When he first guided his shiny Nash convertible through the Warner Bros. gates in 1937, Ronald Reagan was a New Deal Democrat, a liberal unionist fighting for those “at the bottom of the ladder,” a budding antifascist who deplored blacklists.
By the time he steered away from the entertainment business 23 years later, he had been transformed into a studio ally, a riveting political speaker and a staunch anti-Communist who, under the FBI code name “T-10,” secretly named names.
Reagan’s studio years did far more than establish the actor’s public persona as “the Gipper.” Even though many of his film roles were forgettable, his show business tenure memorably reshaped his worldview, cementing the core principles of small government and free enterprise that carried him to the California governor’s office and the White House.
The transformation was so profound that Reagan’s last meaningful television job, as host of “General Electric Theater,” was essentially his first political campaign.
His change of heart was more slow odyssey than instant epiphany, a transformation brought about by a series of events, including a violent labor clash and a seemingly innocuous visit to England to film a movie.
It was a show business education like no other: If movies and television made Reagan known to the masses, Hollywood made Reagan known to himself.
“The most important political lesson Reagan learned from his Hollywood years was the difference between the endorsement of the critics and success at the box office,” Dinesh D’Souza wrote in his biography, “Ronald Reagan.”
In the spring of 1937, “Dutch” Reagan, a 26-year-old radio sports announcer from Iowa, drove to Los Angeles to make his big-screen debut. Only a few weeks earlier, he had come to Southern California to catch the Cubs in spring training on Santa Catalina Island, and had had a drink with one of the few people he knew in show business, budding singer Joy Hodges. He’d confessed to her that he dreamed of being an actor.
Hodges introduced Reagan to her agent, George Ward, who in turn arranged for a screen test. Soon after returning to Des Moines, the young announcer received a telegram from the West Coast: “Warners offer contract seven years. One year’s options, starting at $200 a week.”
In the era of the contract player, a studio kept its actors as busy as possible, choosing parts and carefully constructing an image. Warner Bros. plugged its new acquisitions into a slew of films, many of which followed the rags-to-riches themes popular with Depression-era audiences.
In Reagan’s debut, he appeared as a radio announcer in 1937’s “Love Is on the Air.” In his first three years, he made about 20 films. He developed a dependable reputation, and eventually the parts improved, although he never reached superstardom. “ ‘Mr. Norm’ is my alias” is how Reagan described himself. He married actress Jane Wyman in 1940.
Soon after, he was cast as legendary doomed halfback George Gipp in his dream project, “Knute Rockne All American.” When Gipp died of pneumonia, Notre Dame’s famous coach Rockne asked his players to “win one for the Gipper.” The slogan later became a favorite Reagan rallying cry.
As World War II approached, Warner Bros. assigned Reagan to a series of patriotic films. He later joked that these movies made him the “Errol Flynn of the Bs. I was as brave as Errol but in a low-budget way.”
Leonard Maltin says of Reagan in his Movie Encyclopedia: He was “by no means as bad an actor as his detractors would have one believe.”
Reagan appeared as Brass Bancroft, flying agent of the U.S. Secret Service, in a series of low-rent thrillers aimed at kids. In 1941 the studio elevated the actor to “star” status, and soon after he signed a new contract, for $1,650 a week.
A number of Reagan chroniclers have noted that his stint as an actor taught him important lessons later used in his political career, such as the value of stagecraft and the power of heroic myth for audiences.
Biographer Lou Cannon also said that by the time Reagan ascended to the presidency, “his mind was filled with movie scenes more vivid to him than many actual events.” Reagan judged stories to be told “by their impact rather than their accuracy.”
Despite his heroic on-screen image, Reagan did not see any action in World War II because of poor eyesight. He spent five weeks as a liaison officer at Ft. Mason in San Francisco before transferring to the newly created Army Air Forces motion picture unit back in Hollywood, where he worked on training films and documentaries.
With the war’s end came the start of his rapid political transformation. Part of the evolution sprang from his annoyance over bureaucratic Civil Service rules during wartime.
“I think the first crack in my staunch liberalism appeared in the last year and a half of my military career,” Reagan wrote in his memoirs, “Where’s the Rest of Me?”
In his mid-30s he watched his career sputter with such flops as “That Hagen Girl,” in which he starred as the love interest opposite a grown-up (but still much younger) Shirley Temple.
Meanwhile, Wyman’s career was blossoming with such films as “Johnny Belinda,” for which she won an Oscar. In June 1947, Reagan nearly died of pneumonia, and while he was sick, Wyman gave birth prematurely to a girl, who died. The marriage never recovered. In 1948, Wyman left him and sued for divorce.
In part, she blamed the breakup on his newfound love of “film colony politics” and his time-consuming work for the Screen Actors Guild, whose board he had joined in 1938. In “Where’s the Rest of Me?” Reagan called himself a “near-hopeless hemophiliac liberal. I bled for ‘causes.’ ”
That quickly changed.
Reagan grew disillusioned with postwar America. “Like most of the soldiers who came back, I expected a world suddenly reformed,” he wrote in “Where’s the Rest of Me?” “I discovered that the world was almost the same and perhaps a little worse.... I would work with the tools I had: my thoughts, my speaking abilities, my reputation as an actor. I would try to bring about the regeneration of the world I believed should have automatically appeared.”
Reagan quickly soured on a number of left-wing organizations he’d joined in the immediate postwar period, including the American Veterans Committee and the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions. He and many others later said both organizations were Communist fronts.
In 1946, a group whose supporters included Reagan drafted a resolution urging the Hollywood committee to reject communism as “a desirable form of government” for the United States.
The committee voted the measure down, and Reagan said he was denounced as a “fascist” and “capitalist scum.” Soon after, a number of committee members, Reagan included, resigned. He grew deeply involved in the Screen Actors Guild, becoming its president in 1947 and then staying on for five more consecutive one-year terms.
At the forefront of his SAG agenda was the intense rivalry between the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and the Conference of Studio Unions.
During the Depression, the theatrical stage employees union, IATSE, had developed a reputation for being corrupt, and in the early 1940s a group of reformers broke away to form what would become the left-wing Conference of Studio Unions. Critics -- Reagan among them -- accused that group of being a communist front.
The conference, whose members included painters, electricians and carpenters, led a series of strikes against the studios. Hollywood was split over whether to support the conference or IATSE, but with Reagan’s backing, SAG ultimately crossed the conference’s picket lines.
In September 1946, conference pickets lined up outside Warner Bros. Violence broke out between the pickets and the rival IATSE and the police, and soon spread to other studios. Reagan said that he received an anonymous call threatening to disfigure his face for urging SAG members to cross picket lines and soon began carrying a gun.
The Hollywood committee’s vote and the strike, Reagan would later write, had a profound effect.
“As I look back now, I guess I was also beginning a political transformation that was born in an off-screen caldron of deceit and subversion and a personal journey of discovery that would leave me with a growing distaste for big government. I didn’t realize it, but I’d started on a path that was going to lead me a long way from Hollywood.”
He said his shifting political convictions were further cemented when he filmed “The Hasty Heart” in England for four months.
“I saw firsthand how the welfare state sapped incentive to work from many people in a wonderful and dynamic country,” he wrote in his second memoir, “An American Life.”
In October 1947, Reagan had testified before the newly formed House Un-American Activities Committee. He defended Hollywood, saying that there was a small contingent of guild members he suspected of being Communists, but that the majority of SAG members prevented Communist rhetoric from reaching the screen.
In public, he did not name any names. After returning from Washington, he unsuccessfully proposed a statement to the SAG board condemning producers who had blacklisted the so-called Hollywood 10, a group of filmmakers who refused to answer the House committee’s questions. He also introduced a resolution requiring SAG board members and officers to sign an affidavit that they were not Communist Party members.
Despite his condemnation of blacklists, Reagan had already become an FBI informer, according to published reports. With Wyman he identified suspected Communists Larry Parks, Howard Da Silva and Alexander Knox, all of whom were subsequently called to testify, and subsequently blacklisted. The careers of Parks and Da Silva were destroyed.
According to a 1947 FBI report, Reagan told the government that he wanted Congress to declare the Communist Party illegal and designate which organizations were Communist fronts. By the time the House committee resumed investigating Hollywood in 1951, Reagan staunchly supported its effort, even concluding that blacklisting was important.
He worked to prepare a voluntary loyalty pledge for members of the industry, but also sought to help any performer who wished to repudiate former Communist ties.
Ironically, he met his future wife, “East Side, West Side” co-star Nancy Davis, over her concerns about the very blacklists that Reagan himself helped perpetuate. Davis had been confused with another Nancy Davis, who had been linked to several Communist front groups. Reagan met with Davis to assuage her worries. They were married in 1952.
His career was foundering, though, the lowlight coming with 1951’s chimp comedy, “Bedtime for Bonzo.” While Reagan was fighting off Communists, others in Hollywood were at war with television, a then-fledgling medium whose production rules had yet to be clearly established.
Movie actors wanted to be paid when their films were rebroadcast on TV. But Reagan’s SAG was unable to win contract language covering payments for TV broadcasts of movies made before 1960. In what actor Ed Asner later termed “the great giveaway,” SAG abandoned the residual payments demand after an unsuccessful strike.
Another divisive matter was whether talent agents could produce TV shows. In one of its most controversial acts, SAG in 1952 granted the talent agency MCA (where Reagan then had a contract) an exclusive waiver that would allow it to engage in television production and still represent performers.
Under its new power to produce TV shows, MCA put on “General Electric Theater,” which was hosted by Reagan. In a single week, the show was seen by as many people as had viewed all of his movies put together.
To promote the show, Reagan visited more than 100 G.E. plants, sometimes making more than a dozen speeches a day.
“The experience taught Reagan the economies of campaigning, which would become valuable to him when he became a political candidate,” Cannon wrote in “Reagan.” “He learned how to conserve his voice and how to fill his martini glass with water until the last reception of the day.”
But instead of talking about Hollywood, he soon was making speeches about current events. Within just a few years, he was no longer speaking to appliance makers but addressing the state he now governed.
His journey from actor to showbiz union leader to TV host to politician was complete.
“People didn’t ask him about toasters, and, gradually, his talks became more political,” Nancy Reagan wrote in “I Love You, Ronnie,” a collection of her husband’s letters. “He learned a lot by listening to the hundreds of people he saw.”
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Reagan in Hollywood
Ronald Reagan appeared in more than 50 films over two decades in California before gradually turning to politics. His best-known role was as George Gipp, “the Gipper,” in “Knute Rockne All American.”
1937 “Love Is on the Air” “Submarine D-1" (bit deleted from final print)
1938 “Sergeant Murphy” “Swing Your Lady” “Hollywood Hotel” “Accidents Will Happen” “Cowboy From Brooklyn” “Boy Meets Girl” “Girls on Probation” “Brother Rat” “Going Places”
1939 “Secret Service of the Air” “Dark Victory” “Code of the Secret Service” “Naughty But Nice” “Hell’s Kitchen” “The Angels Wash Their Faces” “Smashing the Money Ring”
1940 “Brother Rat and a Baby” “An Angel From Texas” “Murder in the Air” “Knute Rockne All American” “Tugboat Annie Sails Again” “Santa Fe Trail”
1941 “The Bad Man” “Million Dollar Baby” “Nine Lives Are Not Enough” “International Squadron”
1942 “Kings Row” “Juke Girl” “Desperate Journey”
1943 “This Is the Army”
1947 “Stallion Road” “That Hagen Girl” “The Voice of the Turtle”
1949 “John Loves Mary” “Night Unto Night” “The Girl From Jones Beach” “The Hasty Heart”
1951 “Storm Warning” “Bedtime for Bonzo” “The Last Outpost”
1952 “Hong Kong” “The Winning Team” “She’s Working Her Way Through College”
1953 “Tropic Zone” “Law and Order”
1954 “Prisoner of War” “Cattle Queen of Montana”
1955 “Tennessee’s Partner”
1957 “Hellcats of the Navy”
1964 “The Killers”
Sources: Compiled from AP reports; movie posters from the collection of Brian Ann Zoccola and Irv Letofsky