The Voice of Ronald Reagan

After the United States entered World War II, everything changed. So did the movie business. During the war, but especially afterward, Hollywood made hundreds of movies about American soldiers. Some films explored the dark side of soldiers’ alienation. Others used it as a way to tell a humorous story. 

Such is the case with Irving Rapper’s 1947 film, “The Voice of the Turtle.”

Ronald Reagan plays Sergeant Bill Page, who is visiting New York City on furlough. He is supposed to meet with Olive Lashbrooke (Eve Arden), a woman with whom he was involved prior to the war. Olive is a socialite. She doesn’t really have deep relationships but, instead, many “beaus.” Her friendships usually function on a superficial level, with some type of exchange, but her friendship with Sally Middleton (Eleanor Parker) appears to be deeper. 

Sally is a budding theater actress, trying to secure roles in hopeful anticipation that the plays may not be “flops.” She thrives on order and routine, yet she’s also “mushy” and “sentimental.” She falls in love too quickly and deeply, and most men with whom she’s trying to get involved are not exactly interested in love. 

Olive begins bragging to Sally about what a great catch Bill is, but after she learns that a much better prospect, Commander Ned Burling, is in town, she ditches Bill by telling him that she’s married. Poor Bill has nowhere to sleep. It’s the weekend, and the hotels in New York are filled up. Nervously, Sally offers him a bed for the night (in a separate room of course), but even this may cause scandal. After all, they’re not married, and her reputation could be destroyed. 

Thus begins a comedy that inevitably ends in romance, but not without mishaps. Most of the silliness comes from Sally’s nervousness. She’s a woman unable to let go. She is worried and anxious just about everything. Her gullibility makes her an ideal candidate to be swindled and left with a broken heart. 

Men in her life prey on her honesty and sweetness. One of the major theater managers, Ken Bartlett, tells her they need to keep their relationship light and “gay.” Sally clearly felt something more than Ken. When she’s chosen to play alongside a major actor in a play, Olive tells her to be careful of his womanizing and dyed blonde hair. “It’s dyed?!” she responds in such an innocent voice.

When Bill asks her to get them tickets to a show that’s been sold out, Sally doesn’t know how to secure them from Ken Bartlett. “Call him,” says Bill, matter of factly. “Tell him a friend of yours is in town, a service man. You can say it’s his last furlough,” Bill says wistfully. “Is it?” asks Sally. The look on her face is that of sadness and longing. Changing his facial expression, Bill says, “No. But it makes a better story.” 

Still, Bill is not like the other men in Sally’s life. He genuinely cares for Sally and often remarks on her sweetness. The film plays on the notion that it is morally and socially wrong for an unmarried woman to have a man spend the night in her apartment. (If you pay close enough attention, there are plenty of sexual innuendos that can’t be missed.) Sally’s combination of absentmindedness, gullibility, perfectionism, and a genuine need for love is in perfect contrast to Bill’s easy-going personality. He’s not a tortured soldier, yet he’s not a guy just looking for a good time after which he leaves. 

Reagan was a great comedic actor. Despite the fact that the dialogue at times falters, his timing (especially in relation to Parker) is perfect and he doesn’t miss a beat. Yet, one gets the feeling Reagan might be somewhere else in his mind. It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to assume such a thing. 

Reagan kept avoiding taking the role in “The Voice of the Turtle,” thinking that he might have a better opportunity playing in John Huston’s “The Treasure of Sierra Madre.” But studio head Jack Warner put him in an impossible situation. Reagan writes in his autobiography, Where’s the Rest of Me?, “I was under exclusive contract: if I said no to [The] Voice of the Turtle, there would be no part in Treasure because it was a Warner picture too.” Jack Warner was set on having Reagan play Bill Page, so much that he held onto the script (an adaptation of the play) for years, “even when stars like Cary Grant were offered [by the studio].”

1947 proved to be a difficult year for Reagan. His marriage with Jane Wyman was ending, and he was busy with what he called an “extracurricular activity,” which proved to be quite important and future-forming. It’s not that Reagan’s mind was entirely somewhere else. He loved the movies and he enjoyed being an actor. But a different path was forming him, and he happily accepted. 

1947 was the year Ronald Reagan first became the president of Screen Actors Guild, and he was nominated by Gene Kelly (Reagan would hold this office until 1952, and then once again, in 1959-1960). As he writes in Where’s the Rest of Me?, “. . . back at the Guild, we were involved in the longest and most involved negotiations in the history of our union. As president of the Guild, I also put in appearances in Washington before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and in Los Angeles before a special subcommittee of the House Committee on Education and Labor . . . ” 

According to SAG-AFTRA

during Reagan’s presidencies and board terms, 1946-1960, were among the most vast and complicated in the Guild’s history, including, in addition to the CSU strikes: the Guild’s first entirely new contract since 1937; passage of the labor-weakening Taft-Hartley act; the House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings and the blacklist era; a severe decline in Hollywood film production, largely caused by both the exploding popularity of television and the 1948 ‘Paramount decree’ which would bring an end to the “studio system”; the fall of mainland China to communism; the explosion of an atomic bomb by the Soviet Union; the Korean War; jurisdictional struggles over television; the MCA waiver; the Guild’s first three strikes (1952-53, 1955, and 1960); the first residuals for filmed television programs; first residuals for films sold to television; and the creation of the pension and health plan. 

That’s quite the historical record! It was Ronald Reagan who secured the rights and benefits for the actors. 

Reflecting on whether he made the right moves in his acting career, Reagan wrote, “Looking back, I realize that all of this extracurricular activity prevented me from giving full thought to my career.” But what if, in the end, it was the movie itself (and perhaps many others that came after “The Voice of the Turtle”) that ended up being an “extracurricular activity” and not the other way around?

In a way, Reagan did not see his political involvements as part of a “career” but as part of his duties as a citizen and actor. He didn’t have to do any of it, especially being president of  the Screen Actors Guild and representing actors. He could have fought for his own needs in the studio only but he chose to be a voice for others. Clearly, even his fellow actors saw a man able to speak to a variety of people and negotiate well. It is not then far-fetched to say Ronald Reagan was always an American and citizen first, and actor second. 

Yet in understanding his acting career, which inevitably helped to shape his views and his understanding of his larger vocation, even a romantic comedy like “The Voice of the Turtle” must be embraced as part of the larger frame of Ronald Reagan’s deep and rich life.

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About Emina Melonic

Emina Melonic is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness. Originally from Bosnia, a survivor of the Bosnian war and its aftermath of refugee camps, she immigrated to the United States in 1996 and became an American citizen in 2003. She has a Ph.D. in comparative literature. Her writings have appeared in National Review, The Imaginative Conservative, New English Review, The New Criterion, Law and Liberty, The University Bookman, Claremont Review of Books, The American Mind, and Splice Today. She lives near Buffalo, N.Y.

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