The collective consciousness of a small town can create a sense of community and belonging. The same mindset, however, can also foster a certain exclusivity. Everyone is under the watchful eye of a small elite, and everyone participates in gossip. One lie can turn into many, and instead of being negated altogether, these lies become accepted as truth. The more they are repeated, the more strength they gain, and those who are the subject of falsehoods are changed forever.
Peter Godrey’s 1947 film, “That Hagen Girl,” explores such matters, and it involves difficult subjects—such as suicide, illegitimate children, and madness—that Hollywood rarely examined in that era. Ronald Reagan plays Tom Bates, a war hero and a lawyer in the small town of Jordan, Ohio, who is essentially cast out of his hometown because of a rumor he fathered an illegitimate daughter.
Around the same time Tom is forced out of town, Mr. and Mrs. Hagen bring a little baby, Mary into their lives. It’s not clear where the little girl comes from, or who she is. The townsfolk put two and two together and get five. The rumor, based purely on speculation, becomes stronger as years go by. Mary grows up to be a beautiful young woman (Shirley Temple) but she is stained by the alleged sin of her alleged father. As a result, she is generally treated differently by the town. As one woman puts it, she’s not “one of ours.”
Tom Bates decides to return to Jordan and practice law. His return reignites the rumor about Mary, and she can’t help but wonder who she really is. The school administrators treat her poorly, except for her English teacher, Julia Kane, who thinks Mary is a talented person and should not be the subject of cruelty and rejection.
Mary can’t let go of the rumor, however, and demands answers. She becomes restless and despondent. Her entire existence is called into question because Tom Bates decided to return to Jordan. Their relationship is strange. Tom is kind to her in a fatherly way yet he appears to have some romantic interest in her. His developing friendship with Julia Kane goes nowhere, and although she is clearly very disappointed, Julia doesn’t show much emotion. The tension in this bizarre love triangle goes beyond the roles and characters each actor plays. It’s a tension that steps out of the celluloid and into real life.
Reagan’s role as Tom Bates was one he disliked the most, and for good reason. The film’s implied incest and an allusion that Tom may be just an opportunist who is interested in much younger women were among the reasons Reagan detested the role. It was a movie Reagan not only disliked making (he was essentially forced into it under Jack Warner’s contract) but one that was accompanied by several painful events in his own life.
During the filming, Reagan endured a bout of viral pneumonia, which he barely survived. As he was in the hospital battling pneumonia, his then-wife Jane Wyman gave birth to a premature baby. As Stephen Vaughn notes in his book, Ronald Reagan in Hollywood: Movies and Politics, “An infant girl, three months premature, survived for a few hours in an incubator.”
Recovery from pneumonia, the loss of a child, and dealing with a strange movie plot was certainly enough to contribute to the further exhaustion Reagan felt at this time in his career. In addition, during this time, he became more involved with political issues involving the Screen Actors Guild, and was elected president of SAG for the first time, with five more consecutive one-year terms.
It’s no secret that Reagan disliked playing “bad guys” or men of questionable character, dispositions, and motives. He was uncomfortable with that idea, and although he would accept some of the roles, his role in “That Hagen Girl” would remain the role by which he was most repulsed. He tried reasoning with the director, Peter Godfrey. “You know, people sort of frown on men marrying girls young enough to be their daughters,” Reagan said. He recalls in his autobiography, Where’s the Rest of Me?, that Godfrey was confused by the statement, and answered: “I’m old enough to be my wife’s father.”
That certainly left Reagan stumped. There was no way to change the plot or the ending, which was just as strange as the tension on the set. In the most perfunctory way, Tom Bates professes love to Mary. The pair leave on a train but as Reagan writes, “You are left to guess as to whether we are married, just traveling together, or did I adopt her.” Talk about ambiguity!
The townsfolk in “That Hagen Girl” remain unchanged and unmoved by the unfolding events. Throughout the years, they sought only to protect their own self-interest, and saw Tom Bates as a source of shame and a stain on their “perfect” town. Only when they learn that Bates is a decorated war hero, having that honor bestowed upon him by the president of the United States, is there a moment when they reconsider their rush to judgment. But it doesn’t last.
It’s not only Tom Bates and Mary Hagen who represent unsteadiness and uncertainty. It is the entire town as well. The collective consciousness of Jordan, Ohio is merely an artifice of morality. When Tom and Mary get on the train to leave Jordan, Godfrey and his director of photography, Karl Freund (famous for his collaboration with Fritz Lang) chose to mirror the beginning and the ending of the film. Once again, we see a train station. What was the beginning of a dark rumor has now come to an end. Two men from the town look at each other and one says, “What are we going to talk about now?”
Is this a fair or authentic representation of small-town America or is it, more broadly, a commentary on humans in general? In a similar vein to Orson Welles’ 1942 “The Magnificent Ambersons,” and Sam Wood’s 1942 “Kings Row” (one of Reagan’s best roles), “That Hagen Girl” looks at the unsteadiness and false morality that can sometimes grip small minds and, perhaps, the film suggests small-town America. Things are not what they seem and people are, after all, only human. But this shouldn’t excuse them from becoming better people, and perhaps, this is one of the objections Reagan had about the film.
Godfrey clearly didn’t intend “That Hagen Girl” to be filled with such visible tension, but in many ways, the bizarre and ambiguous ending as well as Reagan’s personal life and distaste for the film strengthens its aesthetic value. Shirley Temple was 19-years-old when she starred in the movie (Reagan was 36), and she was obviously trying to move beyond the childhood roles for which she was so famous. Yet she, too, exhibited an unintended uneasiness that extended beyond the role.
Reagan favored taking on roles of heroes who fought for justice and of those marginalized and often forgotten people. This alone would be reason enough for him to dislike “That Hagen Girl.” There was nothing to grab in Tom Bates, nothing to hold onto, and more importantly, nothing to share with the people. Of course, the film has a value and can still be evaluated from a historical and aesthetic point of view. More than anything, its “negative” connotation brings out Reagan’s opposite character.
Aesthetic expression was important to Reagan but it’s clear that his acting philosophy was not one of seeking “art for art’s sake.” Rather, movies were meant to tell a story in some way, to instruct people on how a life of goodness and ethics is to be lived. In this sense, for Reagan, ethics trumps aesthetics, but even in this case, his vision is nuanced. He’s not about to hit us over the head with the Bible, or shout from a pulpit. It’s about continuously retelling the American story and the unavoidable fact that self-government, for individuals and communities, is inextricably linked to a proper and moral ordering of the soul. We get a sense from “That Hagen Girl” that neither Tom Bates nor Jordan, Ohio would meet with Reagan’s approval or measure up to his understanding of American possibilities.