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fixations : A Ronald Reagan Movie Collector's Role
of a Lifetime

Going Dutch

February 04, 2001|Irv Letofsky

Tuesday marks former president Ronald Reagan's 90th birthday, and it's about time I take my collection of movie posters and lobby cards out of the darkness of the storage room and into the bright sunlight of truth and beauty.

Collecting is a fierce business, like a rash that needs constant scratching. Over the years I have painstakingly assembled what arguably is the largest collection of Reagan movie items, including posters and memorabilia from all 53 of his films between 1937 and 1964, plus material from Argentina, Germany, France, Denmark, Sweden, Cuba, Poland, Belgium, Australia, Mexico, Italy and Spain. I even have a sub-collection from the 11 films of Nancy Reagan, nee Davis.

I did this even though Reagan never became a star-star in the Hollywood sense. He wasn't considered a "collectible" in the Humphrey Bogart-Errol Flynn-Bette Davis firmament. But I persisted because I'd never even heard of most of the movies by the former California governor. Who can remember him as Brass Bancroft in "Code of the Secret Service" (1939)?

My interest began in the late 1970s, when I happened onto the stunning poster image of Reagan brandishing two guns for "Law and Order" (1953). Few could afford Bogart posters; Reagans were cheap, $30 in this case. Like some crazy weed, the collection grew, often through carefully and painfully and expensively brokered deals.

A source in Texas found a must-have poster made in Cuba for "Nine Lives Are Not Enough" (1941), and a deal was done for cash and a poster to be named later. A poster pal in Florida uncovered "Knute Rockne--All American" (1940). A year ago I took custody of a spectacular French poster of Reagan's best role, "Kings Row" (1942), which required six years of patient negotiations.

I have shared the booty with a library in his hometown of Dixon, Ill., the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and others, including the new U.S. aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan, to which I donated an out-sized "six sheet" (an 81-by-81-inch poster) of "Hellcats of the Navy" (1957) for a hefty wall.

The star of the lot is "Love Is on the Air" (1937), the first film for the baseball broadcaster who'd just arrived in Hollywood from Des Moines. Slated for the back end of the double features of the day, this was made in 18 days for $103,500. Reagan was given a princely $200 a week at the start of his seven-year contract. (On his second lead role, in "Sergeant Murphy," he made $700 for the short shoot, and the lead horse made $1,200--which suggests some of the odd priorities for actors and animals in the movie business.)

In the lighthearted "Love," Reagan was Andy McCaine, a sassy radio newscaster who aspires to expose a political gang. The station isn't interested in his babblings and exiles him to a kiddie show, run by fetching actress June Travis. In the end, fast-cracking Uncle Andy perseveres and exposes the racketeers.

The arrival of Reagan wasn't wildly exciting for all. In the New York Times, critic Bosley Crowther didn't even mention Reagan's name. Dismissing the film, he wrote: "It chatters." At the Daily News, though, critic Dorothy Masters cherished the upstart beneath the headline, "Treat for Ladies." She wrote: "Run, don't walk, to the nearest [theater] and beg, borrow or steal a look at Ronald Reagan . . . What he has done to one gal--an adamant critic at that--he can do to millions of others by restoring their faith in Santa Claus and making them ardent Reagan fans in one sitting." Reagan, she wrote, "has poise, a voice, personality and a face the camera loves."

In time I may finally corner all the other Reagan posters in the world. At that point, when I nail the last of them, I'll take a few days off, then start looking around for a hobby.

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