The Hollywood Movie Star who became First Lady: Nancy Reagan’s Film Career

The future First Lady Nancy Davis [Reagan] posing for a Hollywood publicity still. (RRPL)

The future First Lady Nancy Davis [Reagan] posing for a Hollywood publicity still. (RRPL)

The broadcast of the annual Academy Awards for Motion Pictures this coming Sunday, March 2, 2014, offers an opportunity to consider an often neglected period in the career of one of history’s most important First Ladies, Nancy Reagan.

Edie Luckett, Nancy Reagan's mother, during her theatrical career (Make-Believe, Leamer)

Edie Luckett, Nancy Reagan’s mother, during her theatrical career (Make-Believe, Leamer)

Born far from the glamorous hills of Hollywood with which she would come to be so closely associated in the working-class neighborhood of Flushing, Queens in New York City, this First Lady’s legals born as Anne Frances Robbins on July 5, 1921.

Nancy Reagan might well have been born in a theatrical trunk, however, given the nature of her mother’s active professional life as a theatrical actress.

Following her separation from Nancy’s birth father Kenneth Robbins, Edith Luckett returned to the theatrical profession which had gainfully employed many of her own family in the late 19th century in the Washington, D.C. area.

Edie counted many friends who went on to become legendary movie actors like Katherine Hepburn and Claudette Colbert, who then took her daughter under their wings. Even Nancy Reagan’s godmother was the famously exotic actress Alla Nazimova.

Since Edie’s work meant she was not just in New York for a show’s run but often traveling the nation as part of touring companies, Nancy Reagan matured into adolescence in the care of her maternal aunt in Bethesda, Maryland.

Nancy Reagan in her high school production of a play called First Lady. (My Turn, Reagan)

Nancy Davis in her high school production of a play called First Lady. (My Turn, Reagan)

While living apart from her mother created anxiety, being so close to Washington permitted the future First Lady to at least attend the annual Easter Egg Roll contest on the White House lawn during the years that Grace Coolidge hosted the event.

Following Edith’s 1928 divorce from Ken Robbins, marriage a year later to Chicago neurosurgeon Loyal Davis and his 1935 adoption of her daughter, Nancy Davis enrolled at the Girls Latin School in the Windy City. There she performed in many of the school plays, including one called First Lady.

Upon graduation, Nancy Davis went on to attend Smith College in Northhampton, Massachusetts. While at Smith, Nancy Davis continued her interest in acting, involving herself in the school’s theatrical productions, including a World War II show called The Factory Follies, which referenced the famous Rosie the Riveters of the era.

Nancy Reagan in a World War II theatrical review at Smith College known as the Factory Follies (AP)

Nancy Davis (center)  in a World War II theatrical review at Smith College known as the Factory Follies (AP)

She graduated with her bachelor’s degree in dramatic arts.

The future First Lady was still in college, however, when she made her very first appearance on film, performing in a National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis fundraising short film short shown across the nation’s movie theaters.

In the short, Nancy Davis played a volunteer in the fight against polio, a public service effort with incumbent First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt then serving as an honorary chair of the organization which her husband had helped foster.

In 11945, two years after graduating from Smith College, Nancy Davis followed her mother’s footsteps in the limelight, cast in a small role in the touring company of Ramshackle Inn, starring Edith Davis’s friend, the legendary actress Zasu Pitts.

A year later, she won a role in the Broadway musical Lute Song, which starred Mary Martin and Yul Brynner.

Nancy Davis as a stage actress, in emulation of her first theatrical co-star, comedic actress Zasu Pitts, a friend of her mother's. (Make-Believe, Leamer)

Nancy Davis as a stage actress, in emulation of her first theatrical co-star, comedic actress Zasu Pitts, a friend of her mother’s. (Make-Believe, Leamer)

With many theatrical works being filmed for the earliest television show series in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Nancy Davis appeared in another production of Ramshackle Inn for television broadcast, as well as one called Broken Dishes.

It was that latter TV appearance which led to her being flown out to the state she would always love as her home, California, bidden there to make a screen test for Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios.

Mrs. Davis told her friend Spencer Tracey about the exciting prospect and he then phoned legendary director George Cukor who, along with Howard Keel, worked with Nancy Davis in producing a screen test which resulted in a contract.

“Joining Metro,” said Nancy Reagan, “was like walking into a dream world.” On her first day at the MGM studios, she admitted to being “nervous and gullible.”

Nancy Reagan's East Side, West Side scene with Barbara Stanwyck which the young actress filmed in one take and impressed the big star. (greatoldmovies.blogspot.com)

Nancy Davis’s East Side, West Side scene with Barbara Stanwyck which the young actress filmed in one take and impressed the big star. (greatoldmovies.blogspot.com)

The new starlet was struck, recalling how she would report to work some mornings only to find she was seated in the makeup room beside stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Ava Gardner.

In the MGM lunchroom, she ate alongside the likes of big-name stars such as Fred Astaire, Lana Turner, Frank Sinatra, Deborah Kerr, Gene Kelly, and Esther Williams.

Usually typecast as a youthful mother, she auditioned for many other roles in competition with leading stars of the era. With unnerving frequency, however, Debbie Reynolds got the part.

“I was beside myself with excitement. Not only was Metro the greatest studio in Hollywood,” she wrote, “but I was finally earning a regular paycheck…”

A poster advertising Nancy Reagan's appearance in the Next Voice You Hear.

A poster advertising Nancy Davis’s appearance in The Next Voice You Hear.

Over the years, Nancy Reagan would make a total of eleven feature films, appearing with bold-faced names such as Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Ray Milland, Ann Sothern, James Whitmore, Cyd Charisse, and Glenn Ford.

During her first year on contract, her first two film roles The Doctor and the Girl and East Side, West Side were as a supporting cast member.

A year later, in 1950, she was cast in two films which won her good reviews.

The New York Times called her Shadow on the Wall depiction of a child psychiatrist “beautiful and convincing” and the newspaper declared her co-starring role as an expectant mother to whom God speaks through the radio in The Next Voice You Hear to be “delightful.”

Nancy Reagan with Ray Milland in Night after Morning.

Nancy Davis with Ray Milland in Night after Morning.

Of all her movie roles, Mrs. Reagan’s own favorite was that of a fiancée whose intended husband dies, in the 1951 film Night into Morning.

Both the New York Times and Washington Post film critics detected authenticity in the emotions she conveyed on screen. The Times declared that she “knows the loneliness of grief,” while the Post critiqued that she “is splendid as the understanding widow.”

Nancy Davis outside her Hollywood bungalow apartment. (RRPL)

Nancy Davis outside her Hollywood bungalow apartment. (RRPL)

It was not then publicly known that, in real life, Nancy Davis had been engaged to a young man during her college years who had, in fact, been killed in an accident which thus altered the course of her personal life.

“I loved the work, although it was a lot less glamorous than people think,” Mrs. Reagan later candidly reflected. She also addressed why she made the choices she did during her life at the time: “I was never really a career woman but only because I hadn’t found the man I wanted to marry. I couldn’t sit around and do nothing, so I became an actress.”

The Reagans at the 1960 Screen Actors Guild annual membership meeting. (Corbis

The Reagans at the 1960 Screen Actors Guild annual membership meeting. (Corbis)

Even her initial 1949 press release upon signing with MGM had explicitly stated that a “successful happy marriage” had always been her personal priority.

Once working steadily as a professional actress, however, she had every hope she would eventually receive offers for a wider range of roles. “I think I could have gone on and made a good career for myself,” she later reflected. She was likely less compulsive about “making it big in pictures” than most of her peers at the time because within a year of arriving in Hollywood, she met the president of the Screen Actors Guild, fellow actor Ronald Reagan.

Nancy Reagan with Lew Ayres in Donovan's Brain.

Nancy Reagan with Lew Ayres in Donovan’s Brain.

After they married in March 1952, the new Mrs. Reagan went on to serve on the Screen Actors Guild board of directors for a decade. Released from her MGM contract that year, she went on to make three more feature films at other studios, the first being a science fiction movie called Donovan’s Brain.

The poster advertising Hellcats of the Navy, the feature film which co-starred the Reagans.

The poster for Hellcats of the Navy, the feature film which co-starred the Reagans.

Her role as a nurse in the 1957 film Hellcats of the Navy is perhaps her most famous because her co-star was her husband.

While the script was panned, her performance was not, one critic noting that Mrs. Reagan “does well with what she has to work with.”

Before making her last motion picture, 1958’s Crash Landing, Nancy Reagan had already begun a second phase of her Hollywood career, guest-starring in a number of television theatrical dramas including four episodes of General Electric Theater, which her husband hosted.

In one of those GE Theater episodes Nancy Reagan’s co-star was Ronald Reagan. The name of it?  A Turkey for the President.

The President and Mrs. Reagan enjoyed watching Hollywood classic firms in the White House movie theater. (RRPL)

The President and Mrs. Reagan enjoyed watching Hollywood classic films in the White House movie theater. (RRPL)

The year 1962 marked the last time Mrs. Reagan acted professionally on camera, doing episodes of four series that year, Wagon Train, 87th Precinct, and The Dick Powell Theater.

Five years later she would be serving as the Golden State’s First Lady during Reagan’s two terms as governor and within twenty years, Nancy Reagan was First Lady of the United States from 1981 to 1989.

It was not the end of offers to star in a feature film, however.

Just seven years after she left the White House, director and actor Albert Brooks approached the former First Lady to consider starring as the lead in his 1996 movie Mother.

Nancy Reagan turned down the offer. And Debbie Reynolds got the part.

The Feature Film Roles of Nancy Davis Reagan

1949 The Doctor and the Girl as Mariette Esmond 

1949 East Side, West Side as Helen Lee

1950 Shadow on the Wall as Dr. Caroline Canford

1950 The Next Voice You Hear as Mary Smith

1951 Night Into Morning as Katherine Mead

1951 It’s a Big Country as Miss Coleman

1952 Talk About a Stranger as Marge Fontaine

1952 Shadow in the Sky as Betty Hopke

1953 Donovan’s Brain as Janice Cory

1957 Hellcats of the Navy as Helen Blair

1958 Crash Landing as Helen Williams

 

Television Series Roles of Nancy Davis Reagan

1948 Portrait of Jennie, (uncredited role as girl in art gallery)

1949 The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse

- Ramshackle Inn (1949)

-Broken Dishes (1949)

1953 The Ford Television Theatre
-The First Born (1953) as Laura Glenn

1953-1954 Schlitz Playhouse
- The Pearl Street Incident (1954) …[character name unknown]

- Twenty-two Sycamore Road (1953) as Nan Gage

1955 Climax!
Bailout at 43,000 Feet as Carol Peterson

1961 Zane Grey Theater
The Long Shadow as Amy Lawson

1961 The Tall Man
Shadow of the Past as Sarah Wiley

1956-1961 General Electric Theater
That’s the Man! (1956) as Evelyn Kent

- A Turkey for the President (1958) as Native-American Indian woman

- The Playoff (1960) as Betty Anderson

- Money and the Minister (1961) as Vicky Carlisle

1962 Wagon Train 
The Sam Darland Story as Mrs. Baxter

1962 87th Precinct
King’s Ransom as Diane King

1962 The Dick Powell Theatre
Obituary for Mr. X as Flora Roberts

in First Ladies and film, First Ladies professional careers, Nancy Reagan

First Ladies and film First Ladies professional careers Nancy Reagan

{ 2 comments… add one }

  • Tom Flynn April 12, 2014, 12:48 pm

    Okay true confession time. Years ago I was watching a 50′s potboiler – the name escaped me – starring screen siren Ann Sothern. The drama detailed a murder, a traumatized child and lots of pitched music and murky black and white shots. Suddenly a female doctor appeared on screen. She was very sympathetic, capable, appealing and likeable. Imagine my shock when I discovered she was one Nancy Davis, aka future FLOTUS Raygun. Well this may be heresy in some circles but I’m not a fan of 40 and his spouse’s Roles of a Lifetime. BUT I had to admit the challenge to my perception at least as far as movies go. The name of that drama was 1950′s “Shadow on the Wall.” I have to say it, Nancy wasn’t bad at all.

    Reply
    • Carl Anthony April 14, 2014, 2:00 pm

      Thanks so much for writing Tom. These figures are humans before they are political symbols, as least as far as this author is concerned. And yes, from many of the newspaper reviews of her appearances at the time her films hit the screen, Nancy Davis was given consistently high marks for her performances. The problem was the poor material. And she was perpetually cast in one-dimensional roles. What a turn of fate had she won a role in a larger film – one might wonder if she’d have married and then further wonder what Ronald Reagan’s career direction might have been.

      Reply

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