Thursday, February 1, 2007

RONALD REAGAN: THE SIGNATURE COLLECTION (Warner Bros. 1940-1952) Warner Home Video

The legacy of the late Ronald Reagan is a rich heritage two fold the American experience: the latter half, as one of the most endearing and memorable American presidents the country has ever known. But the first half, as a very solid Warner contract player of the late 30s, 40s and early 50s, is often relegated to B-actor status or overlooked entirely.

This oversight is a genuine shame – one the press often chose to exaggerate during Reagan’s presidency, but considerably rectified by Warner Home Video’s Ronald Reagan: The Signature Collection. The box set contains 5 of Reagan’s most poignant performances and some very fine – if slightly offbeat – films that are a must-have for anyone who appreciates great movies.

Apart from containing two of Reagan’s universally lauded performances in Kings Row and Knute Rockne: All American, this set also contains the disturbing and controversial Storm Warning, the delightful baseball flick, The Winning Team and the heartrending melodrama, The Hasty Heart (more notable for Richard Todd’s tragic portrayal of the central character, than Reagan’s standard all American verve).

Knute Rockne: All American (1940) is the classic bio flick about George Gipp (Reagan). It contains the much revered one liner, “Win one for the Gipper!” that Reagan repeated played on during his later presidency to evoke his own good ol’ boy charm on the American public, and, it’s a fitting place for this box set to start immortalizing the Reagan legacy on celluloid. Historically inaccurate; for it depicts Knute Rockne (Pat O’Brien) perfecting the forward pass as a Notre Dame undergraduate (the forward pass having been legalized and in use since1906), the film is nevertheless a loving valentine to Gipp’s charismatic career.

Over the years rumors have abound that no less Hollywood luminaries than John Wayne, James Cagney (who at least diligently lobbied to break his bad boy image) and Bill Holden were considered for the part, but in actuality only Warner contract player Dennis Moran and Reagan ever tested for it. Director Lloyd Bacon ensures that the football sequences are quite thrilling and the central performances never falter. Still, the film is plagued by several lapses in which the plot seems to flounder without a purpose before getting back on track. As a film then, Knute Rockne is far from perfect. As a depiction of the all American on celluloid there are few examples that excel further.

Kings Row (1942) is a densely packed, astounding cinematic achievement on every level, including its evocative and crisp high key lighting from master cinematographer James Wong Howe. Derived from the best selling novel by Henry Bellamann, the story concerns five children; optimist Parris Mitchell (Robert Cummings), free spirit Drake McHugh (Ronald Reagan), understanding Randy Monaghan (Ann Sheridan), defiant Louise Gordon (Nancy Coleman) and mentally troubled Cassandra Tower (Betty Field). They all live within the parameters of the superficially idyllic town of Kings Row. Parris is a sensitive child (as portrayed by Scotty Beckett in the early scenes), compassionate, pure of heart and utterly devoted to his aging grandmother, Madame Marie Von Eln (Maria Ouspenskaya).

Upon Von Eln’s death, Parris desires to enter a prestigious medical academy in Vienna and follow his calling as a physician. However, before he can apply, he apprentices with Doctor Alexander Q. Tower (Claude Rains) a reputable, yet shunned physician in Kings Row, whose wife and daughter, Cassie (Fields) have been reduced to reclusive shut-ins through a series of spiraling nervous breakdowns. The awkward and introspective Parris makes several ill fated attempts to woo Cassie, but Dr. Tower eventually promotes his pupil to the European academy for study.

Meanwhile, Parris’ best friend, Drake (Reagan) is his complete opposite; a wealthy lady’s man about town whose direction in life is relegated to squiring young women to no end or commitment. However, Drake’s playful days of uncertainty are shattered when a disreputable broker absconds with his entire fortune. Despite his demise Louise, the daughter of a barbarous and sadistic physician (Charles Coburn) remains desperately in love with Drake whom her father has already pre-judged as unsuitable. In the interim of their forced separation, Drake genuinely falls in love with Randy (Sheridan), a devoted girl from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks.

When a railway accident injures Drake, Dr. Gordon seizes the opportunity to amputate both his legs – believing that he will also cripple his daughter’s affections for Drake. However, the truth, as they say, shall set your free and Parris returns from his studies in Vienna to sort through the deep brooding underbelly of cynicism that is actually Kings Row.

Author, Bellamann, openly conceded that he had modeled his fictional town on his own Missouri enclave of Fulton – a confession that effectively ostracized him from polite circles in his midst once the torrid tale became a best seller.

The Hasty Heart (1949) is an impeccably soppy tear jerker from master craftsman of this sort of melodrama – director, Vincent Sherman. The film is set inside an American M.A.S.H unit against the backdrop of warring Burma, circa 1945. But this is not a tale of war and conflict; rather, a poignant and sincere examination of brave men forced to deal with their own mortality. Despite being top billed for his performance as ailing American soldier ‘Yank’, Ronald Reagan takes the proverbial backseat to Richard Todd’s brilliant turn as Scottish soldier, Corporal Lachlan MacLachlan: Lachie for short.

It seems that Lachie is recovering from a wound in his back. The truth is far more disheartening. Shrapnel from the bullet has destroyed his only good kidney and the other will fail him in less than a month. Instructed to look after her patient like any other, Sister Parker (Patricia Neal) makes valiant attempts to ease Lachie’s burden without divulging the truth of his condition. She enlists Yank’s help, along with Lachie’s fellow patients; Tommy (Howard Crawford), Kini (Ralph Michael), Digger (John Sherman) and Blossom (Orlando Martins).

Lacking in social skills, Lachie does not know he is dying and longs to return home to Scotland where he has invested his money in the purchase of farm. He is bitter and rude to his fellow patients and his nurse, a foul nature explained away much later in the plot. Todd’s central performance is quite remarkable, running the gamut from strong-willed defiance to ultimate acceptance of his fate. He was nominated as Best Actor but lost to Broderick Crawford for All The King’s Men.

Storm Warning (1951) is a cross between film noir and crime thriller and even today is quite the revelation. The film stars Ginger Rogers as Marsha Mitchell, a fashion model who decides to make a pit stop in a small southern town to visit her younger sister, Lucy (Doris Day). Unfortunately - timing is everything - and Marsha just happens to have stumbled across an eve when the Ku Klux Klan is out to lynch reporter, Walter Adams (Dale Van Sickel) for publishing damaging exposés on their activities.

The murder occurs only a few feet away from Marsha who, understandably shaken, rushes to her sister only to discover that the Klansman who shot Adams is Lucy’s husband, Hank (Steve Cochran). Enter District Attorney Burt Rainey (Ronald Reagan) a man of substance, honor and dedication. He is determined to rid his town of the Klan’s pestilence. But when Marsha falls under pressure from Hank and her sister to conceal the truth what sort of chance will Rainey have of succeeding.

The film is unrelenting in its dark oppressive atmosphere and super-charged with stellar performances. Storm Warning excels despite several obvious drawbacks. The first of these is the casting of Ginger Rogers – who is far too old (and very much cut from the chalkboard of a schoolmarm) to be believable as a successful fashion model. Though Rogers acting is embittered and in keeping with the material she is given, her overall tone is more that of a scorned musical/comedy star than a hard bitten realist. As for Doris Day – one keeps expecting her to sing, though perhaps she is not as hard to believe as the naïve bride of a sadistic brute.

The Winning Team (1952) effectively rounds out this box set with the inspirational ‘true’ story of celebrated baseball legend, Grover Cleveland Alexander (Reagan). A former employee of the telephone company, Alexander’s hobby of ‘pitching’ baseball becomes his profession after he is discovered by the Philadelphia Nationals. His rise to stardom assured, ‘Alex the Great’ pitches near perfect games, migrating over to the Chicago Cubs, then the St. Louis Cardinals where he is befriended by benevolent manager, Roger Hornsby (Frank Lovejoy).

The film’s baseball sequences are good, but the back story is far more engaging, including the scenes with Doris Day who plays Alexander’s devoted wife, Aimee. Purged of all the unpleasant aspects of Alexander’s real life (including a stint in WWI and a bought with alcoholism), the film’s characterization develops along the lines of ‘everybody’s all American’ – a fitting conclusion not only to this boxed tribute to Ronald Reagan but also indicative of the sort of individual ‘can-do’ attitude that Reagan exuded in his life beyond the camera.

The transfer quality on all films in this set is, for the most part, impressive. The least pristine image is The Hasty Heart, generally suffering from a considerable amount of film grain (particularly during stock shots of the actual Burmese conflict). Kings Row exhibits a curious flaw. Despite the fact that most of the film is bursting with lush cinematographer, there are various instances where dupe inserts have been substituted for the original camera negative. At varying intervals, the image is also unstable (presumably from sprocket damage) and exhibits a horizontal crease that registers as a briefly visible black line. Storm Warning’s film grain is slightly exaggerated in several shots by a hint of edge enhancement. There are also moments where dupes appear to have been inserted. Knute Rockne and The Winning Team exhibit generally clean, though slightly soft and slightly over contrasted transfers, though nothing that will distract.

Despite advertising audio commentaries on the exterior of the box, only The Hasty Heart contains an informative supplementary track by the late Vincent Sherman and Reagan biographer, John Meroney. As for the rest, theatrical trailers and a few short subjects – of which ‘The Hasty Hare’ a Bugs Bunny Looney Tune with Martin the Martian is about the best. Though some may argue the point that these films do not warrant more consideration, this reviewer would suggest that Kings Row most definitely deserved at least a supplementary audio track and perhaps an isolated musical score. Bottom line: recommended!

FILM RATINGS (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Knute Rockne: All American 3.5
King's Row 5
The Hasty Heart 4
Storm Warning 4.5
The Winning Team 3.5


Knute Rockne: All American 4
King's Row 4
The Hasty Heart 3
Storm Warning 3.5
The Winning Team 3.5


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