Mark Steyn points out something lovely about Ronald Reagan: He was not only a damned good president but a damned good actor, too.
And those “B movies” that the liberals never ceased to remind us of when Reagan was in the White House represented only a brief three-year phase of his long career with Warner Bros. By 1940, he was on the A-list, Steyn notes, starring in “Dark Victory” with top leading lady Bette Davis. In a piece for tomorrow’s U.K. Spectator, Steyn praises Reagan’s “note-perfect” performance in that film and others:
“Reagan isn’t dull; he’s minimalist and modern. By comparison, Humphrey Bogart’s chippy Irish stable-boy, complete with extravagant brogue, is faintly preposterous. You can certainly make the claim that Reagan’s is the best male performance in the picture.
“He could emote in the right circumstances, usually from his death bed or sick bed, imploring the old team to ‘win one for the Gipper’ in Knute Rockne, All-American (1940) and roaring ‘Where’s the rest of me?’ in King’s Row (1941), after coming out of anaesthetic to discover his legs have been amputated. But, when it came to romance, he chose not to lay it on too thick, and I think that eventually stalled his rise and shunted him into best-pal roles. That said, unlike most other Warner’s players, he was at home in anything ‘ comedy, melodrama, war pictures, horse operas. And close your eyes next time a Reagan movie comes on: even when he doesn’t look right, his line readings are bang on; he was just superb at dialogue….
“Bedtime For Bonzo (1951) is unfairly maligned: as chimp movies go, Reagan does a better job than Cary Grant does in Monkey Business or than Clint Eastwood did in the Seventies. And, as he said, ‘Bedtime For Bonzo made more sense than what they’re doing in Washington.”
Reagan’s movie career took a downturn, Steyn notes, only because he started looking middle-aged earlier than most actors, and Hollywood had a hard time casting him. But as Steyn writes, Reagan knew exactly where to put his talent to work:
“He was a natural actor who lacked only a natural role. And eventually he found that, to the surprise of his old bosses. On being informed Reagan was running for Governor of California, Jack Warner is said to have replied, ‘No. Bob Cummings for Governor. Ronald Reagan as his best friend.’
“But the supporting-role days were over….Within a few years, he’d somehow yoked the conservatism to all the light charm and ease he had in Love Is In The Air and Boy Meets Girl, and the Reagan political persona was born.
“I wish there’d been one last film….There’s something very appealing about Reagan in the movies ‘ an average joe who’s holding his own with Doris Day, Barbara Stanwyck and even Susan Hayward (Girls On Probation). And compared to the self-regarding solemnity of Barbra Streisand and co, Reagan did a better job of modulating from showbiz to politics than most current celebrities. And so ‘Mr Norm’ in the flickers became an extraordinary figure off-camera, bringing down the curtain on Communism: from Bedtime For Bonzo to bedtime for Bolsheviks. Can’t beat that.”
Tonight they’ll ring down the last curtain on Ronald Reagan, burying him in his beloved California, my own home state, not far from where he began his long, long career by cranking out movies for Jack Warner. What wonderful talent he had. How wonderfully he used it for the rest of us.