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April 27, 2010 12:01 PM   Subscribe

When "The Dark, Dark Hours" episode of General Electric Theater aired live from Hollywood on December 12, 1954, Ronald Reagan and James Dean were just two actors yet to find the roles that would define them.The Atlantic has a six-minute video clip and some background.
posted by The Mouthchew (6 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
This reminds me of James Coburn's line in one of the Flint movies when the president is secretly replaced by an actor double. He gets a odd, almost wistful look in his eye and says "An actor? As president?"
posted by chambers at 12:27 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


An interesting contrast in styles.

Who was it who said Ronald Reagan was only ever well-suited to play the leading man's best friend? It wasn't Gore Vidal, who actually thought of Reagan as a "very good actor" (though, apparently, not quite right for the lead role in his own 1960 Broadway play "The Best Man").

I think this clip shows that he was actually most adept at being a presenter—standing straight-as-a-board, looking right into the camera, and delivering his spiel with a convincing blend of folksy humor and no-nonsense, straight shootin' about whatever it was he was trying to sell you, whether it was light bulbs, cigarettes, or the existence of a nuclear missile gap.

It would have been interesting to compare the work of James Dean and Marlon Brando as they both advanced into middle age. I always got the sense that, while Brando was probably the more talented of the two, he never took the craft of acting very seriously. Dean, on the other hand, seemed ever eager to learn. I don't think you would have seen him getting morbidly fat and retiring to an island for the last 20 years of his life. I'm guessing he would have worked right until the end, like fellow Actors' Studio alumnus Paul Newman.
posted by Atom Eyes at 2:02 PM on April 27, 2010


At the time of the broadcast, Dean was 24. With the movie industry in recession, and his career waning, his agents had been bringing him offers to do TV shows. Like many movie actors at the time, Dean was skittish about the small screen. But producers thought he was perfect for the anthology genre, which was still struggling to gain traction with audiences. He eventually signed on, helping produce the show, hosting it, and acting in a half-dozen dramas per season.

Less than a year after this episode aired, Dean was a major primetime presence whom millions tuned in to see each week. Reagan was a tragic, what-might-have-been figure, dead at age 43 from an automobile crash.
--General Electric Theater, the What If? edition.
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:27 PM on April 27, 2010


Who was it who said Ronald Reagan was only ever well-suited to play the leading man's best friend?

I found it used unattributed in several biographies and other discussions. It seems to be related to a stinging criticism that he rebuked during the 1980 primaries that he "never got the girl", describing himself instead as "the slow and steady suitor" -- although at least one critic characterizes his wins in those cases as through dependency of some kind like losing a leg -- and he was using that as an explicit political metaphor.

Dean, on the other hand, seemed ever eager to learn. I don't think you would have seen him getting morbidly fat and retiring to an island for the last 20 years of his life.

Interesting theory. I think the issue with Brando was largely changing film-making approaches that invalidated the strict Method, and I wonder whether Dean would have adapted more readily to, for example, the streets of cinema verité. I'm not certain he would have. Both of them would have retained stagey personas. Brando's was used to quite good effect in Apocalypse Now, of course, although Coppola had a slightly different vision until fat Marlon showed up.

Anyway, I did not think the synonymy between Reagan's line here and the Dirty Harry line all that surprising. Dirty Harry was explicitly invoking Eastwood's Western persona and traditional law and order values, and of course the iconography -- straight shooter vs. punk -- is precisely identical in both works. What I find more interesting is the inversion from the 1950s shoot-me-or-the-hell-with-you courage vs. the 1970s fantasy supercop who has the punk wetting his pants. Although the gun crowd today likes to pretend it's the direct descendant of square-jawed frontiersmen, there really is a tinge of fear and primal fantasy that wasn't present in even the dessicated Hollywood Western genre.
posted by dhartung at 4:45 PM on April 27, 2010


The story, which is probably apocryphal, is that when Jack Warner heard that Reagan was running for governor [or president--there are a couple versions], he quipped 'No, no, Jimmy Stewart for governor [or president]. Reagan as his best friend.'
posted by box at 6:03 PM on April 27, 2010


What I find more interesting is the inversion from the 1950s shoot-me-or-the-hell-with-you courage vs. the 1970s fantasy supercop who has the punk wetting his pants.

I think its playing with two different fantasies, the "I'm powerful because I can kill you" vs. "I'm powerful because you can't kill me me." You did get a bit of the first in Westerns, with the powerful gun as heroic signifier as opposed to toughness and grit, in such things like 'The Rifleman' but it seemed to be a bigger thing starting in the 1970s and '80s
posted by Snyder at 7:46 PM on April 27, 2010


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