Knute Rockne All American [1940]

Director: Llyod Bacon
Stars: Pat O'brien, Ronald Reagan, Donald Crisp
Genre: Biography, Drama, Sport
Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Runtime: 98 minutes

The movie star who would be president is remembered with his own DVD five-pack, all culled from Warner Bros. titles made between 1940 and 1952. It's a good sampling of Reagan's relatively brief movie-star prime: a second lead in good movies and leading man in lesser properties. Athletic, cornfed, and energetic, Reagan's persona in these movies foreshadows the qualities that voters would later see in the politician. Will this collection convince anybody he was a great actor? Unlikely. But he knew how to embody an idea. The earliest film here is Knute Rockne, All-American, the 1940 biopic of Notre Dame's legendary football coach. Pat O'Brien has the title role in this boilerplate Hollywoodization, and although Reagan's part is small it is pivotal--and it would follow him for the rest of his life. He plays ill-fated Notre Dame player George Gipp, whose deathbed plea to Rockne--"Win just one for the Gipper"--became a national catchphrase. It's an efficient, cornball picture, and a fond childhood memory for anybody who encountered it at an early age. Kings Row (1942) is consensus pick for Reagan's finest screen hour. A big, juicy, and really quite weird melodrama, the film cruises through the creepier side of small-town life, with Reagan in a very appealing groove. He plays the more rascally of the two male leads (Robert Cummings is the sensitive hero), a breezy charmer whose talent with the ladies gets him in trouble. The most lurid twist in the movie leads to Reagan's line, "Where's the rest of me?", which became the title of his autobiography. An extremely entertaining movie, with director Sam Wood inestimably aided by James Wong Howe's lush cinematography and Erich Wolfgang Korngold's classic music score. Reagan's career cooled after the Second World War, and he plays a second lead in 1949's The Hasty Heart, an adaptation of a hit play. Set in a military hospital in Burma just after the war, the story hinges on a group of patients concealing a fatal prognosis from an ailing Scotsman (Richard Todd). The creaking of the play is all too apparent, although Todd's performance is expert. Patricia Neal, still new to movies, plays the nurse in charge. Reagan gets to display his photographic memory by reeling off the books of the Old Testament by rote. This one has the sole commentary track in the package, which has the (possibly unique) feature of having the director, Vincent Sherman, begin weeping as he's talking about the film. Storm Warning (1951) is an effective but odd hybrid: part film noir, part socially conscious picture. Ginger Rogers witnesses a Ku Klux Klan killing as she's stopping off in a small town to visit younger sis Doris Day; Day's hubby Steve Cochran is one of the killers. In one of his best roles, a laid-back Reagan plays the uncompromising local district attorney. The film has some superb noir shots in it, but the expose of the KKK is truly tame: although the word "lynching" is used, there's no racial angle to the movie at all. It's more like the Klan is a crime syndicate that needs to be cleaned up. In The Winning Team Reagan plays famed baseball pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander, whose struggles with illness and alcoholism form the spine of the tepid plot. Doris Day, now top-billed, co-stars as Alexander's supportive wife. The movie pays proper tribute to a legendary baseball moment: Alexander's heroic performance in the 1926 World Series. It's another win for the Gipper. --Robert Horton

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