didn't need doctors to tell us.) But whenever you got him talking about movies or Hollywood, he'd light up, and you'd get a glimpse of what the 29-year-old Reagan must have been like. This was one of those times. Yes, he did take a little nap and miss his big deathbed scene—the man was 80+ at the time, after all. He didn't miss his chance to sing along with the Notre Dame fight song, though. (And he knew every word…) He also spoke a lot about Pat O'Brien, whom he said was a stand-up guy and a good actor.
But really, the subject matter of Reagan's chit-chat wasn't important—what was important was how charming and charismatic he became when engaging in it. Reagan was, above all, a really likable guy. That personable nature was Reagan's greatest strength as an actor, too. He wasn't an incredible acting "talent," like a Pacino or a Brando, by any stretch of the imagination. He was a handsome guy who exuded charisma, and who brought a lot of his own personality to the roles he took. All of the films in this collection are good examples of this. Here, I don't know whether Reagan accurately portrays what the real George Gipp was like. I do know, however, that there is a lot of the real Reagan in his performance. Reagan's acting talent was the ability to bring the parts of himself that fit the character to the surface in his performance. Gipp was a bit of a free spirit in reality by all accounts; ergo, Reagan brought his playful nature to the role. It's a somewhat different style of acting than the Method-based stuff we're used to today, but it's equally effective.
An even better example of "Reagan being Reagan," though, was his significant turn in Kings Row in 1942…
• Kings Row
Kings Row, based on a popular novel by Henry Bellamann, was, by all accounts, Reagan's favorite among his many performances. It's easy to see why. With Drake McHugh, Reagan got to play someone very much like himself, and he took to it like a duck to water. Reagan acts exactly how you'd expect a turn-of-the-century dandy to act. He's all fun and games, with a sly wink and a nod for his friends (and everyone is his friend)—at least until life throws him a curveball. As a long, melodramatic potboiler, Kings Row gives all its primary leads plenty of time to shine, and Reagan takes full advantage. If you want to see Reagan at the height of his charm, look no further.
But Kings Row is more than just Reagan. It's a standout film for both Robert Cummings (who is better known for his comic roles) and "Oomph Girl" Ann Sheridan (who is better known for…well, you can probably guess). I think that, like Reagan, each was playing a character who was fairly similar to their real personae. Parris is a very intelligent, genteel young man; Cummings was a well-educated and clever veteran of Broadway and movies. Randy is a tomboy at heart; Sheridan grew up a Texas farmgirl. When the cowpies hit the fan, though, both bring the emotion in spades. I'm hoping that Betty Field wasn't playing a character a lot like her real self, because she is really one crazy chick here. It's not discussed in the film in the least, probably because it would never have passed the censors in 1942, but apparently the novel strongly suggests that Cassie was a victim of incest at the hands of her father. In any event, it's a great performance from her, if only because she's so unpredictable. So unpredictable, in fact, that you really question why Parris sticks with her. I mean, there's nutty, and then there's nutty. She's the latter.
Story-wise, the film is as complex as a Steinbeck novel, but as melodramatic as a soap opera. It trots along for a long but entertaining 128 minutes, throwing crisis after crisis at our heroes. At its core, though, this is less soap opera and more David Lynch. It's a story about the hidden secrets that lie behind the facade of normalcy in a small town. It's the Forties version of Blue Velvet. It's the type of story (or more accurately, collection of stories) that holds up well even today, due to the universality of its themes. It's really an enjoyable film.
The film earned three Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture (losing out to Mrs. Miniver). Director Sam Wood (Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Kitty Foyle: The Natural History of a Woman) and cinematographer James Wong Howe (The Thin Man, Algiers) also were nominated. As might be expected from a Howe-photographed film, the cinematography is outstanding. A few of the film's scenes could probably be used as textbook examples of the flexibility and power of black and white photography, as a matter of fact.
Unfortunately, the transfer of the film is subpar. There's way too much jitter, and occasional flicker and damage on the print. It's a shame that Warner Bros. didn't (or couldn't) take the extra step and clean up a film that was photographed this well. Sound is provided in a mono Dolby track. It's distortion-free, but it is a bit muted, making it occasionally difficult to understand the film's dialogue. A short film, in this case an extended performance by the U.S. Marine band, and one of Warner's inexhaustible reserve of cartoons are included as extras, along with a collection of teaser trailers for the film. Sadly, picture quality on both the short and the cartoon are also subpar, and the sound on the Marine Corps short is quite disappointing.
Kings Row and The Hasty Heart, which will be discussed next, are the best pure films of the five featured in this box set. Each, in its own way, shows what Ronald Reagan was capable of as an actor. This film, though, is arguably his finest hour (well, two hours) in Hollywood, and is a necessary part of this collection.
• The Hasty Heart
The Hasty Heart is included here not only because it's an outstanding film, but because it came at a turning point in Reagan's life. In 1949, Reagan's contract with Warner was close to expiration. He was a household name at the time, and a popular actor, but was increasingly viewed as "too political"—a career negative. (Youngsters may be surprised to learn that Reagan, a staunch FDR Democrat, was viewed as too liberal at the time.) As a union leader (he was the president of the Screen Actors Guild), he naturally attracted the attention of the House Un-American Activities Commission. He had gladly testified before the committee, since he believed that communists were co-opting legitimate labor organizations, jeopardizing those groups' ability to represent the interests of the "little guy" (and not those of the Communist Party). He was the subject of heartbreak and scandal, too—his wife, Jane Wyman (Falcon Crest), had filed for divorce, something that was still pretty taboo in American society. In the midst of all this, he had to relocate to London—his first trip outside the United States—to film The Hasty Heart. The strain Reagan was under is visible and obvious. He is shockingly thin and scrawny here; ironically, this is perfect for his Yank character, who is supposed to be recovering from malaria.
Thankfully, he seems to channel this stress into his performance. It's a classic Reagan role: although he's given top billing, he doesn't hog the screen, and instead lets the talent around him shine. The Hasty Heart is Todd's film; the stage actor (who had actually portrayed Yank, replacing Richard Basehart in the role, in the stage version of the play) turns in an Academy Award-nominated performance as the doomed Lachie. The 23-year-old Neal, in only her third film, is outstanding as well—and gorgeous to boot.
Overall, the film is a standout. Besides having a solid and talented cast, this adaptation of The Hasty Heart is a classic melodrama, hitting all the right notes on the heartstrings. (Aged director Sherman (Mr. Skeffington) even breaks down in the commentary at one point, overcome by the pathos.) It's not surprising that the play has been revived periodically over the years, including a second (and not particularly noteworthy) theatrical version in the Eighties. It's definitely hokey, but I dare you to not be moved by it.
The transfer is decent enough, although I noticed some obvious scratches and frame damage at time. Contrast and black levels are fairly good, though—not that it really matters, as this is a bright and airy film. The audio track, as with the other discs in this set, is competent and distortion-free. The Hasty Heart also has the biggest selection of extras in this set, including the set's only commentary. The commentary is predominantly from John Meroney, an editor of American Enterprise magazine who has written a number of articles on Reagan. Some comments are added by the late director of the film, Vincent Sherman. Meroney's comments are thorough and detailed, giving a good overview of Reagan's career in films and details about this particular production. Sherman is less interesting, providing relatively little insight into the production. Also included are a Joe McDoakes comedy short and a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Both are pretty darn funny.
The Hasty Heart is a solid offering of a quality film, and is definitely a valuable inclusion in this set.
• Storm Warning
This 1951 drama isn't really one of Reagan's legendary moments on film. In fact, it's more of a vehicle for Ginger Rogers, who shows unexpected dramatic range for someone known primarily for her singing and dancing. It was also another opportunity for Warner Bros. to get their rising star Doris Day onto the screen. Reagan's languid, laid-back performance is an unusual choice for the character—it seems to be written more as a Perry Mason kind of role—but it works for him, thanks to (as always) his copious reserve of natural charm.
Rogers and Day are the real reasons to watch this film. Both are surprisingly good in these serious, dramatic roles, playing against type for both of them. Rogers, the protagonist, has the meatier role, but Day does have some great scenes with her. Steve Cochrane is okay as Day's new husband. He plays the dumb laborer adequately.
The story isn't quite as "daring" as the promo materials for the film would have you believe, though. The KKK kills a white person; there is virtually no discussion of racism in the film. They're not bad because they're virulently anti-black and anti-Catholic; they're bad because, in this case, they're really a bunch of thugs using the Klan as a front to control the town. The film tacitly leaves open the possibility that there could be "good" Klansmen out there, at least in theory. That's hardly a full frontal assault on the KKK. Nonetheless, making the Klan the bad guy in a film was a bit daring at the time, so I suppose the film's hype wasn't complete fiction.
The film gets the standard treatment—a full frame, original aspect ratio transfer and a 1.0 mono Dolby soundtrack. The transfer is actually quite good. A good deal of this film takes place at night; the transfer holds its contrast and black levels very well in these scenes. The audio track is clean and distortion-free; no complaints there. No extras, save for the film's theatrical trailer, are provided.
All in all, Storm Warning is a pretty average film. Entertaining enough, and containing a fine performance from Ginger Rogers, but otherwise undistinguished. It's hard to view it as anything but filler here.
• The Winning Team
The Winning Team is loosely—and I mean loosely—based on the career of Grover Cleveland "Pete" Alexander, the Hall of Fame pitcher who played for the Phillies, Cubs, and Cardinals in the early part of the 20th Century. You know how you occasionally hear about how something is the "Hollywood" version of a story? Well…this is what they're talking about. It's not that the film is wholly inaccurate per se—it's just that it conveniently leaves out a bunch of things.
For example, the film suggests that Alexander's wartime experiences led to his dizzy spells. It probably did exacerbate them—many artillerymen suffered vertigo caused by inner ear damage suffered due to the noise of the guns. But Alexander was actually epileptic, something the film never mentions. The film also implies that Alexander drank (a) to deal with and (b) to provide an explanation for the dizzy spells. Leaving aside the fact that this doesn't really make any sense whatsoever, the truth of the matter is that Alexander drank mainly because he was a raging alcoholic. The real Alexander was insubordinate and feisty; this Alexander is the model of moral rectitude. Call me crazy, but I think I'd rather see the story of the drunken feisty epileptic.
But that isn't what we have here. What we do have is a fairly bland sports film without any of the fun or drama of Knute Rockne All American. All the stock clichés are present and accounted for. Loyal wife? Check. Player hits rock bottom? Check. Improbable comeback? Check. Collection of disjointed baseball footage? Check. Assorted big leaguers making cameo appearances? Check. At least it doesn't drag.
This film is, sadly, typical of the B-movie dreck that constituted a significant part of Reagan's career. (In fact, not long before this film, Reagan had completed the infamous Bedtime For Bonzo.) Reagan detractors will note that he doesn't exactly bring much to the role. Reagan defenders will argue that he couldn't bring anything to a role this thin and clichéd. He does have his moments, though. When Alexander has hit bottom and is working at a Coney Island sideshow giving "talks" about baseball, a scout from the Cardinals arrives, presumably to invite him to try out for the team. The look on Reagan's face when he hears the scout has come is truly pathetic—a combination of hope, desperation, and sadness that truly communicates this down-and-out athlete's state of mind. Sadly, moments like that are few and far between in The Winning Team. As the loyal wife, Doris Day is (obviously) well cast. This is a stock (and unexciting) Day performance—she even gets to sing a Christmas song. Really observant folk will recognize Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Lemon playing Alexander's St. Louis teammate Jess Haines, and Russ "Rusty" Tamblyn (West Side Story, Twin Peaks) as one of Alexander's 12 (!) siblings.
Picture quality on this disc is the worst of the set. It's a grainy transfer, with a number of scratches and damage on the film. The sound, once again in a 1.0 mono track, is fine, though. No extras are provided other than the theatrical trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If this set truly wanted to be the definitive Reagan box set, there are two films that are missing. First, you'd have to include Reagan's cinematic swan song (and one of his best performances), 1962's The Killers, based on the Hemingway short story. Second, you really have to add Hellcats of the Navy (1957)—not for the quality of the film, but because of his co-star in it: Nancy Davis. Unfortunately, neither of these films are Warner Bros. property (they were made by Universal and Columbia respectively); hence, they couldn't have been included. Alas.
Obviously, Reagan's career as an actor takes a backseat to his political career in terms of overall importance. He is not considered one of the great actors of his generation (unlike his contemporary and friend, Jimmy Stewart). But he wasn't a bad actor, and he did some good films in his career. It wasn't all Bedtime For Bonzo-caliber material. I've been trying to think of a contemporary parallel for Reagan in today's acting ranks, and the name that keeps coming to mind is Brendan Fraser. I think that Fraser, like Reagan, is typically cast because he's a nice, likable guy. Like Reagan, Fraser has had his dramatic moments to show he can act (School Ties, Gods and Monsters), although Fraser's career has gravitated more towards comedy and action than Reagan's. And like Reagan, I think Fraser has wound up with too many subpar vehicles because of this viewpoint (Bedazzled or Son-In-Law, anyone?). I can absolutely see Reagan in a film like Blast From The Past, though—that's precisely the sort of role in which Reagan excelled. The big difference? Reagan in his prime was a lot better looking than Fraser (sorry, Brendan, if you're reading this—I don't mean any insult), and probably got a lot of roles solely because he was handsome and well-known. I also don't know whether Fraser will wind up as Prime Minister of Canada someday…
Unless an actor has an extremely scant body of work—e.g. James Dean—it's difficult to truly capture his or her career in a five-film selection like this. Given that caveat, though, Ronald Reagan: The Signature Collection does a commendable job in at least giving us some concrete examples of the triumphs and pitfalls of Reagan's cinematic career. But for his presidency, Reagan would likely be remembered as a just a nice guy; a good-looking working actor, but certainly not worthy of box set treatment. Yet he was President of the United States, and a hugely popular one at that, which catapults him into history. Hence, his cinematic career is important not necessarily on its artistic merits alone, but as a glimpse into the personality of a man who would wind up the leader of the free world.
Reagan may not have been the best actor in history, but he probably is the most important actor in history. I admittedly have a unique viewpoint on the matter, since I knew him personally, but I can tell you one thing: Reagan was, if anything, never a phony. The nice, charismatic, fun guy you see on screen is the real Ronald Reagan. Age and disease may have robbed him of some of that verve by the time I knew him, but there was still plenty of it present. Reagan was one of the few genuinely nice people I've met, and I'm glad I had a brief chance to get to know him. My going-away present when I left the office was a half-hour with The Boss—no Secret Service, no staff, no handlers, nobody but the two of us. And what did Ron do? He told a bunch of funny stories. He told them haltingly, because he had to strain to remember them, but you could still see the sparkle in his eye and imagine what he must have been like when he was young. Here, in this box, you the viewer can also get a glimpse of what Reagan was like. Love or hate his politics, he was quite a guy.
Not guilty. This is a fairly well-done collection, although the picture quality on some of the films definitely warrants probation.
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Scales of Justice, Knute Rockne, All-American
Perp Profile, Knute Rockne, All-American
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Knute Rockne, All-American
• Lux Radio Theater Performance with Pat O'Brien, Ronald Reagan, Fay Wray, and Donald Crisp (Audio Only)
Scales of Justice, Kings Row
Perp Profile, Kings Row
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Kings Row
• Featurette: The United States Marine Corps Band
Scales of Justice, The Hasty Heart
Perp Profile, The Hasty Heart
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Hasty Heart
• Commentary by Director Vincent Sherman and Reagan Biographer John Meroney
Scales of Justice, Storm Warning
Perp Profile, Storm Warning
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Storm Warning
• Theatrical Trailer
Scales of Justice, The Winning Team
Perp Profile, The Winning Team
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Winning Team
• Theatrical Trailer
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