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Ronald "Dutch" Reagan had been a sports reporter for a Des Moines radio station when he came to California on an assignment to cover the Chicago Cubs' spring training on Catalina Island. Through friends in the film industry, Reagan finagled a screen test at Warner Brothers and a seven year contract was waiting for him to sign before his return flight landed back in Iowa. Believe it or not, Warners was interested in Reagan as the next Errol Flynn but instead of a romantic sophisticate and action star they found an affable comedian whose folksy, aw-shucks demeanor was a hit with moviegoers. In addition to lending considerable charm to a string of light comedies (among them, Brother Rat (1938) and its sequel), Reagan brought gravitas to such dramas as the 1940 biopic Knute Rockne All American (in which his dying George Gipp inspires his teammates to gridiron glory) and Kings Row (1942), where his mutilation at the hands of spiteful small town surgeon Charles Coburn remains one of cinema's most indelible moments of non-genre horror.
Although Reagan the politician (first as Governor of California and then as the 40th President of the United States) would prove staunchly anti-union, the actor nonetheless joined the swelling ranks of the Screen Actor's Guild, (having been recruited by Broderick Crawford's actress mother, Helen Broderick). Reagan served on the SAG board until his career was interrupted by service in World War II. In 1947, he returned to the guild and was elected its president that same year, a position he held for five consecutive terms.
Ronald Reagan had joined the army reserves in 1937, well before the start of World War II. Due to nearsightedness, he was barred from oversees combat and spent the bulk of the war with the Motion Picture Unit of the Army Air Force. Reagan's first film role in postwar Hollywood was the lead in Stallion Road (1947), an adaptation of the novel by Stephen Longstreet. Born in 1907 as Chauncey Weiner, the writer (who employed a number of pseudonyms before settling on "Stephen Longstreet") got his start as a graphic artist while earning extra money writing scripts for NBC Radio. As a novelist (a vocation urged on him by Random House publisher Bennett Cerf, for whom he drew dust jackets), Longstreet made the acquaintance of William Faulkner and the pair wound up heading west to write for the movies. It was Faulkner who got the first crack at adapting Longstreet's 1945 novel Stallion Road (a pass which Longstreet himself championed as "wild, wonderful, mad") but Warners was unhappy with the result and brought Longstreet in to provide a viable shooting script. (Warners had also scotched Faulkner's script for Mildred Pierce (1945), prompting the celebrated but underused novelist to return to his Mississippi home in abject disappointment.)
Warners had planned for Stallion Road to be shot in Technicolor and wanted Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall to star opposite the returning Reagan, cast as a maverick California rancher/veterinarian who finds himself enmeshed in a romantic triangle while facing down an outbreak of bovine anthrax. When the newlyweds opted not to appear in the project (claiming that they were the wrong types for an outdoor picture), the budget was cut in half, the more affordable Zachary Scott and Alexis Smith were slotted into the Bogie and Bacall roles and Technicolor was swapped out for less expensive black and white.
Despite the preproduction compromises, Stallion Road provides a good comeback vehicle for Ronald Reagan and remains charming and cozy entertainment some sixty years after the fact. Even in black and white, the Sierra Madre locations provide a grand canvas for the decidedly soap operatic goings-on and director James V. Kern (fresh from the Errol Flynn comedy Never Say Goodbye, 1946) is aided immeasurably by a strong cast of supporting players, among them Peggy Knudsen (The Big Sleep, 1946) as a banker's wife with an extracurricular eye on Reagan's hunky horse breaker, Frank Puglia (the Casablanca (1942) street vendor with the downwardly sliding price scale) as Reagan's Mexican ranch foreman and Dick Tracy (1937) star Ralph Byrd as a roadhouse proprietor who challenges Reagan to a fistfight. Zachary Scott is amusing as a visiting New York writer out of his element in cowboy country and Alexis Smith is alluring as a long-legged local girl in a tight Concho belt.
Ultimately, Stallion Road belongs to Reagan, who convinces as a resourceful outdoorsman because he was one. Although he missed his SAG comrade Bogart by his side (studio head Jack Warner also nixed Reagan's chance to appear alongside Bogie in John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), a role eventually played by Bruce Bennett), Reagan was otherwise delighted with the assignment, which allowed him an entertaining if not stellar return to the limelight and a weekly salary of $3,500 for riding horses. Producer: Alex Gottlieb
Director: James V. Kern
Screenplay: Stephen Longstreet, based on his novel
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Art Direction: Stanley Fleischer
Music: Friedrich Hollaender
Film Editing: David Weisbart
Cast: Ronald Reagan (Larry Hanrahan), Alexis Smith (Rory Teller), Zachary Scott (Stephen Purcell), Peggy Knudsen (Daisy Otis), Patti Brady (Chris Teller), Harry Davenport (Dr. Stevens).
by Richard Harland Smith
The Films of Ronald Reagan by Tony Thomas
Bogart by A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax
Introduction to Stallion Road: A Screenplay by William Faulkner by Louis Daniel Brodsky and Robert W. Hamblin
Interview with Stephen Longstreet by Louis Daniel Brodsky