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RONALD WILSON REAGAN / 1911-2004

Hollywood a Crucible for His Conservatism

Labor strife and distaste for wartime bureaucracy helped push the liberal rightward

June 06, 2004|John Horn and Rachel Abramowitz

When he first guided his shiny Nash convertible through the Warner Bros. gates in 1937, Ronald Reagan was a New Deal Democrat, a liberal unionist fighting for those "at the bottom of the ladder," a budding antifascist who deplored blacklists.

By the time he steered away from the entertainment business 23 years later, he had been transformed into a studio ally, a riveting political speaker and a staunch anti-Communist who, under the FBI code name "T-10," secretly named names.

Reagan's studio years did far more than establish the actor's public persona as "the Gipper." Even though many of his film roles were forgettable, his show business tenure memorably reshaped his worldview, cementing the core principles of small government and free enterprise that carried him to the California governor's office and the White House.

The transformation was so profound that Reagan's last meaningful television job, as host of "General Electric Theater," was essentially his first political campaign.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 01, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 65 words Type of Material: Correction
Reagan in Hollywood -- A June 6 article in Section A about Ronald Reagan's Hollywood years referred to the House Un-American Activities Committee as "newly formed" in 1947. It was formed in 1938. The article also quoted Reagan in his book "Where's the Rest of Me?" as calling himself as a "hemophiliac liberal" in reference to his early politics. He called himself a "hemophilic liberal."

His change of heart was more slow odyssey than instant epiphany, a transformation brought about by a series of events, including a violent labor clash and a seemingly innocuous visit to England to film a movie.

It was a show business education like no other: If movies and television made Reagan known to the masses, Hollywood made Reagan known to himself.

"The most important political lesson Reagan learned from his Hollywood years was the difference between the endorsement of the critics and success at the box office," Dinesh D'Souza wrote in his biography, "Ronald Reagan."

In the spring of 1937, "Dutch" Reagan, a 26-year-old radio sports announcer from Iowa, drove to Los Angeles to make his big-screen debut. Only a few weeks earlier, he had come to Southern California to catch the Cubs in spring training on Santa Catalina Island, and had had a drink with one of the few people he knew in show business, budding singer Joy Hodges. He'd confessed to her that he dreamed of being an actor.

Hodges introduced Reagan to her agent, George Ward, who in turn arranged for a screen test. Soon after returning to Des Moines, the young announcer received a telegram from the West Coast: "Warners offer contract seven years. One year's options, starting at $200 a week."

In the era of the contract player, a studio kept its actors as busy as possible, choosing parts and carefully constructing an image. Warner Bros. plugged its new acquisitions into a slew of films, many of which followed the rags-to-riches themes popular with Depression-era audiences.

In Reagan's debut, he appeared as a radio announcer in 1937's "Love Is on the Air." In his first three years, he made about 20 films. He developed a dependable reputation, and eventually the parts improved, although he never reached superstardom. " 'Mr. Norm' is my alias" is how Reagan described himself. He married actress Jane Wyman in 1940.

Soon after, he was cast as legendary doomed halfback George Gipp in his dream project, "Knute Rockne All American." When Gipp died of pneumonia, Notre Dame's famous coach Rockne asked his players to "win one for the Gipper." The slogan later became a favorite Reagan rallying cry.

As World War II approached, Warner Bros. assigned Reagan to a series of patriotic films. He later joked that these movies made him the "Errol Flynn of the Bs. I was as brave as Errol but in a low-budget way."

Leonard Maltin says of Reagan in his Movie Encyclopedia: He was "by no means as bad an actor as his detractors would have one believe."

Reagan appeared as Brass Bancroft, flying agent of the U.S. Secret Service, in a series of low-rent thrillers aimed at kids. In 1941 the studio elevated the actor to "star" status, and soon after he signed a new contract, for $1,650 a week.

A number of Reagan chroniclers have noted that his stint as an actor taught him important lessons later used in his political career, such as the value of stagecraft and the power of heroic myth for audiences.

Biographer Lou Cannon also said that by the time Reagan ascended to the presidency, "his mind was filled with movie scenes more vivid to him than many actual events." Reagan judged stories to be told "by their impact rather than their accuracy."

Despite his heroic on-screen image, Reagan did not see any action in World War II because of poor eyesight. He spent five weeks as a liaison officer at Ft. Mason in San Francisco before transferring to the newly created Army Air Forces motion picture unit back in Hollywood, where he worked on training films and documentaries.

With the war's end came the start of his rapid political transformation. Part of the evolution sprang from his annoyance over bureaucratic Civil Service rules during wartime.

"I think the first crack in my staunch liberalism appeared in the last year and a half of my military career," Reagan wrote in his memoirs, "Where's the Rest of Me?"

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