As an actor, Ronald Reagan just don't get no respect. Almost nobody will argue that he was good at it.
"Pedestrian" is as praiseworthy as it gets in The Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz. David Thomson, in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, calls him, less charitably and more irritably, "a loser in pictures."
And so it enters history: Ronald Reagan, bad actor and minor star who became president.
But here's what feels like a truth to this writer: He was not a great actor, but given the professional structures of the time, he was an efficient cog in the system. He wasn't uniquely bad, embarrassingly bad. He was limited by his appearance and demeanor -- and the size of his talent -- to a smallish niche, but in that niche he could be compelling.
In fact, it was his ability to fill that niche that got him employed in the first place and kept him employed for 25 or so years.
He signed with Warner Bros. in 1937. It is important to understand what was going on in those days. The studios produced about 800 movies a year, and they had a constant need for dependable professionals who could be fitted into the usually stereotypical roles that their films demanded. In that circumstance, Reagan made a superlatively square peg to fit into the many, many movies with square holes in them. He could learn lines fast, he never bumped into the furniture, he related well to fellow professionals, he could handle a gun, a horse, a quip, a dame. He was always on time, and his appearance on screen, although not overwhelming, was never ruinous to the larger picture.
He did have a certain thing. It was a kind of sparkle. He seemed so darn healthy! He was broad-shouldered, his hair had a kind of creamy luster to it, he had very symmetrical features . . . but mainly it was his eyes. He had the whatever-it-was -- genetic fortune, iron professional discipline, whatever: He had it to will into his eyes a seeming delight in those around him, in himself, in his place on Earth. The eyes, not quite magical or bewitching, were always warm.
He also seemed -- I mean this as compliment -- to lack subtext. This is ruinous to an actor but useful in a star. He appeared not to harbor dark longings, or nurse grudges, or fester with bitterness. He had no tragic dimension. He seemed moodless, unsomber, never a dark or looming presence, always a reassuring presence. He was what we liked best about ourselves.
In those days, the studios essentially constructed elaborate hierarchical pantheons of personalities, found people to fit them and kept them under iron discipline within that structure. So it was, at Warner, that Errol Flynn was ever "dashing," Jimmy Cagney was ever "Noo Yawk street," Humphrey Bogart was ever "New York street," Alan Hale was always "Avuncular sidekick," and on and on almost to the tiniest bit part.
Ronald Reagan was therefore "The Kid." He was handsome but in a nonthreatening way. The camera saw a one-dimensional, charming, rather happy-go-lucky youth with those smiling eyes. It saw a young man to whom fortune would nod, almost as if it was beyond him to conceive of fortune not nodding. Though he later played commanding officers in the B movies of the '50s, he was at his best, in these early years, as a neophyte. His joyous, infectious enthusiasm seemed particularly American somehow; moreover, it was so broadly etched and so perfectly delivered that it never needed establishment. His personality was part of the shorthand of the movies and made them efficient fables, where the identity of the actor defined the identity of the character, without ado.
Of course, his two great roles of the time are variations on that theme. He was the tragic Drake McHugh in "Kings Row," where he got to utter the fabulous and weirdly ironic line, "Where's the rest of me?" It's ironic, of course, because there was no rest of him; he specialized in playing complete men who were exactly what they seemed.
Then, of course, he ran to daylight, glory and eternal fame as the Gipper, George Gipp, one of the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame's backfield in "Knute Rockne All American." In that film, he got the actor's dream role, an athlete dying young. There, another line for the ages: "Win one for the Gipper," he said, near death, which became fodder for Pat O'Brien's intense impersonation of the star coach, as he inspired further Irish horsemen to gridiron glory.
I remember him best, however, from "Desperate Journey," a loony wartime WB agitprop flick where he's the token Yank in a Hudson bomber shot down over a Germany located in the San Fernando Valley. Ever-dashing Mr. Errol is the swashbuckling commander, ever-avuncular Alan Hale is the senior sergeant, and they are chased through a SoCal Nazi Land by Raymond Massey, in a monocle, oozing unction and malevolence. Reagan is really good as -- the name is so typical of the picture, the era and the man -- "Flying Officer Johnny Hammond." He's chipper, irrepressible, a bon vivant, a hero. He's very much America as we Americans prefer her to be: optimistic, untragic, unshadowed, peppy and freckly. He's like the best cheerleader in the world, dumped into World War II, happily helping the Brits blow up munitions plants and evade sadistic Nazi aristocrats.
Curiously enough, he's also famous for a movie he wasn't in. It's a movie legend that in 1942, he'd been penciled in to play Rick Blaine opposite Ann Sheridan's Ilsa in "Casablanca." The party line on such a possibility is nearly unanimous: It would have been an unqualified disaster. It so happens I disagree. It would have been, like all of Reagan's '40s studio pictures, a pretty entertaining movie. Actually, as an actress Sheridan is quite underrated and she might have brought something memorable to the role. Reagan would have been less tragic than Bogart, less shadowed and broken, less damned noble, but he would have brought a Midwestern cheeriness that might have kept the movie entertaining enough, while preventing it from achieving greatness.
Would he then have morphed upward into legend as did Bogart, and would countless Harvard undergrads have fallen in love with his muted coolness in the Brattle Theatre in the '60s? No. They would have settled on someone else, because, sublimely intellectual, they knew that there's more to life than what's on the surface, and it was as an actor that Reagan argued most eloquently that the surface is far more important than what lies beneath.
Then he got older, then the movies changed, then the studios broke down, then television came along. Warners didn't renew him -- they preferred, I suppose, hepcats like Edd "Kookie" Byrnes Jr. to square old former cute All-Murican boys like RR. So he went independent, which means he went cheap; then, "independent films" weren't challenges to studio formula; they were simply cheaper imitations of it.
One must say of his films in the '50s that they were mostly routine. "Cattle Queen of Montana" and "Bedtime for Bonzo" pretty much establish the level of aspiration and he never quite made it into anything with a unique or memorable vision. He did have a last hurrah. It happens to be my favorite of his films and the only one where he played a villain. He's the snaky Jack Browning in the cool-cat Don Siegel version of "The Killers" in 1964.
There, he used his seeming avuncularity, his familiarity, to work against type, the only time in his career he did so. He had a special look for that film, and he used it later to chop Jimmy Carter off at the knees when he said, "There you go again," when he knitted his pleasant, bland features into a smirk of contempt, turned the warmth of his eyes into the coldness of ball bearings and seemed to be saying to the heavens, "What is with this guy?" Yet he was able to do it without making us hate him. Maybe that was his gift in the pictures: not talent, not intensity, not sexual charisma, but the ability to pull us in and make us care.