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At the end of the 1930s, Ronald Reagan's career was typical of any second-string studio contract actorplaying supporting roles and bits in top productions, occasionally getting a shot at a more substantial part in a throwaway B movie, dutifully posing for publicity shots and escorting studio-assigned starlets to premieres and night clubs. Just a year after making his first picture at Warner Brothers, he was cast in Brother Rat (1938), a comedy (featuring future first wife Jane Wyman) about the romantic misadventures of three military school cadets. Although billed below co-stars Wayne Morris and Eddie Albert, Reagan proved popular in the role, and the studio decided to build a series around him, one of those cheaply shot programmers that filled the bottom half of a double bill or headlined at Saturday matinees full of young boys looking for action and adventure on the big screen.
The project was assigned to B unit head Bryan Foy, son of the famous vaudeville entertainer Eddie Foy. The producer had made three of Reagan's previous films and was something of a savior for the young actor. Reagan's contract stipulated that each time he completed an assignment, he would be taken off the payroll until he was cast in a new part. "I soon learned that I could go in to Brynie and tell him I had been laid off but couldn't take it at the moment because of all my expenses," Reagan later said. "He would pick up the phone, call a couple of his henchmen, and actually get a picture going on four or five days noticejust to put me back on salary."
The initial entry in what would become a four-picture series, Secret Service of the Air (1939) was by no means either one of the studio's major releases or much of an opportunity for the young actor to show off whatever skills he had beyond his reputation for being likable and highly cooperative. The script was loosely based on the memoirs of the former chief of the Secret Service, William H. Moran, recently purchased by Warners. "Loosely" is the operative word: "I'm sure the Secret Service wasn't exciting enough for Brynie, and he threw away everything but the title," Reagan noted. What they ended up with was the story of former Army Air Corps Lieutenant "Brass" Bancroft, who leaves his job as a commercial pilot to go to work for the Secret Service. His first assignment is to stop a smuggling ring bringing illegal aliens into the U.S. by airand callously dumping their doomed human cargo through a trap door in the plane whenever the operation is threatened with being busted by the feds.
"I became the Errol Flynn of the Bs," Reagan said. "I was as brave as Errol but in a low-budget fashion." Actually, the production was handed a few more resources than many B pictures (including good aerial cinematography), although not enough to cover the cost of stuntmen for everyone involved in its action sequences. Because Reagan was skillfully athletic (and always willing and eager to do whatever he was told), he performed his own stunts and only the villains were doubled. The climactic fight scene aboard the swiftly plunging smuggler's airplane was shot mostly over the villain stuntman's shoulder to show Reagan in full action. During the shooting, the star was directed to make his punches more realistic, and he complied to the point of actually connecting one so perfectly on his adversary's jaw that he knocked the stunt performer out cold. The next day, a different fighter was assigned to the scene. It turned out to be the first stuntman's friend and roommate, and Reagan walked away with a black eye.
Secret Service of the Air proved to be enough of a hit to warrant continuing the series for three more films over the next 15 months. In each of them, Reagan was given a comic sidekick, played by the producer's younger brother Eddie Foy, Jr., who over the next couple of decades would portray his famous father several times, including an appearance in the Warner Brothers George M. Cohan bio-pic Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), starring James Cagney. Secret Service of the Air also featured actress Ila Rhodes in one of the three pictures she made with Reagan during her one-year, five-picture movie career. Rhodes later claimed to have been engaged briefly to the actor before his 1940 marriage to Wyman, but this has been disputed by others who worked at the studio during this time. What is certain is that she was one of several starlets Reagan dated during this period of his film career.
Director: Noel Smith
Producers: Hal B. Wallis, Bryan Foy
Screenplay: Raymond Schrock, based on the memoirs of W.H. Moran
Cinematography: Ted McCord
Editing: Doug Gould
Art Direction: Ted Smith
Original Music: Bernhard Kaun, Max Steiner
Cast: Ronald Reagan ("Brass" Bancroft), John Litel (Tom Saxby), Ila Rhodes (Pamela Schuyler), James Stephenson (Jim Cameron), Eddie Foy, Jr. (Gabby Watters).
by Rob Nixon