Later this month (25 June 2012) Turner Classic Movies/TCM is presenting an evening of films with Ross Alexander. He is a pretty obscure actor who played supporting parts in “A” Warners pictures and some leads in “B”s. He was considered an up and coming leading man in the Warners stock company when he shot himself in the head. There are several reasons given for his Jan. ’37 suicide, his homosexuality, studio pressure to keep up a front, his declining career, debts… There are several conflicting stories but no one has really researched it properly. The only interest in Ross Alexander was when Reagan biographer Lou Cannon mentioned that Alexander’s suicide meant there was a hole in the Warner’s line-up that Ronnie was lucky enough to fill.
“Lucky” is Reagan’s real nickname. It was in honor of his hiring by Warner Brothers even though he had no professional acting experience. Through the years its been given out that Reagan’s nickname was “Dutch”. Why? The original story was that when Ronnie was a boy he had a dog called “Dutch” that followed him everywhere so people took to calling them “Big Dutch” and “Little Dutch”. That story was fine for the movie magazine era, but once communications became more mass and people wanted to know more about the stars, it was soon realized that the story of “Big Dutch and Little Dutch” was a blatant rip-off of how John Wayne got the nickname “Duke”.
Then an alternative myth was propagated. When he was born, his father held him up and declared, “He looks like a fat little Dutchman”. Of course there is another explanation. Reagan, from an Irish, Catholic, Democratic family, found himself in a predominantly German, Protestant, Republican upper Midwest and being called Dutch Reagan was a way of fitting in. And the name was pronounced “Ray-gun”, unlike everybody else in his family who pronounced it the Irish way, Ree-gun”.
Reagan was a staff announcer at WHO in Des Moines, Iowa, a 50,000-Watt powerhouse. Among Reagan’s duties was doing re-creations of Chicago Cubs baseball games. Recreations consisted of a bare bones description of a baseball games being delivered over the Western Union wire. There were things like “Strike one” or “Ball one” coming off the ticker. It was the job of the re-creator to add all of the details, such as “Now Dean leans in to the plate, he shakes off a sign, then another. Now Dean winds up and throws…. and it’s strike one! Dean whizzed that one right down the middle but I don’t even think Hack saw it.” There was the legendary time the wire went down and no information was coming in and Reagan had to bullshit for more than twenty minutes. Pure Reagan free form spontaneous bullshit.
Since Reagan did the play by play for the Cubs he talked his bosses to send him to spring training. Since the Cubs were owned by chewing gum magnate P. K. Wrigley, and Wrigley also owned Catalina Island, that’s where the Cubs trained so Reagan got a free trip to Los Angeles, aka HOLLYWOOD!
Once there, Reagan looked up the former girl singer with the WHO Big Band. Big radio stations like WHO maintained their own bands. Now there is a long Reagan record of using women as stepping stones and this apparently is one example. She hooked him up with her agent who got him a screen test at Warner Brothers.
At the time Warner Brothers was preparing HOLLYWOOD HOTEL, a film based on the Louella Parson’s radio show of the same name. Louella Parsons was one of the most powerful people in the entertainment industry. She wrote a show business gossip column for the Hearst newspaper chain that was printed in 600 newspapers worldwide and read by 20 million people. Studios tried to win her favor. Her daughter Harriet Parsons was a producer at 20th Century Fox. Her husband “Docky” Martin was the studio doctor at MGM and by reputation a lush. Warners was producing a movie based on her radio show when Ronald Reagan walked in the door. Here’s where the “lucky” enters the picture. Louella Parsons was from Dixon, Illinois, which was also Reagan’s hometown.
In HOLLYWOOD HOTEL Reagan “played” a radio announcer. He had a national reputation due to his being the voice of the University of Iowa football games, so there must have been some “Oh, so that’s what he looks like” reactions. In several of his early films he played a radio announcer as well as a radio personality in his first film, LOVE IS IN THE AIR. (There is no shame in this as Fred MacMurray, a much more successful Reagan “type”, started out as a saxophone player and played saxophone players in his early pictures.)
Of course the first thing Reagan did after getting his Warners contract was dump the small time agent who got him in the door and signing with Lou Wasserman of the MCA agency, which is a whole different story. Another thing that Reagan did was work his way into the so-called Irish Mafia at Warners – Jimmy Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Frank McHugh, George Brent, etc. As a result Reagan began showing up in Pat O’Brien pictures (eventually doing his famous “Gipper” role). This is when his name was pronounced Ree-gan, the Irish way.
There is a Warners promotional short, A Vitaphone Pictorial Revue, Series 2, #6 (1938) in which he’s pointed out and identified as “Ronald Ree-gan”, and then again in 1947 in SO YOU WANT TO BE IN PICTURES, neatly bracketing his Warners career. Then again as the ‘Mystery Guest’ on “What’s My Line” in 1953, after his parting of the ways with Warners, he is stridently insistent that his name is pronounced “Ray-gun”.
Reagan was valuable to Warners because he didn’t drink and showed up on time to the studio. He had leads in “B” movies, which were cut down and re-budgeted scripts turned down by Errol Flynn (they wore the same size leather jacket). He had featured parts in “A” pictures all leading up to his famous bit in KING’S ROW where a sadistic small town doctor cuts off his legs (leading to the title of his autobiography Where’s The Rest Of Me?). Reagan was convinced that his role in this film was going to make him a star but then the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and his career was interrupted, for which he blamed the Japanese and hated them for the rest of his life (as did Nancy, for her own reasons).
But back to the idea that it was Ross Alexander’s suicide that paved the way for Reagan’s career at Warners. I was not familiar with Ross Alexander except for the references to his suicide. The only film of his that I knew was CAPTAIN BLOOD as support to Errol Flynn. He didn’t make much of an impression on me, being slightly reminiscent of Franchot Tone. Seeing some of Brooklyn born Alexander’s films now I realize that he was a completely different type than Reagan and Alexander’s death couldn’t have been a reason for Reagan’s signing. Alexander was a swarthy urban type, a fast taking wise guy, less an upper class wit like Tone, a type whose apogee would be John Garfield who would add an omnivorous sexual appeal which both Alexander and Reagan would lack and who became a huge star, which Reagan never became.
Ironically in Reagan’s first “classic”, DARK VICTORY, he was required to play a homosexual as Bette Davis’ best friend. The director, Edmund Goulding, had difficulty with Reagan who refused to play even slightly gay, which, in terms of the story, made his role superfluous as it makes Davis’s desperate search for a man absurd. But Goulding was among a handful of directors who didn’t call the shots, preferring to rehearse the actors and then step off the set and have the assistant director call the shots. Reagan played it straight. The big irony was that this was a role made for Alexander who was gay and obsessed with Bette Davis.
One more note. My friend Gore Vidal, in his many surgical dissections of Reagan, has always emphasized the popularity of Reagan as an actor. This is true, but only in a way. Reagan was in the top ten of popular actors ONLY in polls conducted by the movie magazines. It was the Hearst organization that decided to “puff” Reagan’s career, and there was a steady flow of Ronald Reagan stories in these Hearst magazines that made him a far more important figure to their readers than he actually was at the box office.
The most notorious story was the one about Reagan going off to war, Good-bye Button Nose, with him leaving wife Jane Wyman at home. Of course Reagan spent the war living in Pacific Heights and commanding the Air Corps film unit at the Hal Roach studio, aka Fort Wacky. Eventually Reagan’s hyper publicity snapped back on him when Wyman divorced him (“I couldn’t stand watching KING’S ROW one more time”, she supposedly said.) and Reagan resented the wall-to-wall coverage, which soured him on the press for the rest of his life.