Reagan’s Ride From Lefty Hollywood

Posted September 8, 2008 at 3:37pm

Yes, it’s true that the Republicans have rallied behind Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in this election year. But as the balloons descended on the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., last week, another party carried on at the same time in downtown Minneapolis, hosted by the American Conservative Union.

That “Tribute to the Reagan Revolution” proved that Gipper nostalgia is not going away anytime soon.

And now a new book by Marc Eliot offers Reagan fans yet another look at his life.

“Reagan: The Hollywood Years” predates Reagan’s years in Washington.

Eliot uses rare or never-before-printed interviews with Reagan’s contemporaries, such as Jimmy Stewart, to give another look at the 40th president’s life before Washington.

The book begins with a brief account of Reagan’s early life, chronicling his growth from a kid too short to play freshman football to an ambitious young man devoted to his high school sweetheart. Although the story quickly shifts to the radio announcer job that would lead him to Hollywood, themes from his childhood resurface throughout, from his need for a father figure who could fill in the stability that his well-meaning but alcoholic father could not give, to his search for a woman to take the place of Margaret Cleaver, his high school love who broke off their engagement to marry another man.

Throughout the first half of the book, Eliot details Reagan’s career, meticulously documenting his films and the co-stars whose careers rose faster than he did. The seesaw between “A” and “B” films gives readers an idea of the frustration Reagan felt as he struggled to break into the upper echelons of the Hollywood hierarchy.

The story of his career as a Hollywood actor on its own would have left much to be desired, but Eliot fills in the background by weaving in personal histories of Reagan’s greatest influences in Hollywood, including Jack L. Warner, agent Lew Wasserman and actor Pat O’Brien. As the book gains momentum, Eliot describes the turbulent battles between the Screen Actors Guild, which Reagan would eventually head, and other union groups accused of being communist fronts. Eliot describes how Reagan’s involvement with SAG increased as his career faded, perhaps preparing him for the next stage of his life, with a new wife and a new career as a politician.

By the time he became president of SAG, Reagan appreciated the grievances of the actors, writers and stagehands in Hollywood. However, he would eventually become suspicious of union organizations seen as communist fronts, and he later joined his brother as a spy for the FBI’s espionage program, Eliot writes. His move from the left to the right seems to have largely happened during this time, as he came under fire for defending SAG’s position of neutrality during strike disputes and would later be praised by studio heads as having helped ward off a catastrophe for the film industry.

The character of Reagan himself feels elusive at some points, particularly during the first several chapters of the book. The bright descriptions of him as a “heroic” lifeguard — a claim bolstered by his own storytelling, according to Eliot — with a firm plan to graduate from college, move home to Dixon, Ill., and marry his longtime girlfriend go by quickly, which is perhaps the purpose with the focus being on his Hollywood years. The feeling remains during his early days in California, as he blithely takes the roles offered him and spends much of his time off the set dating his co-stars.

His character comes into clearer focus, however, when Eliot writes about the break-up of Reagan’s marriage to actress Jane Wyman. Particularly telling is an anecdote about Reagan fixing up the ranch house he and Wyman had purchased and naming it “Yearling Row,” a nod to his and his wife’s most successful movies to that point, “Kings Row” and “The Yearling.” It didn’t prevent the marriage from falling apart, however. Reagan slides back into reluctant bachelorhood and his career appears to stall.

Though Eliot does seem sympathetic to Reagan, he certainly does not shy from highlighting his flaws, including a tendency to embellish his more heroic moments, as well as a habit of holding forth on political topics, regardless of whether his audience (often Wyman) was interested.

“Reagan: The Hollywood Years” provides a glimpse of Reagan’s life before he became a political icon and gives some insight as to how that career shaped his character and prepared him for the next.