Thursday 29 September 2016

Reagan: from Warner to the White House

Published 08/05/2016 | 02:30

Young star: Reagan chats with fellow actor Margaret Lindsay in a Warner Brothers shot from 1935
Young star: Reagan chats with fellow actor Margaret Lindsay in a Warner Brothers shot from 1935
Ronald Reagan with wife Nancy at a party for Moby Dick in 1956.

Will Ferrell found himself in hot water last week when details of his latest film were released. In Reagan, he would play the 40th President of the United States during his second term of office, when it's claimed by some that he was already suffering from the early symptoms of Alzheimer's.

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Much of the idea's comedy stems from the fact that Ronald Reagan has forgotten he's the President, prompting his aides to pretend he's acting in a Hollywood movie in order to get him to look plausible. One of them poses as a bullying director, and Ronnie spends a lot of his time looking for his "marks", the strips of white tape that used to tell film actors where to stand.

Sounds like a funny idea to me, but not everyone was impressed. Perhaps understandably, Reagan's eldest living son, Michael, was incensed by the concept, and tweeted that the film's script was "an outrage", adding that "Alzheimer's is not a joke" and that Ferrell and his associates ought to be "ashamed" of themselves.

As the clamour of indignation grew, a former Reagan staffer called James Rosebush emerged from the woodwork to deny the suggestion that Reagan had suffered from Alzheimer's during his second term, and called the film "an egregious attempt to rewrite presidential history".

More interesting, however, was the amount of public dismay expressed on social media in the US, and it can surely have been no coincidence that just two days after he'd announced he'd be starring in Reagan, Ferrell quietly withdrew. All of which goes to show that, more than a decade after his death, Ronald Reagan remains a great favourite with lots of ordinary Americans.

Whoever wins the increasingly bad-tempered race to become the 45th US President, they'll be doing well if they go on to achieve anything like the enduring popularity of two-term dynamo Reagan. Though controversial abroad, Reagan was lionised by the American people, who to this day credit him with everything from ending the Cold War to restoring US pride and international dominance.

Once he'd swapped acting for politics, Reagan never really liked to look back to his time as an actor, and clips from his dodgier movies tended to be unearthed mainly to make fun of him. But Hollywood was a major part of his life, and helped make him the most telegenic and media-savvy president there's ever been.

Desperate to be taken seriously, Reagan tended to brush over his Hollywood years, and critics and embittered former colleagues rushed to dismiss him as a B-movie hack. The two major biographies of the man have paid scant attention to his acting career, but a 2008 book by Marc Eliot called Reagan: The Hollywood Years perceptively suggested that no understanding of Reagan the politician - or the man - is complete without an investigation of his Hollywood experiences.

Because although Reagan ultimately failed to make it as an A-list matinee idol, he learnt a lot of the skills that would make him such an effective public figure on the back lots of the Warner Brother studios. And his involvement in the Screen Actors' Guild through the terrible years of the 1950s taught him all he'd ever need to know about the slippery art of political survival.

Born in Tampico, Illinois, in 1911, Reagan had it fairly tough growing up. Though his relentlessly optimistic mother Nelle was a great support, his first-generation Irish dad John 'Jack' was an alcoholic, and the family moved many times as he searched America's Midwest for casual work.

Reagan grew up handsome and driven. He worked as a lifeguard and flirted with amateur dramatics before his distinctive 'aw shucks' manner landed him a job in sports broadcasting. He was in Hollywood to report on a baseball game when he took his first screen test at Warner Brothers in 1937. Jack Warner liked what he saw, and immediately presented the 26-year-old with a seven-year contract.

Reagan's irresistible charisma soon made him a favourite of Warner's and, almost as importantly, of the fearsome gossip columnist Louella Parsons, but even they quickly realised he was no John Barrymore. Tall and blandly handsome, Ronnie radiated a kind of apple-pie wholesomeness that made him a natural sidekick. As Warner pithily put it, "he was no Errol Flynn - but as Flynn's non-threatening pal, he was perfect". And it was in precisely those innocuous 'buddy' roles that Reagan was typecast.

In all, Reagan made 54 features in a film career that spanned almost 30 years, but most of them were B-movies, and, for once, the otherwise charmed Ronnie was not especially lucky with casting and roles. His acting limitations aside, Reagan's unshakeable Midwestern wholesomeness mitigating against playing bad guys, the character actor's traditional route to stardom. And he was just too bland to be cast as the lead in a major studio film. So instead, he played a series of Johnnys and Jimmys and Petes and Gils, earnest and loyal friends of the hero who never let anyone down and sometimes died tragically for the overall good.

There were, however, a few highlights. In Knute Rockne All American (1940), he co-starred with Pat O'Brien in the story of a legendary Notre Dame football coach. Reagan played college football star George 'The Gipper' Gipp, who became the emotional focal point of the film after unfortunately dying of a mysterious infection, inspiring the rallying cry "Let's win one for The Gipper!" The nickname stuck, and the rallying cry would be used again to great effect in successive presidential campaigns.

In a string of westerns, most notably The Last Outpost, Reagan looked a natural on a horse, a factor that would become essential to his political image. But perhaps his most underrated film, and the one he may have been most proud of, was King's Row (1942), a turn-of-the-century family saga that some critics have compared to Orson Welles' Magnificent Ambersons. And Ronnie's most celebrated screen moment came when his dashing character Drake McHugh wakes after an accident which necessitated the amputation of both his legs and wonders "where's the rest of me?"

Such highlights, though, proved not to be the beginning of A-list glory, and by the late 1940s the Reagan name was hardly considered the mark of quality. When Shirley Temple was cast alongside Reagan in That Hagen Girl in 1947, her mother took it as a sure sign that her daughter's film career was nearing its end.

By the early 1950s, the film offers were drying up, but by that stage Reagan had met the legendary and endlessly cunning agent Lew Wassermann, who had spotted the actor's public marketability.

He migrated to television, to become a highly-paid presenter and endorser of products. He also became President of the Screen Actors' Guild, and tip-toed with some success through the ravages of McCarthyism. And in 1952 he terminated his career as a womaniser by marrying the already pregnant and hugely driven Nancy Davis. He subsequently switched his allegiance from the Democrats to the Republicans. The seeds of his future glories were in place.

His political career initially seemed unlikely. When he was elected Governor of California in 1967, his cynical former boss Jack Warner commented "Governor, no. Bad casting. The friend of the governor." Even Reagan himself made jokes. When asked how he thought he'd cope in his new job, he said: "I don't know - I've never played a governor". He played one pretty convincingly from 1967 to 1975, balancing the then-almost bankrupt state's budget and pursuing a nakedly right-wing, anti-welfare, pro-death penalty agenda that impressed many in the Republican Party.

Pundits were surprised when Reagan decided not to pursue a third term as California governor in 1975, but The Gipper had bigger things in mind.

A journey to the right

Like most Irish-Americans, Ronald Reagan started out as a Democrat: he campaigned for Roosevelt, and even organised anti-nuclear marches. But in the late 1940s, anti-communist paranoia turned Reagan more towards flag-waving nationalism, and the right. He appeared as a "friendly witness" before the HUAC, and by the early 1950s was developing a philosophy based around the free market, low taxes and small government.

In 1962, he joined the Republican Party, and in 1966 he surprised many by getting elected California's governor. Within a year, he was promoting himself as a potential Presidential candidate, and through the 1970s became a popular favourite at Republican Party conventions. He bided his time, and in 1979 his chance finally came. Though in Europe he was often portrayed as a simpleton, in fact he was anything but: Reagan was a radical, ideologically driven conservative whose ideas would have a lasting influence in America, and beyond.

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