First, I should note that I am not an admirer of Ronald Reagan as a politician or president. He may have been one of the most beloved American presidents of all time, but his legendary status as the icon of modern "conservatism" is based largely on myths regarding his political principles, competence, and integrity. As a film actor, however, Ronald Reagan deserves more consideration and respect than he often gets from either film historians or popular culture generally. His political detractors have often deliberately and unfairly ignored or denigrated his movie work, based on his worst films (especially when his career was in decline in the 1950s). In 1941, however, Reagan was on his way to becoming a major film star at Warner Brothers studios. Had he not had to put his career on hold for Army service in World War II, Reagan might have become a star with the popular image and sustained box-office appeal of James Stewart, Joel McCrea, or William Holden. And, one wonders, if he had achieved that kind of success in films, would Reagan ever have entered politics?
I had looked forward to reading Marc Eliot's account of Reagan's Hollywood career, and I give him credit for creating a highly readable book. But as I read, I detected enough factual errors and questionable assessments, especially in regard to the film industry, to make me wonder whether Eliot and his editors had employed a fact-checker and perhaps a little outside critiquing before publication.
*Pg. 44 - "With each of the eight major studios producing on average seventy-five features and a hundred shorts each week ... ". That's 600 feature films a week, or 31,200 a year - a preposterous figure. Another, seemingly more accurate figure for Hollywood's annual production quantity is cited later in the book. .
*Pg. 66 - Hollywood gossip queen Louella Parsons "was being syndicated nationally in all six hundred Hearst newspapers ...". Her column may well have been distributed to that many newspapers via the Hearst syndicate, but William Randolph Hearst himself owned only 30 papers or so.
*Pg. 68 - There's a single paragraph about Reagan making "Sergeant Murphy" in 1938, but no mention that the film is about a contemporary Army cavalryman, reflecting Reagan's own service (at that time) in the horse cavalry as an Army reservist.
*Pg. 68 - Referring to Reagan's 1938 "B" movie,"Accidents Will Happen," "costarring fading A actress Gloria Blondell," Eliot is confusing Gloria -- in just her second film -- with her older sister Joan Blondell, a major Warner Brothers star in the early `30s.
*Pg. 115 - Referring to Reagan's breakthrough role as George Gipp, "the Gipper," in "Knute Rockne, All American," Eliot states that, in this film, "football served as an obvious and powerful metaphor for war" and that, at the time the film was released in the fall of 1940, "America's entry into [World War II was] all but inevitable, ...." Really? At the time "Rockne" was made, the United States was beginning to aid Britain in its war against Nazi Germany, but America's direct involvement was still being hotly debated and was hardly "inevitable," except in hindsight. Eliot also overlooks that the film, rather than celebrating football as combat, includes a scene in which Rockne proclaims football and other competitive sports played in the United States as a substitute for the militarism taught in other societies.
*Pg. 148 - "Movies that dealt with the harsh realities of [the Depression] years ... came only as those years ... were fading with America's inevitable entry into World War II. Forties 'noir' is, in reality, Hollywood's decade-late stylistic depiction of the country's mood during the Depression." Eliot ignores films like "Gabriel Over the White House," "Wild Boys of the Road," "Gold Diggers of 1933," "Stand Up and Cheer," "Our Daily Bread," "My Man Godfrey," "Dead End," and scores of other films made before 1939 that addressed or at least referred to the issues raised by the Great Depression that started in late 1929. Hollywood hardly ignored the Depression before the early 1940s, and the "noirish" films of the '40s were far more a reflection of post-war fears and uncertainties than they were reflections of the nation's mood a decade earlier.
*Pg. 344 - Referring to Will Hays, the former U.S. postmaster general who in 1922 became the first president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), Eliot states that "In 1934, Hays was replaced by Joseph Breen, ..." Hays actually served as president of the MPPDA until 1945; Breen became, in 1934, the first director of that group's Production Code Administration (PCA), responsible for enforcement of the production code. Although the PCA was often referred to as the "Hays Office," Breen did not replace Hays as MPPDA president but instead worked for twenty years as the industry's chief censor. (Eric Johnston took over from Hays as president of the renamed Motion Picture Association of America, the MPAA, in 1946.) This is pretty basic U.S. motion picture history; I'm surprised that Eliot was not more specific about the relationship between Hays and Breen.
The book contains a great deal about Reagan's role in Hollywood's labor-union issues in the 1930s and 1940s (mainly during his six years as president of the Screen Actors Guild), but much of the information about this important aspect of U.S. film history is attributed to Eliot's own book, "Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince," so to check on his sources you have to have that book available. There's also an unnecessary amount of padding - information about certain Reagan co-workers and other Hollywood personalities, as well as about the film industry itself, that often is simply a list of names and films, or other extraneous info. Eliot also goes into some glib psychological evaluation of Reagan, especially the man's relationship with his alcoholic father.
"The Hollywood Years" follows Reagan as far as 1964, the year he made his last feature film (some of his "Death Valley Days" TV episodes premiered as late as October 1965) and the year that he started to become a serious political player in the presidential campaign of Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater. A nationally televised speech by Reagan on Goldwater's behalf convinced several California Republicans that Reagan could successfully run for governor. As I said, this is a highly readable book, but the discrepancies I could detect make me wonder how many other errors there are in the book that I don't have the detailed knowledge to find. For someone who has written so many books about Hollywood history and American popular culture, Eliot seems remarkably cavalier about getting his facts right. Supplement this book with Stephen Vaughn's "Ronald Reagan in Hollywood" (1991) and Thomas W. Evans's "The Education of Ronald Reagan" (2006).