It’s not rare for actors or actresses to move from the world of acting, to a medium wholly different.
You have your actors-turned-musicians that come a dime a dozen. Actors like Johnny Depp, Russell Crowe, or even someone like Billy Bob Thornton all have made their names in both acting and in music. Then, if you are as busy as someone like James Franco, you have actors who stay within film, but become writers or directors.
That said, it takes a rare person to go from actor, to President Of The United States Of America.
Ronald Reagan was that person, and now, thanks to The Warner Archive, we have access to a collection of four films starring the iconic former leader of the free world on DVD, and it’s quite an interesting foursome.
The Warner Archive has released a two disc collection of films starring Reagan, all revolving around his character, ‘Brass’ Bancroft. A character made famous by the actor in the late ‘˜30s/early ‘˜40s, Reagan picked up the role during his third year on contract over at Warner Brothers. Bancroft, a Secret Service agent, takes on human traffickers, counterfeiters and spies in four, nearly hour long films, all of which are some of the more enjoyable glimpses into a filmography that doesn’t seem to get talked about much among today’s film landscape.
Starting off the set is the 1939 picture, Secret Service Of The Air. This 61 minute short finds our hero taking on a group of human smugglers, as he must uncover who is behind a ring of recently smuggled in illegal aliens. Tossed into prison to garner the needed information, it is up to Brass to enter into this group and bring it to the ground.
Coming out in 1939 as well, the DVD’s second release, Code Of The Secret Service, gives us our first money based narrative, and finds Brass on the hunt for a counterfeit money ring. He’s made his way to Mexico, and teams with fellow agent Dan Crackett to hunt the stolen plates down. However, when the gang behind the ring kills Dan and pins it on Brass, he must, with the help of his faithful right hand man Gabby and main squeeze Elaine, keep out of jail and bring justice to where it is needed.
This however, wouldn’t be the first time Brass needed to hunt down some counterfeit money, as the third 1939 release of this set, Smashing The Money Ring, also involves some fake green. Brass must yet again uncover a counterfeiting ring, which this time, makes its home inside the walls of a prison. Seeing our lead yet again inside a big house, Bancroft makes his way up the ranks, ultimately trying to bring the leader to justice.
Finally, moving forward a year, the final film in this release is 1940’s Murder In The Air. After the death of a man, Bancroft must take his identity, and impersonate the man in order to sniff out and end a ring of saboteurs. Everything goes to plan until the man’s wife jumps in the picture, and changes everything.
With this collection, comes this writer’s first foray into the world of Ronald Reagan as an actor. Having missed the majority of his administration, the only thing known about Reagan for this writer is what history has subsequently told me. A president with a sense of humor, the ‘Teflon president’ is exactly that in my eyes. Seemingly a deity amongst modern day conservatives, the view of the 40th President is just that.
However, with this collection of films, as I’ll talk more about throughout this review, it is easy to see just how much charisma and humor seemed to bleed over from his acting career, into his time as a politician and policy crafter.
Throughout this collection and its four films, one thing continued to stand loud and clear: Reagan was a real charmer. Taking on the lead role of ‘Brass’ Bancroft, Reagan was tasked with taking on not only Bancroft, but also the men the character would ultimately go and be forced to impersonate. While he does give each character their own sense of rhythm, the charisma and comedic charm of Bancroft seemed to be far less based on this character, than ultimately who Reagan was as a person.
Secret Service Of The Air is a perfect way to introduce this character as well. Easily the smallest plot of the four films, the first of two Noel Smith directed features (followed by Code Of The Secret Service) has the most entertaining and ultimately informative performance from Reagan. Based on material compiled by former Chief of the US Secret Service W.H. Moran, both films here, Of The Air and Code, feature really well crafted action sequences, and great performances from the man this series focuses on. However, within these very set pieces comes the weakest aspect of this series.
As an action hero, Reagan seems a bit awkward. A tall, skinnier man, Reagan has a perfectly charismatic face and physicality, almost silent film like, but this ultimately leads to Reagan seeming a tad bit awkward when forced to run or fight. Akin to the feeling one feels when seeing a skinny and thin Angelina Jolie in Salt, the action sequences are well shot and choreographed, but are undone by the lack of truth given to them by Reagan’s build. That said, the only action we get here are the occasional chase and arrant punch thrown, so these moments are few and far between.
The first film helmed by Terry Morse, the third film in this series, Smashing The Money Ring, is also the shining moment for this series’ supporting star.
Playing Gabby Watters, Brass’ right-hand man, Eddie Foy Jr. marks his third turn as the character with this performance, and proves that while Reagan may ultimately get the publicity for these films, it’s he that may be the foursome’s real shining star. Gabby is a likeable, if not a bit of a dimwitted character, and while that trope has been done more than a few times, Foy is able to inject so much heart and truth to the character, that again, makes this feel much more like a silent film than one would imagine. Easily capable of being told through the expressions of our leads and the occasional title card, these films area really interesting look into not only an era, but also a style of action/adventure film that just simply doesn’t get made any more.
Rounding out the bunch is arguably the prettiest of the foursome, Murder In The Air. A 1940 release, this film is the crowning visual achievement of this collection. Featuring fantastic black and white photography and some absolutely fantastic use of lighting, Murder In The Air features a fantastic performance from Reagan, arguably the series’ best, as well as one of the best supporting turns of the series, given by the ever impeccable Lya Lys (L’Age d’Or). She’s a great femme fatale type character within this film, and points out the fantastic collection of female actresses that find their way into this series. Toss this in with the great filmmaking craft (which rivals the other beauty of the set, Money Ring, as most visually appealing), and you have a pulpy hour long piece of film that you absolutely should check out.
Overall, the biggest compliment that can be paid to this release is that these four films, historical reverence or not, still play absolutely fantastic from today’s viewpoint. Reagan himself is a great, almost silent like figure, oozing the same charisma and sense of humor that has allowed his legacy to become that of a God amongst modern day Conservatives. He’s an entertaining actor, and one that ultimately charms the pants right the hell off you. Toss in a collection of fantastic supporting characters, and you have four films that while they may hold a weight of their own historically, are also genuinely inspired pieces of feature filmmaking. For any cinephile, this is an absolute must own.