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
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.
American actor and future president Ronald Reagan (1911 - 2004) sits with his wife, actress Nancy Reagan, as the par talk with fellow actor and future US Senator George Murphy (1902 - 1992) at the premiere of ‘High Society,’ July 1956. (Photo by Pictorial Parade/Getty Images) (Pictorial Parade / Getty Images)
Nancy and Ronald Reagan, with running mate George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, are cheered by delegates at the Republican National Convention in July 1980. “Reagan knew where he wanted to go, but she had a better sense of what he needed to do to get there,” biographer Lou Cannon said of Nancy Reagan. (Joe Kennedy / Los Angeles Times)
The Reagans attend a 1980 reception in their honor in Los Angeles with Los Angeles Times Publisher Otis Chandler and his mother, Dorothy. (Lennox McClendon / Associated Press)
The Reagans prepare to return to Washington from Point Mugu Naval Air Station after a Memorial Day vacation in California in 1981. (Joe Kennedy / Los Angeles Times)
The Reagans with music legend Ray Charles at a musical salute in Washington in March 1983. (Ira Schwartz / Associated Press)
Nancy Reagan holds Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s hand during a 1984 visit to Beijing. The first lady took an active role in advising President Reagan on policy matters. (Scott Stewart / Associated Press)
The president and first lady visit the terra cotta soldiers archeological site during their 1984 China trip. (Bob Daugherty / Associated Press)
The Reagans walk through Normandy American Cemetery above Omaha Beach in northern France on June 6, 1984, the 40th anniversary of the D-day invasion. (Bob Daugherty / Associated Press)
President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan at a New Orleans luncheon in August 1988. (Mike Sargent / AFP/Getty Images)
The former president and first lady arrive for the premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard” in Los Angeles in December 1993. (Chris Martinez / Associated Press)
Nancy Reagan with stepdaughter Maureen at the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, a year before Maureen’s death from skin cancer. (Hillery Garrison Smith / Associated Press)
The former first lady lays her cheek on Ronald Reagan’s casket after his death in 2004. His Alzheimer’s diagnosis led her to become an advocate for stem cell research and hastened a reconciliation between her and her children. (Bryan Chan / Los Angeles Times)
Nancy Reagan with President George W. Bush in 2005 at an Air Force One exhibit at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, with Nancy Reagan at a ceremony commemorating the 40th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s first gubernatorial win. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)
The First Lady’s in front of the Red Dress display. First Lady Laura Bush and former First Lady Nancy Reagan participated in the Heart Truth Roundtable at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley on Wednesday, February 28, 2007. Later they visited students at Balboa Magnet School in Northridge who are part of a National Park Service program. (Stephen Osman / Los Angeles Times)
Nancy Reagan poses with the 2008 Republican presidential candidates after their May 2007 debate at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. (Robert A. Reeder / Associated Press)
Vice President Dick Cheney escorts the former first lady at a white-tie dinner for Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II at the White House in May 2007. (Pool / Getty Images)
In May 2007, Nancy Reagan holds a copy of the newly released “Reagan Diaries,” which chronicles her husband’s two terms in the White House. (Stephen Osman / Los Angeles Times)
Nancy Reagan is joined by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Assemblyman Martin Garrick (R-Carlsbad), left, at a signing ceremony for two bills honoring her late husband at the Reagan library in Simi Valley. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Nancy Reagan is helped by Marine Lt. Gen. George J. Flynn as she arrives for a wreath-laying ceremony at her husband’s memorial at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Nancy Reagan after a GOP presidential debate at the Reagan Presidential Library. (Paul Buck / EPA)
“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.