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Last Updated: Saturday, 5 June, 2004, 21:03 GMT 22:03 UK
Reagan: Errol Flynn of the B-movies
Million Dollar Baby
Ronald Reagan in Million Dollar Baby

However one might judge his career as US President, the late Ronald Reagan played a leading role on the world's stage.

But in his pre-White House years as a Hollywood actor, he was forever waiting in the wings.

He never won an Oscar nomination. He never made it big at the box office and he never quite shook off his own self-assessment as the Errol Flynn of the B-movies.

But he did enjoy a run of almost 30 years in tinsel town from 1937 to 1964. He made 54 movies and eight shorts between the ages of 27 and 54.

Perfect delivery

In that time, he managed to struggle from bad B-films and weak A-features to flirt briefly with stardom in King's Row in 1942.

The day Ronald Reagan walked into a casting at Warner in 1937 he made an instant impression.

Ronald Reagan
True stardom remained elusive
He had a wide smile and confident manner, a bronzed and athletic build.

But in the end it was his masterful reading test that clinched it. He read faultlessly from the play Holiday and won his first role as Andy Macleod in Love is in the Air.

Reagan had learnt voice skills as a radio announcer and in his films he certainly delivered some memorable lines.

The best of these is said to be from King's Row where, playing a character who has just had both legs amputated, he laments: "Where's the rest of me?".

The film was his favourite and he used its title for his later autobiography.

Low-budget thrillers

Despite criticism, Reagan could put in a strong performance.

As George Gip, the legendary halfback in Knute Rockne - All American, he tugged at the heart strings as he implored his coach from his deathbed to have the team someday "win one for Gipper".

The athletic Ronald Reagan found work as a lifeguard
But in the main, both the parts he was offered and the way he played them were considered then, as now, middle of the road.

At first he hit the ground running, making 28 films in his first four years.

They included lead roles in B-films such as Girls on Probation and bit parts in some A-movies like Hollywood Hotel.

Then there were the four low-budget thrillers in which he played Lt Bass Bancroft of the Secret Service.

Host of leading ladies

But always he had to fight for the limelight with a generation of gifted stars.

Errol Flynn, Wallace Beer and Lionel Barrymore were just three whose shadow regularly darkened his stage.

And when it came to casting things could be worse.

Knute Rockne
George Gip in Knute Rockne was a memorable role
Sergeant Murphy was a film turned down by James Cagney. Reagan took it on and found himself playing best friend to a horse in the lead.

But in Brother Rat he fared better. Eddie Albert was again the film's main man, but off-camera, Reagan won the girl - his first wife Jane Wyman.

In fact, for all its missed opportunity, Reagan's onscreen career did not miss out on love. As he was keen to point out to the critics, he "always got the girl".

True romance often came through suffering illness or other forms of humiliation. But it was worth it to have the likes of June Travis, Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland and Doris Day at his side.

Waiting for the break

By the late-1940s, his career began to flounder. He had spent most of the war years narrating training films.

When the conflict ended people had almost forgotten who Reagan was. The acting parts either did not come or were not worth taking.

Movie posters promoted on-screen romances
Bedtime with Bonzo was one such classic where Reagan played a straight man to a show-stealing chimpanzee.

Several years cast as the older man about town followed but in truth his career was in fast decline.

Eventually in the mid-1950s he retired broke to his ranch. He occasionally appeared on TV to keep the wolf from the door.

But all the time he was just waiting for that one career-making break.

"It was a trying time," he later said. "But I always had the feeling that I was just waiting for that one big epic."

For Reagan the actor, that one break never came. His epic role was to be found elsewhere.

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Ronald Reagan film chronology

  • Love is in the Air (1937)
  • Hollywood Hotel (1938)
  • Swing your Lady (1938)
  • Sergeant Murphy (1938)
  • Accidents will Happen (1938)
  • Cowboy from Brooklyn (1938)
  • Boy meets Girl (1938)
  • Girls on Probation (1938)
  • Brother Rat (1938)
  • Going Places (1939)
  • Secret Service of the Air (1939)
  • Dark Victory (1939)
  • Code of the Secret Service (1939)
  • Naughty but Nice (1939)
  • Hell's Kitchen (1939)
  • Angels wash their Faces (1939)
  • Smashing the Money Ring (1939)
  • Brother Rat and a Baby (1940)
  • An Angel from Texas (1940)
  • Murder in the Air (1940)
  • Knute Rockne - All American (1940)
  • Tugboat Annie Sails Again (1940)
  • Santa Fe Trail (1940)
  • The Bad Man (1941)
  • Million Dollar Baby (1941)
  • Nine Lives are not Enough (941)
  • International Squadron (1941)
  • King's Row (1942)
  • Juke Girl (1942)
  • Desperate Journey (1942)
  • This is the Army (1942)
  • Stallion Road (1947)
  • That Girl (1947)
  • The Voice of the Turtle (1947)
  • John Loves Mary (1949)
  • Night unto Night (1949)
  • The Girl from Jones Beach (1949)
  • It's a Great Feeling (1949)
  • The Hasty Heart (1950)
  • Louisa (1950)
  • Storm Warning (1951)
  • Bedtime for Bonzo (1951)
  • The Last Outpost (1951)
  • Hong Kong (1951)
  • She's Working Her Way through College (1952)
  • The Winning Team (1952)
  • Tropic Zone (1953)
  • Law and Order (1953)
  • Prisoner of War (1954)
  • Cattle Queen of Montana (1954)
  • Tennessee's Partner (1955)
  • Hellcats of the Navy (1957)
  • The Killers (1964)


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