In TAC correspondent Mike Gray’s most recently weekly update of Turner Classic Movies thrillers, he mentions some B movies starring Ronald Reagan from the Warner Bros. studio in the late 1930s and early ’40s. These movies were made when Reagan was just starting out as an actor, and he was fortunate to get these lead roles even though the films were low in budget. They’re well worth watching.
Turner Classics has chosen Reagan as its Star of the Month and will be featuring his performances Wednesday nights throughout March. I’m glad I didn’t give up Ronnie’s movies for Lent.
I have made the case elsewhere that Reagan was a much better actor than most people were willing to admit, and I recommend you read that article for a more complete view of his career.
Tonight’s slate of films on Turner Classics gives a good sense of how charming, likeable, and athletic Reagan was early in his career. And even in these early, low-budget films one can see flashes of real acting talent.
Despite the lack of big money for strong production values, these films have solid though romantically adventurous stories, and the social and moral values are exemplary. The scripts aren’t deep or always fully coherent, but they’re great fun. Although by no means a brilliantly accomplished actor at this point, Reagan is quite good, and his winning personality definitely comes across. It’s easy to see why he went on to better roles in A level films and eventually to great success in politics.
The first four films in the TCM’s series tonight (see Mike’s schedule here) feature Reagan as U.S. Secret Service agent "Brass" Bancroft. The stories were taken from the real-life memoirs of a treasury agent, and although they are fancied up with a good deal of action, the motives and characters largely make sense. The films are all short (less than an hour), fast-paced action thrillers, and Reagan does a good job of making Bancroft both likeable and heroic. I like them so much I’ve burned all four to DVDs.
Mike’s schedule doesn’t mention Angels Wash Their Faces (1939), at 12:30 AM EST, in which Reagan and Ann Sheridan help some juvenile delinquents left over from Angels with Dirty Faces—so I will. Both Reagan and Sheridan are quite likeable in this film, and it’s a fun outing.
That’s followed by Girls on Probation, from 1938, in which Reagan’s character saves a young lady from a life of crime, and Nine Lives Are Not Enough (1941), a mystery in which Reagan plays a reporter trying to solve a series of murders set in a somewhat shabby milieu. After that he plays a Bancroft-like insurance investigator in the spunky police/gangsters action film Accidents Will Happen.
Sheridan and Reagan return at 6:00 AM in the 1942 social-problem drama Juke Girl, in which Reagan plays a migrant fruit picker caught up in a dispute between farmers and exploitative middlemen, and of course gets involved in a fairly complex and danger-filled story line. Reagan’s and Sheridan’s characters have an interestingly complex romantic relationship in the film. And then Reagan and Margaret Lindsay help some more juvenile delinquents—the Dead End Kids—in Hell’s Kitchen, from 1939.
That’s followed by a 1947 comedy in which Reagan stars with teenage Shirley Temple, and a very interesting role in an unusual romantic melodrama directed by action director Don Siegel, Night Unto Night. This 1949 film shows some of Reagan’s range as a serious actor and is well worth seeing for that reason in addition to its other merits.
Warner Bros. B movies starring Ronald Reagan: Recommended.
—S. T. Karnick