Friday, March 20, 2009

Reagan in Jodhpurs: Stallion Road (1947) & Going Places (1938)

Ronald Reagan around 1960s ready for a ride.

I've been catching up with some of the saved recordings of Ronald Reagan movies from earlier this month on TCM. As I've probably mentioned on this blog before, I like Reagan the Actor much more than others. I've also noticed that RR seemed to love it whenever he could wander around on and off screen in those jodhpurs that serious horsemen wore in his generation when they wore English tack duds.

Well, TCM, as part of their month-long celebration of RR, gave us a double dose of Ronnie in riding gear last week when they broadcast Stallion Road (1947) and Going Places (1938).

I'd always heard that Stallion Road was a stinker, turned down by Lauren Bacall, but was impressed by the film's "pedigree" when Robert Osborne mentioned at the end of the movie that it had originally been planned for Humphrey Bogart and Bacall to be photographed in technicolor. I suppose it was the tried and true air of the script that made Bogie back gingerly away from this project, though I bet he was thinking about his turn as an Irish stable 'boy' in Dark Victory and those times he was roped into playing villains in Westerns such as The Oklahoma Kid too. Bogie and horses just didn't jibe with his hard won romantic cynic image, I guess.

In any case, RR, under the direction of James V. Kern got the chance to take center stage here in a black and white movie (that cried out for color), playing a veterinarian with women galore and an anthrax epidemic to contend with. In between plagues, he had lots of opportunity to fend off the horsey Alexis Smith, the drippy gold digger Peggy Knudsen, the obnoxious junior annoyance, Patti Brady (as Alexis' whiny sister) and Zachary Scott, who had the best part as a wastrel-novelist, which was probably the original one planned for Bogart. Though Scott got lost in poetic reveries every five minutes or so, his philosophical jaundice and delight in all indoor sports was most welcome throughout the movie. When Doc Reagan, who caught anthrax when a rogue stallion left a bacteria-laden hoof print on him, was once again waylaid for awhile during the film, I started to wonder if it was in RR's contract that he had to have a near death bed sequence in every picture since Knute Rockne?

The most interesting feature of Stallion Road as a story was that, while Reagan and Smith are clearly fated to be mated, (eventually), Scott and Knudsen are self-aware losers in life's race, and both seem to acknowledge one another's inevitable status whenever they meet, commiserating but sharing their thoughts and schemes in occasional scenes, though Scott is hung up on Smith and Knudsen on Reagan.Both the "losers" manage to distract themselves with other interests like marrying for money and drinking in between breaking their hearts over those they can never have.

More significantly, perhaps, is that the gentle, scholarly and dedicated Reagan is clearly seen as the nurturer of life in this film--a role usually left to the actress. Reagan's forward thinking veterinarian, complemented nicely by the warmth and humanity of the always welcome Harry Davenport in a his role as a human medico. Davenport, as always, was a convincing paternal figure who seemed genuinely interested in his patients whole selves, not just their physical well-being. Reagan applied himself enthusiastically to the modest demands of playing a man so caught up in his job that he often seems unaware of the human needs around him. Despite this "flaw" in his character, the progressive veterinarian is the hero of the piece, reminding me at one point of the character played by Errol Flynn in the earnest Green Light (1937), a movie based on one of the inspirational stories of medical research by Lloyd "Magnificent Obsession" Douglas.

The assertive, rather rigid character played by Smith, (seen at left with the chuckling, easgoing Reagan) on the other hand, seems quite masculine and forceful, dressing and acting like the competitor she plays in this film. That gender reversal gave this film an extra fillip of interest, even though much of the playing was predictable. It is a shame that both Smith and Scott were not given more to do with their characters. Both were more capable actors than either got to demonstrate in most of their films.

Going Places (1938) was a B movie directed by Ray Enright. The movie was highlighted by music but starred Dick Powell and Walter Catlett as equine clothing salesmen in a silly piece about their imitating real life horsemen trying to make a killing selling their wares to the very rich, among whom is a jodhpur-clad Ronald Reagan as a silly ass playboy type with horses but little horse sense. Powell looked faintly embarrassed throughout this movie. The best part of the movie for me was the scene in which some incompetent horse players Allan Jenkins and Harold Huber, along with Powell and Catlett, make up the song "Oh, What a Horse Was Charlie". This scene has a nicely absurd undertone that echoes the inspired silliness of a Marx Brothers movie. The other winning presence in this movie was Louis Armstrong, who sings and plays "Jeepers Creepers", a sort of anthem to a horse and leads others in the large production number "Mutiny in the Nursery." Otherwise, all I can say, is that RR looked nicely turned out in all his equipage, though he would never convince anyone that he was "to the manor born."

The Johnny Mercer-Harry Warren songs and the A movie budget cannot hide the threadbare nature of the plot, though the horsey scenes, shot at Will Rogers Park in the LA area were frequently the site of polo matches among Hollywood's elite in the '30s. Reagan's wardrobe and his lightweight part in this, his eighth movie in one year at Warner Brothers didn't tax his abilities to be pleasant, though his ability to register vexation by fuming and frowning should have received a better director's immediate attention. It would be about three years before, thanks to trial and error on the actor's part, and working with better directors, that Reagan would develop into a better actor. No one seems to have helped him here and his earnestness, along with his lack of technique is both glaring and rather touching.


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