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."