Ronald Reagan’s influence on American history is such that, however he is understood or misunderstood, he is now part of the American consciousness and the American story. As president, he had that rare ability to connect with the common people, while also successfully moving among the elites and other politicians. He fought communism and understood that America could only survive if her story of freedom and independence lives on, not just historically or in books, but in the minds of every American.
In trying to understand Reagan, we tend to focus on his political career because of his great impact on how American politics is thought about and conducted in the last half-century. But Reagan’s life as an actor, well before his entrance into politics, offers a glimpse not only into the man but also American culture and society as he understood and acted on it.
Movies have a power to persuade, affect, and show us not only what is deeply human but also what is inhuman. The silver screen, especially for Americans, is often a mirror into our own lives, and Reagan’s career in film and radio is inextricably linked to his political life. In some ways, Hollywood films, as well as old-time radio, are the rhetorical devices par excellence.
Reagan’s acting career spanned 30 years, and he starred in a variety of films. Often he is dismissed as a B-movie actor, but this obscures a larger truth. Too often, conservative political analysts don’t bother to look at Reagan’s acting career, and film critics (who are usually on the Left) either ignore Reagan’s contribution to American cinema, or they dismiss him as a movie “propagandist.”
It’s sometimes difficult to divorce the image of Reagan the actor from Reagan the president, but any authentic review of his life must experience his life journey as it unfolded, acknowledging both the inner and outer aspects.
Reagan’s talent as an actor is especially evident in the 1942 drama, “Kings Row.” Reagan’s part as the happy Drake McHugh who is struck by tragedy is acknowledged as among his best and most acclaimed roles. “Kings Row” is a dark film that moves on a trajectory similar to Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons,” also released in 1942. Both films deal with the passage of time, the end of one century and the beginning of another, and the sense of loss that accompanies dramatic changes in life. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Shot in high-contrast black-and-white, “Kings Row” is at once a happy story of a midwestern town called Kings Row, and a dark, gothic place where things are not what they seem. Drake McHugh and Parris Mitchell (Robert Cummings) are best friends from childhood, and their friendship endures into adulthood. Parris is close to Cassandra Tower, a local doctor’s daughter. Dr. Tower (Claude Reins) is an unpleasant and forbidding man. In fact, when Cassandra is still young, he pulls her out of school and keeps her locked in the house (a fate similar to that endured by her mother).
This is one sinister aspect of “Kings Row” but not the only one. Another local doctor, Henry Gordon, appears to be a sadist who is performing unnecessary surgeries. There is a clear distinction between upper- and lower classes as well. Most of the characters are unstable and are either mad or moralistic. They are trying to cover up the truth with the lie that Kings Row is a “good place to raise good children.”
All of this contributes to a pervasive darkness that looms over Kings Row, and everyone seems to be taken in by it. Everyone except Drake McHugh. He’s a man who doesn’t let anything bother him too much and calls out the truth when he sees it. While Parris is more brooding, Drake enjoys life and doesn’t have time to ruminate too much on the alleged mystic darkness of the town.
When Parris brings up Cassandra and the fact that she has been locked up in the house since childhood, Drake says, “Oh that house! They’re all crazy!” When Drake tries to propose to Dr. Gordon’s daughter, Louise, he is dismissed as a town playboy, unworthy of Louise’s attention. Dr. Gordon’s wife, Harriet, accuses him of sinfulness. She is one of the town’s hypocrites who hides her husband’s sadism. Instead of bending to her moralistic insanity, Drake raises his voice: “Can it!”
While most people in town are educated, they are also unable to see the dignity of the other person. They fancy themselves a small-town elite who don’t need to have anything to do with the folks by the railroad tracks. While Parris is not necessarily a snob, he maintains an air of importance brought on by class separation and his newly established career as a psychiatrist. It’s only Drake who is able to navigate successfully between the two because he is unencumbered by the pull of elitism to live inauthentically.
The tragedy of Drake’s life begins to unfold when his trust fund disappears at the hands of a corrupt banker. He is forced to live on the other side of the town. Yet, even in this state of affairs, he is not ashamed. He wants to work and is not bothered by any kind of menial labor. He finds a job at the railroad, and things begin to look up for him again. He is even due to receive promotion, when he is injured in a railroad accident.
The real darkness descends with Dr. Gordon, who amputates Drake’s legs despite the fact that they were not even broken. He is being taken care of by the woman he loves, Randy Monaghan (Ann Sheridan), and when he awakens, he realizes his life is now a nightmare. “Where’s the rest of me?!” he yells from his bed.
Parris is concerned that if Drake finds out the truth behind the amputation, he will fall into depression and possibly even become suicidal. But Drake’s optimism wins in the end. He laughs at Dr. Gordon’s evil intent to make him a useless man, and says that there is more to him than just his legs.
There are different parts of all of us, just as there are different parts of Ronald Reagan that illuminate his life as a president and a human being. This is why his career in film and radio played such a significant role in his life journey.
The role of Drake McHugh in many ways aligns with Reagan’s ease and the ability to keep moving no matter what the circumstances. Like America, “Kings Row” represents a certain renewal, a movement away from the darkness of the past. The film suggests that the main way to transcend a tragedy is not to let circumstances determine the path but to take charge of it ourselves. The American journey is a journey of free will and independence. Brokenness is part of the human condition, but it need not determine how one’s life should continue.