Ronald Reagan and Barbara Stanwyck only starred in one motion picture together, the 1954 Western “Cattle Queen of Montana.” Aesthetically speaking, it’s a weak film. It had unimaginative dialogue, primarily made up of Western clichés, not to mention unintentionally comical stereotypes of Native Americans, who were actually played by Italians. Not even the talent and star power of its main actors, Reagan and Stanwyck, could bring more depth to the film. Even given its obvious mediocrities, however, and all these years later, it still proves to be a fun movie.
At this point in his career, Reagan had been in about 60 movies. It was also around this time that he began acting in “General Electric Theater” short films. Reagan loved the West so much that he and Nancy purchased a 688-acre ranch in California, which they named “Rancho del Cielo.” He felt home in the West; its expansiveness and freedom were an extension of his political philosophy.
The images of Reagan on the horseback and in cowboy outfits were not affected photo-ops but something really quite authentic and deeply felt in his life. It’s hardly surprising then that he would be drawn to playing both major and minor roles in Westerns. He didn’t always have a pick of the roles, and there was no guarantee that a film’s script or direction would result in an excellent picture. Still, Reagan moved smoothly and with a good attitude through his Hollywood journey.
“Cattle Queen of Montana” tells the story of Sierra Nevada Jones (Barbara Stanwyck) who along with her father leaves Texas for Montana. As a family, they have inherited a large portion of the land, and they wish to continue to raise cattle. Sierra ends up fighting both the Indians and Tom McCord, a local man who uses the violent faction of the Indian tribe in order to steal the land from Sierra.
Enter Farrell (Ronald Reagan), a man who appears to be a hired gun for McCord, doing his bidding. Farrell and Sierra encounter each other at the beginning of the film, when she is bathing in the pond. Farrell warns her about the Indian tribe and leaves. Their paths cross many times, especially when McCord offers Farrell a bounty to kill Sierra. It turns out that Farrell is one of the good guys: a U.S. Cavalry agent sent to investigate the issues between McCord and the Indians.
Predictably, a romance between Farrell and Sierra develops, especially since they end up sharing the same opinion about McCord. Things are resolved nicely at the end: Farrell and Sierra get rid of McCord and his gang, and they ride off into the metaphoric sunset, knowing that the land will stay with Sierra, and peace with the Indians has been achieved.
The trouble with “Cattle Queen of Montana” is that none of the characters are fully developed. There was a lot of potential but the result was a waste of everyone’s talent, especially that of Stanwyck. (It could be posited that the film was another casualty of Howard Hughes’ terrible management of RKO Radio Pictures. He drove it into bankruptcy.)
Yet both Reagan and Stanwyck had only fond memories of working on the film. In his autobiography, Where’s the Rest of Me?, Reagan reflected on the “scenic Glacier National Park” and Barbara Stanwyck’s absolute professionalism. “Somehow working outdoors,” wrote Reagan, “amid beautiful scenery and much of the time on horseback never has seemed like work to me. It’s like getting paid for playing cowboy and Indian.”
Reagan admired Stanwyck’s brilliance and stamina. She had no tolerance for sloppiness, took her work very seriously, and expected others to do so as well. In a letter to Ella Smith, dated May 16, 1972, Reagan wrote, “She [Stanwyck] is a pro. Her only intolerance is of those who won’t take our profession seriously, and who come to work without their lines learned or who are late and careless in their work. She is ready every day exactly on time, her lines learned perfectly for each day’s shooting, prepared to undergo whatever has to be done to make the scene better for the audience who will eventually see the movie.”
Much like Reagan, Stanwyck loved the open land and took any opportunity she could to act in Westerns. What comes through clearly in “Cattle Queen of Montana” is Reagan and Stanwyck’s pure enjoyment of their calling. Stanwyck’s no nonsense attitude still shines despite the fact that the film is missing nuance, energy, and complexity.
There is also a personal connection between Reagan and Stanwyck, who was a staunch conservative before Reagan himself formally changed his political allegiances (although, one could argue that, in fact, Reagan remained true to his roots and became, in the words of Henry Olsen, a “working class Republican”).
Much like Reagan, Stanwyck also fought the communists in Hollywood. She was an early member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. Her husband at the time, Robert Taylor, testified at HCUA as a friendly witness. Stanwyck had no qualms about expressing her opinions against leftist ideology and Democrat-run government. She supported limited government and was of the opinion that anyone willing to do what is required can help himself and make something good of his life.
Stanwyck’s friendship with both Reagans (Stanwyck and Nancy Reagan had also starred together in a 1949 film, “East Side, West Side”) continued well into Reagan’s presidency. In 1981, Stanwyck was honored for her work at the Film Society at Lincoln Center, and Reagan sent her a note congratulating her. Stanwyck replied in a letter that began formally, addressing Reagan as “Mr. President,” but she couldn’t help adding in a postscript: “Ronnie—If I had known during the filming of ‘Cattle Queen’ that you were going to be President of our country I would have given you first billing!!”
Reagan responded to Stanwyck, albeit slightly late for which he apologized. He reiterated the joy Stanwyck’s friendship brought to him and Nancy, and their support of her accomplishments and well-deserved honors. In his typical humorous way, Reagan couldn’t resist adding a less formal note: “Incidentally, I appreciate your willingness to give me top billing in the picture but it might have set me back–RR as …..?”
There is always something going on behind the scenes in the movie business. Too often, these are spaces of extreme drama and contempt between the actors. But nothing like that appears to be the case in much of Reagan’s career and it was certainly not the case with “Cattle Queen of Montana,” even though there was plenty for a touchy star to find fault with in the finished product. Instead, the film proved to be a project that brought joy to Reagan and Stanwyck, expanded their already formed friendship, and continued the mutual warmth and kind regard.