Yes, he made a name for himself after he left movie making, but was he ever a Star on Screen. Did Ronald Reagan make any good films? Let’s see.
The conventional wisdom? Maybe.
The story goes that when the actor was running for California governor (he won, and reigned as such until 1974) mogul Jack Warner quipped — No, no! James Stewart for governor! Ronald Reagan for best friend!
In fact it was Warner Bros. that signed the ex-sports commentator to a contract in 1937. Reagan was placed as an amiable out-doorsy leading man for at least a decade. One such title, 1938’s Brother Rat, a romantic comedy about good old guys at military school, connected Reagan with his first wife, Jane Wyman (they married in 1940 and divorced nine years later).
When he ran for the presidency, Reagan was sometimes dismissed as that hapless ham who gets splattered with oatmeal by an obstreperous chimpanzee in 1951’s Bedtime for Bonzo.
But critics and pundits who have reviewed Reagan’s screen career come up with a hand full of pictures that he made which are, at least, worthy of another look. In 1939 came Dark Victory, a Bette Davis vehicle in which Reagan plays a charming playboy who woos but loses David to George Brent.
Effective is Reagan’s portrayal of Notre Dame football ace George Gipp in 1940’s Knute Rockne: All American. His sports experience as a college athlete (at Illinois’ Eureka College) stood him in good stead. His “win one for the Gipper” speech still evokes tears.
There seems to be a consensus that the 1942 drama, Kings Row, about small-town scandals at the turn of the last century, is Reagan’s best. He plays, again, a playboy who this time winds up on the wrong side of a local surgeon who cuts off his legs. The movie famously includes Reagan’s post surgical awakening with the exclamation– Where’s the rest of me?
But is we had to choose one Reagan feature as the best of the lot (he is credited with more than 80 movie and tv titles over the years) we’d choose his final big screen outing, 1964’s The Killers, director Don Sielgel’s remake of the 1946 noir in which Reagan plays — perhaps for first time in his career– the villain. Prepare yourself: Our man gets to slap Angie Dickinson.
Finally we should mention the submarine drama Hellcats of the Navy, Reagan’s only appearance with Nancy Davis, who became, of course, first lady for the remainder of his life. (Reagan died in 2004 at the age of 93.)