Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Ronald Reagan, Part 3: The Shortcoming

I've mentioned Reagan's better qualities as an actor in two previous posts, while also claiming that he wasn't exactly the greatest actor. Our next selection highlights that shortcoming: Night Unto Night, 1t 10:45 AM ET on March 5.

Here, Reagan plays scientist John Gaylord, who's been diagnosed with epilepsy, and is sent to Florida because the air down there is allegedly better for his health. He rents a large house so that he can continue to do his research, and while in Florida, meets prominent artist C.L. Shawn (played by Broderick Crawford). Meanwhile, Gaylord learns that Ann Gracy, from whom he's renting the house (played by Swedish actress Viveca Lindfors) has some secrets of her own. She's a widow, and thinks she heard the voice of her dead husband in that big house while she was packing up her things.

Well, you can guess what's going to happen next: John and Ann fall in love. There are a bunch of problems, however. First, John doesn't want Ann falling in love with him, because his epilepsy is leading him to believe that he's got a much reduced life expectancy, meaning Ann is about to lose another she loves. Also, Ann's sister has a thing for him. So, John becomes moody and withdrawn, not wanting Ann to have anything to do with him -- especially when he has another seizure.

Just when you thought things couldn't get any worse, they do, as a hurricane is threatening to come ashore, making life a mess for everybody....

Night Unto Night has so many problems. Reagan, being the lead here, has the biggest problem, which ironically is the boundless optimism that served him well in the B movies a decade earlier. John Gaylord is a much darker character, and Reagan seems wholly unable to tap into any emotions that could bring out such darkness in John. Instead, Reagan comes across as stiff and wooden. It's the sort of role that really should have been played by somebody like Gregory Peck, or even James Stewart after he came back from serving in World War II.

But to say that Reagan's casting made this movie a failure is a bit unfair to Reagan. Broderick Crawford was an excellent actor, having won an Oscar for All the King's Men, and later appearing in the outstanding Born Yesterday. But Crawford is all wrong in Night Unto Night, being wholly unconvincing as an artist. Lindfors was brought in by the studio specifically to be the new Swedish thing, and it seems as though the studio bosses paid no mind to whether she was in fact given any good material for her first Hollywood project. So perhaps the fault lies with director Don Siegel, or maybe even with the people who wrote the formulaic screenplay which seems to be cobbled together from bits and pieces of plot devices from old movies.

Or perhaps the production Night Unto Night was doomed by events outside its control: At the time of filming, there was a strike involving one apparently corrupt union trying to muscle another less corrupt union out of Hollywood. Night Unto Night was effectively breaking the strike by virtue of simply making the movie. Whatever the problem, though, Night Unto Night is a deeply flawed movie that's all the more fascinating for those flaws. Like much of Reagan's work, however, it's not available on DVD.

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