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Cahiers du Reagan

From TNR, November 1, 1980

Reagan speaking in 1980 primary

Peter Kaplan, the longtime New York Observer editor, died November 29. In November, 1980, before he had moved to editing, Kaplan wrote this New Republic piece assessing the movie career of Ronald Reagan, the man who would be elected president that month. 

OK, OK, Ronnie got the girl. "A truism of many writers," he complained to the Washington Post this year, "is that in motion pictures I was the fellow who never got the girl. Well, I always got the girl." Once more he has set the record straight on a crucial fact. In The Cattle Queen of Montana he got the girl. {So, Barbara Stanwyck was 44, she was still the girl.) In Brother Rat and a Baby he got the girl. (It was his own wife, Jane Wyman, but he got her.) In That Hagen Girl he got the girl. (Shirley Temple was accused of being his illegitimate child—it's a great one.} So let's not perpetuate that one anymore. He got the girl, all right.

Reagan never got to make a John Ford picture, so he has found real-life opportunities to play Ford roles, with a little Frank Capra thrown in. As Screen Actors Guild president he learned to speak as a marshall holding off the federal authorities with one hand and the Indians with the other. When, in 1947, HUAC's J. Parnell Thomas asked his witness to help "make America just as pure as we can possibly make it," Reagan answered: "Sir, I detest, I abhor their philosophy [you know whose], but I detest more than that their tactics, which are those of the fifth column, and are dishonest. But at the same time I never as a citizen want to see our country become urged, by either fear or resentment of this group, that we ever compromise with any of our democratic principles through that fear or resentment. I still think democracy can do it." What a voice! There's hollow good sense and moderation, decency and wariness, compassion and a clear eye toward the founding fathers (a group Reagan often refers to in speeches with a familiarity that really undercuts the age issue: "Tom" Paine, "Tom" Jefferson, probably "Jack" Adams is next). It sounds like the last reel of a Warners Brothers picture. Just substitute "Apaches" for the "fifth column" and you're right there with a box of Jujubes and a cup of Mr. Deelish.

Take a more recent example: Reagan's peroration at the Baltimore debate with John Anderson. Just imagine Reagan in a waistcoat, knickers, ruffled shirt, on a soundstage. "I have always believed that this land was placed here between the two great oceans by some divine plan." (He is lit from above.) "It was placed here to be found by a special kind of people, people who had a special love for freedom and who had the courage to uproot themselves and leave hearth and homeland." (Cut to old man in Copenhagen packing the family lederhosen, putting children in a trunk, kissing the fireplace goodbye—gently on the flagstones.) "And come to what in the beginning was the most undeveloped wilderness possible. We came from over 100 corners of the earth." (Shot of globe with 100 corners. Props: can it be done?) "We spoke a multitude of tongues, landed on the eastern shore and then went over the mountains and the prairies and the deserts—" (Shot of Gabby Hayes and Ella Raines on the front seat of a stagecoach.) "and the far western mountains of the Pacific building cities and towns and farms and schools and churches." (Superspeed shots of Gabby Hayes and Ella Raines, nails in mouth, building all these in sequence.) "If wind, rain or fire destroyed them, we built them again." (Shot of Gabby Hayes doing them all over while Ella Raines flaps jacks in the background.) "And in so doing at the same time we built a new breed of human called American." (Photo of Reagan building Jack Kemp.) "A proud, an independent, and a most compassionate individual—" (Kemp waves in field, feeds nuts to cows, milch to squirrels.) "for the most part." (Kemp endorses Ford.)

"Two hundred years ago, Tom Paine—" (Shot of Paine and Reagan in school together.) "when the 13 colonies were trying to become a nation, said we have it in our power to begin the world over again." (On Griffith-like silent screen, hundreds of revolutionary soldiers and Young Republicans rush up to Tom Paine with welding irons, safety helmets, and Lincoln logs.) "And tonight we can build that world over again. We can meet our destiny and that destiny can build a land here that will be for all mankind a shining city on the hill." (Props Dept.: please build shining city, on hill. Don't make it look like Manhattan.) "I think we ought to get at it." (Music: traditional, "Turkey in Straw," "Yankee Muster March," "Begin the Beguine." Warner Brothers sign-off.)

If you look at the best of Frank Capra's pictures, or any of the good liberal message pictures from the 1930s, there's almost always the Speech at the end, winding and weaving to Hollywood's idea of rhetorical heights, peaking with an emotional invocation, subsiding (but actually building) with a revelatory statement of experience, closing with some variation on the "I guess I've said just about enough but let me just say this" idea. That's when you drop the bomb and get the crowd on your side. In Frank Capra's first political tract, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Gary Cooper gets to slam the shyster lawyer Cedar in the chin after his final summation. In Reagan's first star-class picture, Knute Rockne, All-American, Pat O'Brien's Notre Dame team got the Speech and were sent out on the field to "win one for the Gipper!"

The Gipper, no need to remind you, was our boy, good and shining and fresh. He should have gotten to deliver one of those speeches, but he never did. He didn't have kick. The decency and selflessness of the Gipp—an American who saw in his death only the greater good of the team, Pat O'Brien, and the forward pass—made him a star, but not enough of a star to carry a big speech of his own. He was full of the kind of strapping integrity that was our answer to the Soviet worker, but here are a few of the things he wasn't: hard enough to be a hero who punched with conviction, evocative enough to get an audience to feel pain or joy in bis experience, agile enough to play comedy. Three things he was good at were looking steadfast, expressing sympathy, and pursing bis lips. He didn't kiss well and he smothered every joke. His greatest talent was the ability to look like he believed what he was saying.

He exuded sincerity. Only Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart did it better. "I only started out with one little lie," he says to Edward Arnold, the bloated senator in John Loves Mary—a sleek, postwar high-class comedy that Reagan did against his will—"but with your help. Senator, this darn thing bas grown and grown and with pictures in the newspapers and generals and War Departments and Majors until I don't know where it's going to stop. It's even gotten so Mary doesn't believe I love her. I do love you, Mary." He looks like he's on the verge of a faint. His jaw's out and bis eyebrows are knitted with anxiety.

Rent a movie projector today; you owe it to your country. There he stands with Patricia Neal, pursing his lips (was there another man in the movies who used that as his main device for expressing anger?), working like mad to look embarrassed (is this what it looks like? he seems to be saying, with no frame of reference) or angry or tense (finger in the collar, gulping), kissing her finally with 60 watts of passion.

From the end of the Depression through the war he shot through dozens of those pictures for the studio. He usually played stiffs, the voice of honesty, gratitude, and approved values, the type of "young man we're going to need if we're going to rise out of the current crisis, this Depression." "That guy's got the idea you can't get married unless you're on a budget," Chester Morris says in Brother Rat, jerking bis thumb back at Reagan. "Just a minute, junior," Reagan answers. "1 want to make a point. Don't even toy with any ideas of going out after dinner. Because we haven't got any money. Got that? No dough! Besides, I want to get back to the office and work!" What a guy.

He was a New Deal construction, a dependable comrade whose good sense and midwestern values would  get him through anything, no more capable of dissoluteness or perversity than Joan Leslie or Rex the Wonder Horse. Things went awfully well for him; gee, he wrote articles in Photoplay on "Why I Like Acting" and talked to Louella Parsons. Sam Wood, a good director and later a HUAC friendly witness, put Reagan in King's Row in 1942. Nowhere else in the Reagan oeuvre can you find as good a piece of work, or a part as close to what he seems to be in real life. King's Row considers a small town making a transition from the 19th into the 20th century. Reagan plays Drake McHugh, a rich scamp whose fortune is stolen from the bank president, who is forced to go to work in the rail yards, who is struck by a train and has bis legs amputated unnecessarily by a psychotic town doctor as punishment for bis years of rakishness. Drake gets saved by the new science, psychoanalysis (his childhood best friend has gone to study in Vienna). The picture streams along without a due about its point, until it becomes clear that it's a paean to progress and a good life for the common man. When Reagan rides up, early on, in a boater and bowtie to say to Robert Cummings and Ann Sheridan, "Howdya like my new horse and buggy? I got my allowance yesterday!" he gives the picture a sure ease and comfort, as though he knows the territory. It's a rarity in a Reagan picture, this surefooted work. We enjoy this Drake McHugh, and Reagan gets us to like him more. He communicates a great deal in a warm, sensitive performance, and when, during his big scene after the amputation, he yells "Randy! Randy! Where's the rest of me?" it sticks. At the end of the picture he resolves, with Ann Sheridan, to build a new neighborhood, a good neighborhood, where kids can play and working people can live decently. He sits upright and grins, "For Pete's sake! Let's give a party! I feel swell!" There's happiness in his voice that's unself-conscious, that hardly surfaces as spontaneously anywhere else in his pictures, that moves the audience. The All-American boy endures vibrantly, past adversity.

After the war, Warner Brothers didn't know exactly what to do with him. King's Row had gotten him a seven-year million dollar contract, but the movies had changed. Film noir was creeping in, and so had sad heroes who walked around in the real world. Reagan wanted to make Westerns, but Jack Warner had other projects for him. He played veterinarians and professors, scientists and teachers. Not a boxer or a murderer in the bunch. Who'd want to see them? In a 1949 dog called Nigh Unto Night, from a Philip Wylie novel, he played an epileptic but he looked catatonic. His mouth kept tightening as though he'd been on an all-lemon diet. He seemed to grow lonelier and lonelier in his pictures, and more distant from the places where good movies were being made.

In 1951 he co-starred with Bonzo in Bedtime for Bonzo. Whatever you've heard about Bedtime for Bonzo, it's true: Reagan nurses the chimpanzee, sleeps with the chimpanzee, stands on his head with the chimpanzee. "Believe me," he told Michael Kramer of New York magazine recently, "you must have credibility … now you take my role in Bedtime for Bonzo." This is a quotation you don't want to finish without taking a moment to wonder what comes next. All right. "I was a scientist who raised a chimp as a child in my home. It was a huge money-maker, terrific. People could believe in it. But then the studio decided to make a sequel called Bonzo Goes to College. I refused to play in it. It bombed. Who could believe a chimp could go to college and play on the college team? It lacked credibility." There was guileless Ron, taking the night he put a lampshade over his head and turning it into a medal of honor—Bonzo had credibility.

His conservatism grew as his acting career faded. As Screen Actors Guild president, Reagan began to associate more and more with the businessmen who ran Hollywood, attending meetings with studio heads like Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner. By the mid-1950s he was speaking for General Electric. He went on to host for Borax. If his acting career had gone on, he'd be playing doctors on television now and doing Nytol ads. He'd probably be on Health Center. U.S.A., in a white coat and stethoscope, saying, "Mrs. Heatterson, Willie's what we call 'dyslexic' We have here a battery of tests I'd like him to take ..." He would be raising money for California legislature candidates and speaking to state conventions until even people with good memories like middle-aged encyclopedias and TV quiz show contestants couldn't exactly remember who he was.

Even these days his previous life is hardly known. A few months ago, I spent a long time watching Reagan for a glossy magazine. The editor allowed me to rent some of his pictures, and while he was out of town I showed them in his somewhat cavernous office. A few of us would sit there in the dark among the film cans and the power of the movies would take over until we forgot we were waiting for Reagan. Then at some point this young man walked across the lit wall carrying a high head of shining hair, great shoulders, and the integrity of a boys' choir. He spoke his words and we flipped the projector switch and watched him grab the girl in the movie backward and forward maybe a dozen times. He told her the only thing in the world that mattered to him was for her to marry him. She smiled and kissed him. There in the dark he got the girl. His life, he told her, was complete. She seemed like a nice person. Too bad the movie ended before a hero could climb in through the window to save her.

Peter W. Kaplan is a New York writer.