Film: Hellcats of the Navy (1957)
Stars: Ronald Reagan, Nancy Davis, Arthur Franz, Robert Arthur
Director: Nathan Juran
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars
With the passing this past week of Nancy Reagan, I thought it was appropriate for me to see a film I have meant to see since I was a little boy. When I was six, my mom bought me a book with all of the presidents and first ladies featured, and in the chapter about the Reagans, I noticed that there was a poster for a film called Hellcats of the Navy, the only film that the first couple, both Hollywood actors, ever made together. Since then it has been a curiosity I've always wanted to indulge in, seeing what is likely the only narrative film that will ever be made to star a president and their spouse. The film never rises above the historic footnote status that it has ascertained (it would be forgotten and nothing more than an IMDB line if it had been only Reagan or Davis and not both of them in the picture), but it's still a weird experience to have considering the couple's enormous impact on American culture decades later.
(Spoilers Ahead) Quite frankly I always have a little bit of a whiplash situation whenever Reagan is onscreen in any film. It's bizarre to see a man who spoke about tearing down that wall and touching the face of God playing a fictional character with all of the foibles and banalities that come with being a B-movie star. I'm not a fan of his politics or even he as a person by any means, but it's hard not to deny the history that happens when you see a president in such a habitat. Reagan here is pretty much as you'd expect him to be if you've followed his career at all. A dour commander of a submarine, he is in love with a woman who is also the object of affection of one of his crew mates Freddy Warren (Arthur). When Warren is caught in the middle of a fight at sea, Reagan's Commander Abbott orders him to be left at sea to die, causing ill will amongst his crew, particularly second-in-command Lt. Com. Landon (Franz), who thinks that Abbott did this to try and gain the upper-hand with the girl-in-question Helen (Davis). The film is sparing on laughs and focuses on whether or not Abbott made the right decision, until the situation is repeated later in the film, with Landon having to abandon Abbott at sea (though being as he's the star of the film, this time he survives), and thus learns that being in charge is a huge responsibility.
Honestly, that's pretty much it. The film is at its best when recreating submarine battles, which it did with the help of the United States Navy (which, ironically, would later be commanded by the film's star), and the submarine battles are in fact impressive and well-shot and choreographed. The scenes in the sub, and in particular on shore, are not nearly as good. Reagan was never a very strong actor, relying more on his seriousness and handsomeness to continue on through movies, and here when he's tasked with playing the film's heavy he's pretty maudlin and can't even sell, say, a scene where he's breaking up a gambling ring with a touch of humor. I'd never actually seen Nancy Davis in a movie before, so that was even weirder for me to watch, and Davis is hardly what you'd consider a great actress in this movie. For all of the talk of the two of them being together, they have limited screentime (it can't be more than four scenes together), and Davis spends most of those scenes talking about how she loved him, but how it's his fault they have such a complicated relationship.
I have to admit that though the movie is dreadful, the submarine battles combined with the sheer "wow" of seeing a president and first lady in this habitat saves the film from being completely unbearable and a 1-star endurance test. I genuinely liked the weirdness that Davis brought to such a role, even if she's not a particularly strong actress-there's a presence there, and I want to check out what she does with a better scene partner, quite frankly. Either way, I think that it was still worth my time if only to be able to claim I've watched the movie. Have any of you caught it before? If so, share your thoughts down below.