How Reagan and Hollywood turned right

March 17, 1994|By Michael Kenney | Michael Kenney,Boston Globe

In October 1947, Ronald Reagan testified at the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings on communist influence in Hollywood. He "created something of a stir," according to a report in Motion Picture Daily, with his "affirmation of . . . American democracy, in and out of Hollywood."

But, writes University of Wisconsin communications professor Stephen Vaughn in his absorbing -- but unsettling -- study of Mr. Reagan as actor-politician, Mr. Reagan was an informer for the FBI, complete with a code name, "T-10."

Two months after the hearings, Mr. Reagan reported back to the Screen Actors Guild, of which he was president. He urged it to adopt a statement that, according to Mr. Vaughn, criticized "producers for inquiring into the politics of employees or discriminating against them on the basis of ideas."

But "all the while, Reagan was providing the FBI with information about SAG members."

Mr. Vaughn never goes so far as to suggest how Mr. Reagan's apparent two-faced activities or the other influences of his Hollywood career were reflected in his presidency, but the evidence is clearly there in this well-researched and lively study.

As other biographers have noted, Mr. Reagan was a 1930s liberal, describing himself as "a child of the Depression" and someone who "bled for causes." What Mr. Vaughn adds to that picture is the socially conscious -- if only "tepidly" so -- mood of Hollywood when Mr. Reagan arrived there in 1937.

Warner Bros. was "interested in reform" and made "films about social issues into the early 1940s." Mr. Reagan was a good fit with this, Mr. Vaughn writes, and thus "it seemed natural that the studio should give him roles as a crusading reporter, an idealistic lawyer, a tomato farmer who defended the little man against the impersonal forces of society." There is an obvious question as to just how deeply committed Mr. Reagan was to the social causes with which his characters were involved, but "with the help of these films, which tentatively touched social themes, the youthful actor gained a reputation as a liberal."

Mr. Vaughn traces the shift from liberalism that swept Hollywood in the aftermath of the 1947 screenwriters' strike and the near-simultaneous start of the Cold War -- a shift that Mr. Reagan followed.

Mr. Reagan "had managed himself adroitly during the 1947 hearings" and during the screenwriters' strike, when he pleased Actors Guild members but angered writers by allowing SAG members to cross the writers' picket lines. Mr. Vaughn writes that he had "sampled opinion in the Screen Actors Guild" and realized that the liberalism for which he had won some measure of respect "was becoming a liability."

Hollywood, Mr. Vaughn writes, was also a promoter of "an American exceptionalism" -- ironically, a phrase by which American communists attempted to distinguish themselves from the Soviet party -- fostering "the idea that God favored America."

In the same way that Mr. Reagan reflected the social consciousness of the Warners, by the early 1950s he was reflecting the patriotic and pro-business attitudes of the Film Industry Council. Producer Walter Wanger, a leading member of the council, argued that Hollywood had "done a great service in not only selling America, but also American products."

Mr. Reagan "liked this message," Mr. Vaughn writes, and told a Kiwanis convention in 1950 that movies, by "just showing our store windows in the street scenes with things that Americans can buy, our parking lots, our streets with automobiles, [held] back the flood of propaganda from the other side of the Iron Curtain." It was an advocacy, Mr. Vaughn says, that not only attacked communism but also "exalted America."

Mr. Vaughn suggests that Mr. Reagan's career as an actor waned because, after 1947, he "could no longer give acting his undivided attention." Even at the time, Hollywood observers speculated that Mr. Reagan was preoccupied with public service, perhaps even with politics.

And "Reagan's future did lie in politics," Mr. Vaughn writes. By the early 1950s he had lost the old movie persona of the fighter for social causes, and with a string of wartime films had acquired "a public persona often equated with athleticism, military valor, government service, aviation, compassion for the disadvantaged, opposition to bigotry and professional success."

The author maintains that Hollywood turned out to be "poor soil" in which to nurture the liberal sentiments Mr. Reagan brought from his experiences during the Depression. But "Americanism was another matter." It connected the Midwest of Mr. Reagan's childhood and Hollywood and, eventually, politics. As president, he always seemed a bit of an actor. This study makes it clear why that was so.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Ronald Reagan in Hollywood: Movies and Politics"

Author: Stephen Vaughn

Publisher: Cambridge University Press

Length, price: 359 pages, $24.95

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