James Meroney at The Atlantic:
Today, it’s an astonishing, even eerie, scene: the icon of modern American conservatism, whose rise to political prominence was galvanized by the cultural rebellion of the 1960s, fighting off an attack-at-gunpoint by the quintessential modern American rebel. But when “The Dark, Dark Hours” episode of General Electric Theater aired live from Hollywood on December 12, 1954, Ronald Reagan and James Dean were just two actors yet to find the roles that would define them.
No one has seen this episode in the decades since; the kinescope has been locked away, until now. My friend Wayne Federman, a writer for NBC’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, unearthed the broadcast, condensing it from its original 23 minutes (without commercials) into the six-minute version you see below. (Federman is planning a retrospective of Reagan’s television career for next year’s Reagan centennial.)
Charles Johnson at Little Green Footballs:
In the clip, Dean is a hopped up (and really dumb) teenage delinquent who breaks into the home of a doctor (Reagan) and forces him to treat an injured friend. The scene in which Reagan operates on the friend’s bullet wound is a classic, as Dean cranks up some wild jazz on the radio and starts jiving around like a crazed, armed beatnik.
This is pre-“Rebel Without a Cause” and just 6 minutes long. Crazy!
Scott Johnson at Powerline:
Ronald Reagan first came to work for GE in 1954. When he joined GE, Thomas Evans explains in The Education of Ronald Reagan, his principal role was to host the General Electric Theater on television. Evans writes that GE Theater soon became the country’s top-rated Sunday evening prime time television program, and one of the reasons for the show’s popularity was the stars it was able to attract, in large part because of Reagan’s popularity among his fellow actors.
According to Evans, 50 Academy Award winners appeared on the show, many for the first or only time on television. Evans explains that Reagan’s Screen Actors Guild background had endeared him to a wide spectrum of of professionals of all ages, “everyone from James Dean to Ethel Barrymore.
Christopher Orr at The Atlantic:
It was not merely the sight of the youngish Reagan and oh-so-young Dean squaring off, nor even the fact that the two men represented so clearly the conflicting archetypes they would later come to embody: the keeper of order vs. the disruptor, the leader of a cause vs. the rebel without one, ironclad certainty vs. confusion and remorse. (Yes, the moral deck is heavily stacked.) It wasn’t even the vivid example of a peculiar, frozen-in-amber cinematic type, notable in such films as The Wild One and Touch of Evil: the bebop outlaw, prone to interrupting his violent home invasions for an interlude of toe-tapping, finger-snapping jazz.
No, what struck me was more particular still, and gave the entire segment the feel of an unremembered but inevitable snippet of Americana, a Rosetta Stone of American political culture post-1970. It’s commonplace (and, I think, entirely accurate) to describe the “Dirty” Harry Callahan persona that Clint Eastwood wore to such effect beginning in 1971 as a harbinger of the Reagan Revolution. But who could possibly have imagined that, nearly two decades before Harry uttered his iconic, “Do you feel lucky, punk?” monologue–yes, I know the quote’s not exact, but it’s the accepted shorthand–Reagan himself would have uttered lines so uncannily alike?
The easy historical analogy is the Nixon/Elvis meeting, but it’s not the same at all. Nixon/Elvis is memorable because of the distinct freak-show aspect of it: The king of rock ‘n roll together with a famously stiff law-and-order president, both on the precipice of grotesque decline caused by their respective pathologies. This clip, though, captures both participants on the eve of spectacular upward spirals, one long and the other short. And each in his own way ended up as a rebel, albeit one without a cause and the other very much with one.
The storyline is velveeta but it’s fun watching Dean play a character that feels like Jim Stark gone bad. The contrast in styles is fun, too: Reagan is the traditional Hollywood leading man while Dean is naturalistic (to the point of being over the top), but watch as the Gipper turns it on during the fight scene. No wonder the Soviets backed down.