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After appearing in a small role in Edmund Goulding's Dark Victory, a big hit for Warner Brothers in 1939 and recipient of multiple Academy Award® nominations, jobbing actor Ronald Reagan was duly returned to the studio's B-unit where he got his start, to be slotted into a number of low budget programmers. Wrapping two back-to-back productions with the problematic but popular Dead End Kids (the lack of affection during filming was mutual), Reagan made the second in a planned series of self-contained but serial-like adventure films about an aviator hero of the American Secret Service. By the time he kitted himself as Lieutenant "Brass" Bancroft (his rank in the United States Cavalry Reserve), Reagan had already played the character twice, in Secret Service of the Air and Code of the Secret Service (both released in 1939). He squeezed out one more that year. Smashing the Money Ring (1939) was more of the same pulp, with Brass infiltrating the walls of San Quentin to smash a prison counterfeiting ring. Although Reagan had at one point been considered as a successor to the scandal-prone Errol Flynn, he was a far less complicated swashbuckler. The line from the Warners PR department was that their Brass Bancroft romps (four in all, including 1940's Murder in the Air) were meant to "install patriotism" through Reagan's positive example of old fashioned values and fervid nationalism. Novelty "Junior Secret Service Club" cards were handed out to impressionable youths in the lobbies of theaters, signed at the bottom by "Ronald Reagan, Captain."
Studio head Jack Warner had purchased the rights to the unpublished memoirs of William H. Moran, head of the Secret Service from 1917 until 1936. Moran was retained as a technical advisor but, given that most of what he could bring to the table from an espionage standpoint was still highly classified, Warners scribes had to invent the movie plots out of thin air. Smashing the Money Ring was based on the original story "Murder in Sing Sing" by Jonathan Finn, first adapted for Nick Grinde's Jailbreak (1936) only three years earlier. (Finn also authored Lloyd Bacon's post-prison drama Invisible Stripes (1939), starring Humphrey Bogart, George Raft and a young William Holden.) Rushed into production, the Smashing the Money Ring shooting script benefited from on-set rewrites to fill in sundry holes in logic and plotting. Aimed as they were at the matinee market, Hollywood B movies weren't held to the same standards as their classier kin. While prestige films had to hew closely to political guidelines in particular, those defining US neutrality in the years leading up to America's involvement in World War II programmers and serials were allowed to baldly accuse Axis powers of perpetrating acts of global terrorism...all put paid in this context by Brass Bancroft and his comic sidekick Gabby. Arguably the most consistently entertaining and popular asset of the series, Gabby, was played by Eddie Foy, Jr., one of Vaudeville's "Seven Little Foys" and the brother of Bryan Foy, who ran Warner's B unit.
The following year would see an uptake in both Ronald Reagan's career and personal life. In 1940 he played the secondary but pivotal character of George "The Gipper" Gipp in Knute Rockne, All-American (1940) and was George Armstrong Custer to Errol Flynn's Jeb Stuart in Santa Fe Trail. In January, Reagan had proposed to actress Jane Wyman with the persuader of a 32-carat amethyst ring. Wyman's divorce from second husband Myron Futterman had been granted a month earlier and, despite obvious incompatibilities between the two Warners contract players, she accepted Reagan's proposal. The pair had great success following World War II, with Reagan's justifiably celebrated dramatic turn as Drake ("Where's the rest of me?") McHugh in Kings Row (1942) and Wyman's Academy Award® winning performance as Johnny Belinda (1948). By the time Reagan and Wyman were divorced in 1948, he was President of The Screen Actor's Guild and pointed to a bright political future. Less than a decade after they were made, his Brass Bancroft pictures were all but forgotten except by Reagan himself, who used his Hollywood clout to keep them out of Los Angeles theaters and far from the minds of the moviegoing and voting public.
Director: Terry O. Morse
Screenplay: Anthony Coldeway, Raymond Schrock; Jonathan Finn (idea)
Cinematography: James Van Trees; L. William O'Connell (uncredited)
Art Direction: Charles Novi
Music: Bernhard Kaun (uncredited)
Film Editing: Frank Magee
Cast: Ronald Reagan (Lieutenant 'Brass' Bancroft), Margot Stevenson (Peggy Parker), Eddie Foy, Jr. (Gabby Watters), Joe Downing (Dice Mathews), Charles D. Brown (Steve Parker), Joe King (Tom Saxby), William Davidson (Warden Denby), Charles Wilson (Captain Kilrane), Elliott Sullivan (Danny Galloway), John Hamilton (Night Captain)
by Richard Harland Smith
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Reagan: The Hollywood Years by Marc Eliot
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