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A better actor than you thought

He isn't remembered as a movie great, but Reagan was capable and versatile during his big-screen career.

June 07, 2004|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

There were no Oscars for Ronald Reagan during his 30-year acting career and he was ribbed endlessly for starring opposite a chimp named Bonzo, but in retrospect, he was a much more versatile actor than most remember.

Film historian Leonard Maltin described Reagan as "a very capable actor, and when he had a good part and a good director, he was very good indeed. Because people have amnesia, they point to his bad movies or his silly movies and mischaracterize his entire career."

Reagan came to Hollywood in 1937 after working as a radio announcer. He was put under contract to Warner Bros., and like most young contract players, he started at the bottom. In fact, his scenes were deleted from his first movie, 1937's "Submarine D-1." That same year, though, he made his official debut in "Love Is on the Air." By 1938, he was getting decent supporting roles in A-pictures, including the hit comedy "Brother Rat," as well as bigger roles in such B-movies as "Girls on Probation."

Tall and handsome with an athletic build and a mellow voice, Reagan became adept at comedy, drama and action-adventure. He made the most of a small but showy part opposite Bette Davis as a drunken playboy in 1939's "Dark Victory."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 08, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
"This Is the Army" -- An article in Monday's Calendar section about Ronald Reagan's film career said he made "This Is the Army" before joining the military. He was in the Army when he made that 1943 film.

In 1940, he made six films of varying quality including the forgettable "Brother Rat and a Baby," and the high-profile Errol Flynn western "Santa Fe Trail," in which he played a young George Armstrong Custer.

His stock rose that year with his indelible performance in the classic "Knute Rockne All American," as the ill-fated Notre Dame football star George Gipp ("the Gipper"). Reagan's death scene was certainly a four-hankie experience and he became so identified with the part that "the Gipper" became his nickname.

"He wasn't connected when he came to Hollywood," says Maltin. "He survived on merit. That is not an opinion; that is a fact."

Reagan gave his best performance in "Kings Row," the lavish 1942 drama based on Henry Bellamann's novel of small-town America. Reagan played the carefree Drake McHugh who finds his life turned upside down when his legs are amputated.

One of the dramatic highlights of the film occurred when Drake, upon waking after surgery and realizing his legs are gone, screams: "Where's the rest of me?" Reagan used that famous line as the title of his autobiography.

He and Flynn teamed again that same year for the Raoul Walsh-directed World War II thriller "Desperate Journey," about a group of downed American pilots in Germany.

After making "This Is the Army" in 1943 -- and billed as Lt. Ronald Reagan -- he went into the Army Air Corps, where he appeared in and narrated numerous training films including "Stilwell Road," "Target Tokyo" and "The Fight for the Sky."

After the war ended, Reagan returned to the Warners fold, appearing in such hit comedies as "The Voice of the Turtle" (1947) and "John Loves Mary" (1949) and the Shirley Temple drama "That Hagen Girl" (1947).

He was loaned out to Universal in 1951 to make the camp classic "Bedtime for Bonzo," in which he played a college professor working with a chimp on a heredity experiment.

"By the way," says Maltin, " 'Bedtime for Bonzo' is not a bad movie. Let's set the record straight."

Back at Warners, the roles were meatier. He starred in "Storm Warning," a then-daring 1951 film about the Ku Klux Klan, and played famed pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander, who battled the bottle in 1952's "The Winning Team."

With the rise of television in the 1950s, the studio system started to wane and Reagan, like several other established stars of the day, turned to TV.

From 1954 to '62, he hosted the anthology series "General Electric Theater." He also hosted the western anthology series "Death Valley Days" in 1965 and '66, just prior to becoming governor of California.

He continued making films including the low-budget 1954 western "Cattle Queen of Montana" with Barbara Stanwyck; the underrated 1955 western "Tennessee's Partner"; and the poorly received 1957 adventure "Hellcats of the Navy," which also starred his second wife, Nancy Davis.

"The Killers," which Reagan made in 1964, was his final film. Originally made for television, this adaptation of the Ernest Hemingway story was released in theaters after being deemed too violent for the small screen. In a rare bad-guy role, Reagan played an evil crime boss with great relish.

"The studios learned pretty early on that you couldn't force a star on the public," says Maltin. "They accepted and embraced an actor or they didn't. Ronald Reagan was well liked by the public and it's fair to say that never changed."

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