Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Christmas Album: Ronnie

Well, well, if it isn't the Ghost of Christmas Past on Day Thirteen of our Holiday tour! It has come wrapped in the form of vices that were once merely regarded as a mildly interesting form of normal social intercourse. And who should we find hawking our nation's former favorite habit, but Ronald Reagan himself, passing out the smokes to all and sundry from his desk. I'd say it was around 1952 from the small print mentioning a forgotten but pleasant adventure flick called Hong Kong (1952) aka Bombs Over China and from the looks of that baggy brown suit the future pres is wearing, (a color and type that he persisted in wearing forever, it seems). Ah, there's nothing quite like making the world a bit safer for non-Communist smokers. Of course, nowadays, capitalist countries are among the leaders in making the wares of such manufacturers socially anathema, believing that playing nanny over the citizenry might avert humanity's tendencies toward self-destructive behavior.

Things seemed simpler back in Reagan's day, when doctors even made ads endorsing certain brands of cigarettes, claiming that it has "no unpleasant after-taste", and "won't cut your wind" when cheerleading for the big tobacco companies. What would old movies be without cigarettes? Since the production code made more explicit expressions of passion impossible, and since big tobacco companies practiced product placement of their goods by readily supplying the studios with them, sharing a smoke on and off screen certainly gave actors "something to do with their hands" and, oh, that curling smoke certainly photographed beautifully in black and white.

Speaking of black and white, Mr. Reagan, before he took on the ultimate role as president of the United States, tried to make his mark on the public consciousness via many a Warner Brothers movie. This viewer doesn't think he was as poor an actor as some claim, and his film career is much pleasanter to contemplate than politics. This is especially so in such innocent fare as those "Boy's Life" visions encapsulated in movies such as Brother Rat (1938), his heart-tugging "Gipper" in Knute Rockne, All American (1940), and Desperate Journey (1942) with his double-talking spiel confusing Nazi Raymond Massey as he, Errol Flynn and other members of the Warner Brothers stock company broke out of Germany. The less innocent, more ambitious movies that he appeared in were not always successful, but they did give a more nuanced look at life through the Hollywood lens. Some of the best of them for this viewer were those films that presented his appealing squareness in all its embattled poignancy. The most effective might be his maimed small towner in the very dark Sam Wood film of King's Row (1942), his tentative romantic looking for a way to feeling whole again in The Voice of the Turtle (1947), his stalwart comrade in arms in the unjustly forgotten The Hasty Heart (1949), his withdrawn, epileptic scientist in the intriguing Night Unto Night (1949) and the not so innocent but quite interesting re-imagining of Hemingway's The Killers (1964).

As for appearing in advertisements such as the above, Reagan, whose letters and diaries reveal a much more astute and contemplative person than he ever revealed publicly, once pointed out to those eager to emphasize his failings, that "You know, by the time you reach my age, you've made plenty of mistakes if you've lived your life properly." As for his political career, I like the rather myopic Hollywood approach attributed to Reagan's former boss, Jack Warner, when he heard that his former employee, who had been a president of SAG for several years, was considering a serious run for gubernatorial office in California:"No, no, no, no. You've got it all wrong. Jimmy Stewart for governor, Ronald Reagan for best friend."

5 comments : said...

Thanks again Moira! Keep 'em coming. And although my I try to focus my personal viewings between 1930 and 1950, I found the 1964 version of The Killers fantastic. Lee Marvin is the standout, but Reagan, in his only villainous role is quite good.

David (round, firm & fully-packed)

Moira Finnie said...

Hi David!
Though I have a real soft spot for the first version of The Killers (1946), that '60s breakthrough for Don Siegel, Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, Clu Gulager and that meanie, Mr. Reagan rattled my world the first time I saw it too. After all, RR was always a good guy, no? According to what I've read, Mr. R. was most uncomfortable in the role, though he took direction well...Btw, if you like Lee Marvin, you might enjoy the recently released dvd of M Squad. It is full of people imbibing adult beverages morning, noon and night as well as folks relishing every puff of their evil cigarettes.

No wonder almost all the movie icons of that era died relatively early!

Laura said...

I recently saw THE VOICE OF THE TURTLE for the first time and it was something of a revelation. After I got past the strangeness of seeing President Reagan acting onscreen (I've seen only a couple of his movies, including KINGS ROW, and none recently), I found myself utterly charmed by his performance. One of his lines in particular had me laughing out loud. I'm looking forward to seeing more of his films. (My dad picked up the box DVD set, which I'm sure I'll be borrowing down the line...)

I'd like to add my thanks for continuing these Christmas posts. I'm enjoying finding a new one each day!

Best wishes,

Moira Finnie said...

Oh boy, Laura,
As disorienting as it can be to see Reagan as an actor, you may find yourself enjoying his films more than you expected. When you have a chance to see them, I hope that you'll post about them too. Thanks so much for dropping by for a cup of cyber-eggnog, (it's the non-fattening variety, too!)

Moira said...

Yes the 1946 version is a certain must-see. I hadn't seen many Lancaster films, but got on bit of a Lancaster binge after I saw him in Brute Force. Still on my list to see are The Crimson Pirate, The Flame and the Arrow and Elmer Gantry, among others.

Saw The Big Heat a few weeks ago. Started slow, but was riveting. Performances were great all around and Lee Marvin as the brash and amoral gangster Vince Stone was brilliant.

I've got the M Squad Set. Haven't dipped into it yet.

Your mention of bending the elbow though brought to mind Burke's Law. If you haven't seen it, it's a great series with 3 to 5 guest stars from the Golden Age per episode.



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