While Ronald Reagan’s transition from Hollywood to the White House has been extremely well documented, I always believed the early acting career of the 40th president of the United States was some sort of elaborate hoax.
For someone who was so influential in the realm of politics (for good or for ill), Reagan left virtually no lasting impact on the pop culture zeitgeist past the Baby Boomer generation, unlike some of his tough-guy contemporaries like John Wayne or Gary Cooper.
Up until recently, my only reference for Reagan’s filmography was a single photo of him cradling a chimpanzee in the comedy Bedtime for Bonzo (1951), which could be easily mistaken as a doctored piece of Democratic Party propaganda.
But this past Christmas, my parents provided me with irrefutable proof that Reagan’s acting career was, in fact, real by stuffing a DVD copy of Allan Dwan’s Cattle Queen of Montana (1954) into my stocking.
And after watching this western, it’s easy to see why Reagan’s run as an actor is mostly overshadowed by his political career, since he comes across as a generic leading man who relies on the same three facial expressions over and over.
Luckily, this film is largely saved by the titular “Cattle Queen” Barbara Stanwyck, who is far more compelling than her male co-star and manages to craft a likable protagonist who elevates this fairly boilerplate material.
In fact, Stanwyck is so good that it makes you (temporarily) overlook some of the film’s glaring weaknesses, like its odd production shortcuts and prevalent use of brownface for all the Indigenous characters who have speaking roles.
The plot of Cattle Queen revolves around Sierra Nevada Jones (Stanwyck), who travels from her home in Texas to Montana after her father inherits a large piece of land.
As soon as the family arrives at their destination, they are set upon by Blackfoot tribesmen, who steal their cattle herd, kill the patriarch, and take Sierra hostage, all at the behest of a corrupt local rancher.
Once she is released from captivity, Sierra vows to reclaim what’s rightfully hers and teams up with mysterious ranch hand Farrell (Reagan) to get the job done.
Even though Cattle Queen of Montana is very much a project of its time in many respects, it does set itself apart from a lot of other Golden Age westerns through Stanwyck’s protagonist.
Rather than be relegated to the role of a love interest or a damsel in distress, Sierra Jones is a surprisingly very active character who drives most of the plot, constantly hatching schemes to outwit the bad guys and using emotional intelligence to recruit allies to her cause.
She also doesn’t hold back during the action scenes, standing toe-to-toe with Reagan and her other male co-stars once the shooting starts.
I know this sounds like very basic character writing, but these kinds of acting roles were few and far between for women in 1950s Hollywood, especially for someone like Stanwyck who was in her late 40s by this point.
But for whatever reason, Stanwyck was able to use the goodwill she built up in the industry to secure herself some meaty roles in this film and several other hard-hitting westerns like The Furies (1950) and The Maverick Queen (1956).
Judging by her performance in Cattle Queen alone, it’s easy to see why so many directors opted to give Stanwyck top billing in a traditionally male-dominated genre, since she oozes that same calm, confident charisma that defines most classic western hero archetypes.
It also doesn’t hurt that Stanwyck is surrounded by so much lovely scenery during her time on screen, with Dwan’s team opting to shoot part of this film on location at Montana’s Glacier National Park in vivid Technicolor.
This adds a considerable amount of spectacle to what’s admittedly a pretty basic revenge story, since it gives the cast free reign to run around in real meadows and rocky outcrops instead of being stuck on an artificial studio sound stage.
Unfortunately, the use of these gorgeous landscapes is slightly undercut by some head-scratching production decisions, where the filmmakers will occasionally cut from a gorgeous wide shot of a mountain range to two actors standing in front of what’s obviously a rear projection.
Not only is this technique extremely jarring, but it’s employed inconsistently throughout the movie’s 88-minute runtime, with most other outdoor medium shots and close-ups being captured on location in either Montana or rural California.
My guess is that some footage originally shot in Montana was either lost or unusable by the time Dwan and his crew got back to Hollywood, forcing them to cobble together some insert shots on a studio backlot.
These cheap-looking transitions are made even worse by the filmmaker’s prominent use of day-for-night shooting, which makes some of the early action incredibly hard to keep track of on modern TV sets.
I understand that this technique was a necessary evil used to keep movie budgets in the black, but the end result is far from ideal, especially when you can still see puffy white clouds in scenes that are supposed to take place at night.
However, the biggest thing dragging Cattle Queen down, beyond those technical snafus, is the fact that all the Indigenous characters are quite obviously played by Italian actors.
Now, this isn’t a matter of my “liberal” sensibilities getting wounded by a practice that was much more prevalent in old Hollywood.
And in the movie’s defense, Dwan and his screenwriters at least go out of their way to portray the Blackfoot tribe in a nuanced light, casting a great many Indigenous characters as sympathetic and heroic rather than as a uniformly evil force (like in so many other western films of that era).
Unfortunately, a lot of that hard work goes out the window as soon as actors with names like Lance Fuller and Anthony Caruso show up caked in what looks like dried mud, speaking in broken English like they’ve been clubbed in the head a couple times.
Those distracting sights and sounds are made even worse when the movie tries to posture itself as being anti-racist, with Sierra going out of her way to admonish some of her fellow White settlers for harboring prejudices towards Native Americans.
Again, it’s a nice sentiment, especially in a pre-civil rights America, but it rings very hollow when the very people you’re defending aren’t even allowed to play themselves on screen.
Despite these significant shortcomings, I still had a decent time watching Cattle Queen of Montana, especially since it served as my official introduction to Stanwyck and her filmography, which I’m very interested in exploring further.
The same can’t really be said for Reagan, since his stoic line delivery in this film is definitely better suited for the kind of rabble-rousing stump speeches that he became famous for in his political career.
But at the very least, I can now say with confidence that I’ve seen at least one Ronald Reagan film, which gives me the proper context to fully enjoy this gag from Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future.
Corner store companion:
Simple Pleasures oatmeal cookies (because this movie will remind you of a “simpler” time when you could get away with utilizing brownface to this degree)
-Release date: Nov. 18, 1954
-Outside of referencing Ronald Reagan’s acting career in Back to the Future (1985), a poster for Cattle Queen of Montana is also featured in a scene immediately after Michael J. Fox arrives in 1955 Hill Valley.
-Reagan reportedly watched this film at Camp David on Jan. 14, 1989, six days before the end of his two-term presidency.
-Reagan’s career as a screen actor lasted from 1937 to 1965 before he transitioned into politics, first becoming the Governor of California in 1966 before moving on to the White House in 1981.
– Barbara Stanwyck was nominated for four Academy Awards throughout her acting career, eventually winning an honourary Oscar statue in 1982. She also won a Primetime Emmy and a Golden Globe for her role in The Thorn Birds TV miniseries from 1983.
– Stanwyck performed most of her own stunts in Cattle Queen of Montana, including a scene where her character goes for a swim in an icy lake.