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How Playing a Pilot in WWII Docs Helped Reagan Launch His Political Career

January 16, 2019 in History

By H. W. Brands

Reagan’s role in the U.S. government’s war films helped burnish the future president’s image and shape his world view.

Ronald Reagan always thought World War II had cost him his chance at reaching the top of the marquee of Hollywood stars. His best performance came in a film, Kings Row, that premiered just as the movie business was following other industries in converting to wartime production. By the end of the war, Reagan’s moment had passed, and it never came again.

In truth, there was more to the story than bad timing. Reagan simply didn’t have the dramatic chops of Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart. Reagan was a fine supporting actor, but he couldn’t carry a film. Jack Warner, Reagan’s boss at Warner Bros. studio, understood. Told in 1965 that Reagan was running for California governor, Warner reportedly quipped, “No—Jimmy Stewart for governor; Ronald Reagan for best friend.”

Yet whether or not World War II derailed Reagan’s movie career, it put him on the path to another career, in which he reached greater heights than he ever could have in Hollywood. Reagan entered the military and was informed that he could do his country the most useful service by continuing to make movies. His eyesight was too poor to risk assigning him to any active theater of the war. “If we sent you overseas you’d shoot a general,” an examining doctor told him, as Stephen Vaughn writes in Ronald Reagan in Hollywood. “And you’d miss him,” the doctor’s colleague added.”

Lt. Ronald Reagan and actress Joan Leslie in the 1943 Warner Bros film, This is the Army.

READ MORE: Why Ronald Reagan Had a Record Eight Shutdowns

So Reagan reported to Culver City, California, where Jack Warner had set up the U.S. Army’s First Motion Picture Unit. Actors and technicians in uniform made promotional and instructional films, chiefly for the Army’s Air Forces. Reagan had played a pilot in earlier films and was a natural for an airman. He’d been a radio announcer before becoming an actor, and his voice was perfect as the narrator for inspirational documentaries about America’s heroes of the air.

Reagan’s wartime roles caused audiences to see—and hear—him in a new light. Though he never came under enemy fire, to many Americans he was the face and voice of those who did. Newsreel footage of actual battles left most of the participants too …read more


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