Awkward moments with your mom don’t end with the chat about the birds and the bees, as Patti Davis has just discovered. After watching “Hellcats of the Navy,” the submarine soap opera that’s the only movie her parents Ronald and Nancy Reagan ever made together, Davis hesitantly approached her 87-year-old mother.
“Umm, Mom, that was kind of a ... silly ... movie, don’t you think?” Davis asked carefully.
“Of course it was, dear,” her mother replied, laughing. “We did it because we needed the work.”
That’s the sort of tidbit you can expect on the month-long Ronald Reagan film festival that Davis is co-hosting on Wednesday nights in March with film historian Robert Osborne on Turner Classic Movies: no long disquisitions on “auteur” theory or the influence of German expressionism but a lot more personal and entertaining.
Davis, who did a bit of television acting in the 1980s before turning into a full-time writer, is the first to admit she’s no expert on her father’s films.
By the time she was born in 1952, his movie career was winding down, and the only set she ever visited was that of “Death Valley Days,” the TV Western series he hosted for a couple of years in the 1960s.
“I remember they had a lot of white guys painted up like Indians,” Davis says. “They were wearing this orangy, weird makeup, bad wigs, and cheap feathers. They looked ridiculous. I said to my father, ‘Why don’t they just use real Indians?’ He thought about it for a while, and finally he said, ‘That’s a really good question, and I don’t know the answer.’”
The 31 Reagan films TCM is screening range from good (1942’s” King’s Row,” airing at 10 p.m. on March 18) to bad (1957’s “Hellcats of the Navy,” 11:25 p.m., March 25) to utterly weird: “That Hagen Girl,” the 1947 film that virtually ended Shirley Temple’s career.
The 19-year-old Temple played a college student who “might” be the illegitimate daughter of the 36-year-old lawyer played by Reagan ... and the two of them “might” be having an affair. (Actually, they were: The first version of the film had a scene with Reagan’s telling Temple “I love you,” but it was quickly edited out when a preview audience hissed ‘No!” en masse.) The New York Times called the movie “a bleak indiscretion.” Other reviews were even worse, and within two years Temple left Hollywood.
Reagan begged director Peter Godfrey to rewrite the script, observing even without the faint suggestion of incest, audiences weren’t likely to go for a film in which a teenager marries a man old enough to be her father. “I’m old enough to be my wife’s father,” Godfrey replied. “I spoke one sentence too many,” Reagan recalled mournfully in his memoirs.
Davis watched a number of her father’s films for the first time (though she still hasn’t seen “That Hagen Girl”: “I’m definitely going to TiVo it!”) in preparation for the TCM festival. But her favorite of them remains one she saw when she was young: “King’s Row,” a tale of dark obsessions in a small town. Her father plays a character whose legs are unnecessarily amputated by a jealous surgeon. “Where’s the rest of me?” Reagan cries when he wakes up.
“I remember being allowed to stay up late to watch it on TV, and it really affected me,” she remembers. “Of course, I knew it was just a movie, and my father hadn’t really had his legs cut off. But the depiction of evil stuck with me. I had conversations with my father afterward, about people’s capacity for cruelty. He was always interested in educating his children, and he took the opportunity to tell me, ‘People can very terribly cruel, and people can also be quite wonderful. They have a capacity for both extremes and everything in between.’”
Oddly, Davis thinks Reagan’s at his best when he’s playing characters more on the cruel side.
“I’m quite fond of the roles in which he played a cad or a wise-cracking guy,” she says. “He’s like that in the first part of ‘King’s Row,’ and as a college football star in ‘Knute Rockne, All American.’ I liked that. I think he did it very well.
“Even in ‘Hellcats in the Navy’ he’s like that - he plays a rather surly submarine captain who lets the guy who’s dating my mother at the start of the movie drown, for God’s sake. The guy is in the water, maybe a hundred feet from the submarine, and my father says, ‘Take her down,’ and leaves him there to drown. I asked my mother, ‘Didn’t they have life preservers or even just a rope they could throw him?’”
That sounds a bit like one of the conversations from Davis’ eighth book, “The Lives Our Mothers Leave Us” (Hay House, $14.945 in paper), a series of interviews in which famous women discuss their mothers. To be published next month, it includes conversations with Anjelica Huston, Anne Rice, Melissa Gilbert, Carnie Wilson and Whoopi Goldberg, among others.
“The point of the book,” Davis says, “is that no matter what we’ve accomplished in our lives, we are ultimately daughters, especially when talking about our mothers. And some of us have mothers who do weird submarine movies when we’re children.”
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