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Nancy and Ronald Reagan's sole film together, 'Hellcats of the Navy,' previewed decades of devotion

Nancy and Ronald Reagan's sole film together, 'Hellcats of the Navy,' previewed decades of devotion
Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis in a scene from their 1957 film "Hellcats of the Navy." (Reuters)

With the former first lady's death Sunday at age 94, many are examining Nancy Reagan's political and social legacy, and her role as a devoted wife to our 40th president.

But for classic film fans, Reagan's Hollywood career is at least as interesting. Decades before they shared the White House, Ronald and Nancy Reagan shared the silver screen just once, in the World War II submarine movie "Hellcats of the Navy."VIDEO: Former First Lady Nancy Reagan remembered

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Appearing under the screen name Nancy Davis, she was working as a contract player at MGM in 1949 when she first met Ronald, then president of the Screen Actors Guild. They married three years later, and in 1957 co-starred as sweethearts in "Hellcats," a fictionalized battle tale based on a book by Charles A. Lockwood and Hans Christian Adamson.

Ronald plays Cmdr. Casey Abbott, the captain of a sub ship bound for the Pacific, and Nancy is Helen Blair, the Navy nurse he left behind, breaking their engagement rather than leave her a widow. To add a dash of melodrama, Abbott is commanding a diver (Harry Lauter) who has been a rival for Helen's affections.

Nancy spends most of the movie in a starched white nurse's uniform, her character pining chastely after the commander. Their scenes together are interesting not because of any crackerjack dialogue but because they provide a preview of what would become an iconic marriage through the decades, from Hollywood to the White House to the former president's final years as an Alzheimer's victim.

"How do you know so much about the moon?" Ronald's Casey Abbott asks Nancy's Helen Blair, in one scene in "Hellcats." "I spent a lot of time looking at it while you were away," Helen answered.

Upon the film's release, Nancy's performance garnered little attention, with critics instead focusing on the realistic action sequences in the Department of Defense-endorsed film, including a sequence involving a mission to retrieve a Japanese mine.

"Quite unintentionally, I imagine, this 'realistic' approach is an indictment of the whole destructive business it sets out, in a sense, to glorify," Los Angeles Times critic Philip K. Scheuer wrote at the time. The review referred to Nancy only as "Reagan's real-life wife and his sweetheart in the film."

After "Hellcats," Nancy worked primarily in television before leaving show business in the 1960s to focus on her life as a political wife.

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