Depending on your age, you may remember Ronald Reagan foremost as a President of the United States, as a Governor of California, or as a movie actor; maybe all three. On the other hand, if you're very young, you may not remember him at all. In terms of his Presidency, people tend to think of him either as one of the greatest leaders in history or one of the worst, contingent on their political beliefs; but the one thing most people do agree on is that he was not a particularly great movie star. Indeed, he was probably best as a supporting player. Nevertheless, as 2011 marks the late President's one-hundredth birthday, Warner Bros. have put together a big, eight-disc boxed set containing eight of the actor's WB pictures spanning the years 1939-1952. I'll give you brief overviews of seven of the films and go into more detail on the one that may be Reagan's best screen effort of all.
"Dark Victory," 1939, directed by Edmund Goulding, is really a Bette Davis film, with George Brent, Humphrey Bogart, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Cora Witherspoon, Henry Travers and Ronald Reagan in supporting roles. It's a signature part for Davis, and one hardly remembers that Reagan or anyone else is in it. If you like melodramas about terminal illnesses, this one's for you. 7/10
"Knute Rockne All American," 1940, directed by Lloyd Bacon, is a film notable for Pat O'Brien's portrayal of Notre Dame's famous winning football coach and Reagan for the dying player, George Gipp. "Win just one for the Gipper." Still one of the most-popular sports pictures around. 6/10
"Desperate Journey," 1942, directed by Raoul Walsh and starring Errol Flynn, Reagan, Nancy Coleman, Raymond Massey, Alan Hale, and Arthur Kennedy is an action yarn with Flynn and company shot down over enemy territory and fighting their way home. Flynn seems to be trying to win WWII all by himself. Didn't he know he had John Wayne helping him elsewhere? 5/10
"Irving Berlin's This Is the Army," 1942, directed by the underrated Michael Curtiz, is a musical salute to our armed forces, starring George Murphy, Reagan, George Tobias, Alan Hale, Charles Butterworth, and a whole flock of service personnel. The songs are pleasant. 6/10
"The Hasty Heart," 1949, directed by Vincent Sherman, stars Richard Todd, Reagan, and Patricia Neal in the sentimental tale of a dying Scottish soldier who makes friends in a Burmese hospital during the short time he's got left to him. 7/10
"Storm Warning," 1950, directed by Stuart Heisler, starring Ginger Rogers, Reagan, Doris Day, and Steve Cochran, is a "message" picture, with Reagan as an upright district attorney. Well intended but too preachy for my taste. 4/10
"The Winning Team," 1952, directed by Lewis Seiler and starring Doris Day, Reagan, and Frank Lovejoy, is the movie biography of baseball pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander. Neither Mr. Reagan nor Ms. Day is especially persuasive. 5/10
Finally, we have the film I'm going to discuss at length, "Kings Row," from 1942, directed by Sam Wood and starring Ann Sheridan, Robert Cummings, Reagan, Betty Field, Charles Coburn, Claude Rains, and Judith Anderson. But first let's wait a minute and listen. What's that noise? I'd swear it was the sound of dripping suds. Yes, along with "Dark Victory," 1942's "Kings Row" is one of the best soapy melodramas to come out of Hollywood. Moreover, it does its sudsy job with such remarkable effectiveness, you'll hardly notice; and without it we might not have gotten "Peyton Place." And without "Peyton Place," we might not have gotten "Valley of the Dolls." Come to think of it, I may never forgive "Kings Row." Then again, without "Kings Row," we might not have gotten David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" either, so maybe all is forgiven.
Like the Lynch film, "Kings Row" takes us beneath the placid, idyllic setting of a small, fictional American town around the turn of the twentieth century and shows us the sordid underbelly of "respectable" society. The movie was extremely dark for its day, pointing out that things are not always as they appear. Even the most seemingly benign environment may be filled with corruption, decay, lies, cruelty, deceit, and murder. I suppose wherever we find humans, we find human nature, and human nature is subject to the ravages of evil. Always has been; always will be.
The movie does not delve as deeply into lurid sensationalism as "Blue Velvet," to be sure; this was made in the early 1940's after all. But, as I say, it does explore themes Tinseltown did not usually touch back then. John Eastman writes in his book "Retakes" (Ballantine Books, New York, 1989), "Hollywood censor Joseph J. Breen, whose office gutted the screenplay based on Henry Bellamann's best-selling novel, called the entire sanitized effort a 'definite disservice' to the motion picture industry, one likely to bring down 'the condemnation of decent people everywhere.' Instead it won three Academy Award nominations."
The movie covers close to twenty years in the lives of a group of people growing up in Kings Row. We see them first as children in 1890, and then as young adults from about 1900 to around 1907 or thereabout. The principals are Parris Mitchell (Robert Cummings), a serious, studious fellow struggling to become a doctor; Parris's best friend, Drake McHugh (Ronald Reagan), a happy-go-lucky ladies' man; Cassie Tower (Betty Field), the secluded daughter of a local doctor; Randy Monaghan (Ann Sheridan), a girl from the poorer part of town, across the railroad tracks; and Louise Gordon (Nancy Coleman), a daughter of another local doctor. Their lives intertwine throughout the story, and they each experience unexpected loss, betrayal, and tragedy.
It appears that the Warner Bros. studios were trying to make their film into another "Gone With the Wind," judging by the sheer size of the opening titles and the grand sweep of composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold's musical score. They got Sam Wood to direct the movie, a man who had a proven track record ("A Night at the Opera," "Our Town," "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," and later "The Pride of the Yankees" and "For Whom the Bells Tolls"). They had Hal B. Wallis and David Lewis as producers. And they hired production designer William Cameron Menzies and cinematographer James Wong Howe to stage and film it. Although the moviemakers shot the film almost entirely on Warners' sound stages and back lots, it looks superb. Howe's camera work is never extravagant, nothing like a "Citizen Kane," but in its simplicity, its composition, its deep focus, and its beautiful contrasts, it's about as good as it gets.
Parris is the evident leading player in the drama, although, to be honest, it's Reagan as the playboy Drake who steals the show. Reagan always said it was the best role of his movie career, and one can see why. He even used a line from the film as the title of his autobiography, "Where's the Rest of Me?" Oddly enough, none of the starring players were WB's first choices, with Reagan a lowly seventh pick. But it's really only Cummings who lets down the production with a comparatively lightweight performance.
Anyway, everything we see in the movie's first twenty minutes or so would lead us to believe that Kings Row was the most heavenly spot on Earth, but childhood can be that way, can't it? To a child, everything is bright and innocent and new. It's when we meet up with the main characters in their young adulthood that we begin to see the rot beneath the surface. Not, by the way, to imply that everyone in Kings Row or everyone in the world is rotten by any means; the story only suggests that some people are rotten, but that they can infect the rest of their surroundings.
Parris has come to like Cassie a lot, but Cassie's father (Claude Rains) is mysteriously overprotective of her, keeping her under lock and key, not letting her out of the house, and certainly not letting her see men. Meanwhile, Parris comes to the father's house daily for tutoring in preparation for his eventually going to medical school. At the same time, Drake is hotfooting it around town with various ladies and getting a reputation as a wild fellow. When he and Louise Gordon fall in love, her father, Dr. Gordon (Charles Coburn), will not hear of it; his daughter is much too good for such a low life as Drake. Later, Drake strikes up a romance with childhood friend Randy, making Louise jealous.
Then, about halfway through the narrative, when most of the mushy stuff is out of the way, adversity strikes, and the movie takes on its ominous dark shadows. Death, murder, and suicide shock the town. Secrets develop, social class distinctions become more apparent, and further scandals rock the townsfolk. When Parris goes off to Vienna to study psychiatry, Drake takes over the story, and things take a definite turn for the better, story-wise if not for the character himself.
As tragedy piles upon tragedy, as the iniquities and mental disorders of some of the townspeople become ever more known, "Kings Row" becomes more melodramatic. And every step the movie takes in that direction makes it all the more fascinating to watch. It does not paint a pretty picture. This is no romanticized Americana; this is a Norman Rockwell painting turned inside out. But it does create a vivid sense of place and character, and it deals with serious issues that Hollywood had previously hushed up. Censor Breen had promised that "decent people everywhere" would condemn the picture. People didn't. People loved it. Today, the movie seems rather old-fashioned and quaint in its cleaned-up guise; but it was undeniably influential, another small step toward the freedoms of expression we now enjoy in movies and television.
Although "Kings Row" is episodic and sentimental and filled with all kinds of unlikely turns of events, there is no denying the characters are endearing and the ending uplifting. It's all quite hard to resist. 7/10
Each of the black-and-white, 1.33:1 screen transfers looks good, with "Kings Row" among the best work Warner Bros. have done with an old movie in standard definition. The prints were clearly good to begin with and undoubtedly WB's touching up helped them look even better. There are a few jitters now and then and some very minor noise and grain, probably originating with the original film stock, but nothing of concern. Contrasts are strong, definition is fairly sharp, and there are very few signs of age--scratches, flecks, lines, or fades.
The audio engineers do a commendable job reproducing the 1.0 monaural sound of these movies via Dolby Digital processing. Noise reduction makes the backgrounds quiet, and the midrange response is generally clear and natural. Understandably, the frequency span and dynamic impact on these discs appear limited, but we have come to expect that.
Warner Bros. offer a variety of extras on the various discs. For instance, there are audio commentaries on "Dark Victory" and "The Hasty Heart"; "Warner Night at the Movies" on several others; plus documentaries, vintage featurettes, short subjects, classic cartoons, and theatrical trailers. Specifically, on "Kings Row" the studio provide a few things that one might have found accompanying the film back in 1942. The first is a vintage, 1942 musical short, "The United States Marine Band." The second is a classic Merrie Melodies cartoon, "Fox Pop." And the third is a theatrical trailer.
All the of the films come with ample scene selections; English as the only spoken language, except on "Desperate Journey"; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. The eight separate discs come housed in a single keep case with sleeve inserts, the case further contained in an attractive cardboard slipcover box.
If you're partial to Ronald Reagan's acting, this set's for you. More to the point, there are some good films here that feature Reagan as a supporting player, where he is just fine. Warners already released these movies separately, but in the box, they make a more-financially tempting proposition.