“Rockin’ Ronnie”: Stuart Samuels’ hilariously irreverent look at America’s Leading Man

By and on January 31, 2018

In 1986, deep into Ronald Reagan’s second term as president, Night Flight’s very own Stuart Samuels assembled Rockin’ Ronnie, a hilariously irreverent look the life and times of America’s Leading Man!

This satirical light-hearted 45-minute film presents a portrait of our most colorful president with carefully-edited clips from his many onscreen appearances, from smooth-talking actor to silver-tongued politician.

Watch it now on on Night Flight Plus!

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Night Flight asked Stuart Samuels — documentary filmmaker producer, director, writer (Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography, Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies and the American Dream, Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week) — to tell us a little bit about Rockin’ Ronnie:

Rockin’ Ronnie was a labor of love. The fact that Reagan was both a film star and President of the United States, I decided to make a mash-up of old Reagan films, public domain films, trailers, with newsreel of Reagan, mixing the real and the fictional into an extended fake ‘documentary’ mixing these different sources into a documentary called Rockin’ Ronnie. With editor and NF archivist Adam Sargis, we spent weeks editing together this ‘fake doc.’ We completed this project in the mid-1980s, mixing newsreels, trailers, bloopers, commercials, public domain films, US Army films into a Night Flight special program. Enjoy.”

Read more about Rockin’ Ronnie below.

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Along with some of Reagan’s old-movie footage from General Electric Theatre: Swinging Singing Years and vintage b-movies like Cattle Queen of Montana, Tennessee’s Partner, and, of course, Bedtime for Bonzo, Samuels’ Rockin’ Ronnie also features archival footage of his time in office, complete with scandal deflections, stiff photo ops, goofs, gaffs, private moments and memorable moments depicting his political showdown with the Soviet Union, along with some of his unforgettable on-and-off-screen bloopers and some superb animation.

Oh, and let’s not forget puppetry! Rockin’ Ronnie also features a rubberized-looking latex Reagan as a biker with his wife Nancy ridin’ pillion in a music video –a clever re-make of the Crystals’ “Da Do Ron Ron” as a spoof election campaign song, complete with new lyrics (“Yeah, he can really act! Yeah! He lowered income tax!”) — that was originally made for the British TV show “Spitting Image.”

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The film opens with a parody of the original Star Wars film’s opening crawl moving longitudinally towards a vanishing point over a field of stars:

“A long time ago, in a galaxy not so far away, a man set out on a parth to fame and glory, from small town youth to world-wide hero. This is the story of Ronald Reagan: cowboy, cavalry captain, pilot, priest, sailor, scholar, soap salesman. Finally, with Nancy at his side, Ronald Reagan cast himself in the ultimate role…America’s Leading Man!”

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Here’s what it says on the back on the VHS home video box art (Rockin’ Ronnie was released by ATI Video in 1987 airing the year before on “Night Flight”):

Watch the screen as we throw darts at Ronald Reagan “the calvaryman,” “the slugger,” “the fighter pilot,” “the priest,” “the sailor,” “the football player,” “the Fighting Marshall,” “the detergent salesman,” “the gangster,” “the ballroom dancer,” and “The Mystery Date.”

Conceived by the creators of the successful USA cable program “NIGHT FLIGHT,” this light-hearted, off-the-wall exposé includes the unlikely supporting cast of Queen Elizabeth, Richard Nixon, Colonel Kaddafi, Yasser Arafat, Jayne Mansfield, Margaret Thatcher, the Ayatollah Khomeini, and many more. With unforgettable on and off-screen bloopers as well as superb animation and puppetry, ROCKIN’ RONNIE exposes Ronald Reagan like no program has ever dared.

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Reagan actually got his start in the movie biz by doing the radio broadcasts for the Chicago Cubs’ baseball games. His specialty was essentially “acting” out what happened in play-by-play accounts of the games that the station, Des Moines-based WHO, had received by wire.

In 1937, Reagan took a screen test which led to him landing a seven-year acting contract with Warner Brothers studios.

He spent the first few years making b-movies, first appearing in the 1937 yawnfest Love Is On The Air. By the end of 1939 he’d already appeared in nineteen b-movies, including the Bette Davis-starring tearjerker Dark Victory.

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One of his most famous roles was as football hero George “The Gipper” Gipp in 1940’s Knute Rockne, All American, earning his lifelong nickname “The Gipper.” The film’s immortal utterance, “Win one for the Gipper!,” became a catchphrase throughout his White House tenure.

In 1942, Reagan famously appeared as a double amputee in Sam Wood’s acclaimed Kings Row. He used this film’s famous line, “Where’s the rest of me?!,” as the title of his 1965 autobiography.

After World War II — he was stationed as a non-combative captain in the Army Air Corps, with the 1st Motion Picture Unit, producing a number of training films — he returned to Hollywood and appeared in more movies including Bedtime for Bonzo, playing a college professor who befriends his test subject, a chimpanzee.

In 1954, he began an 8-year stint as the host of “General Electric Theater.” He was also a five-year president of the Screen Actors Guild, twice.

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Originally one of Hollywood’s “liberal” voices, by the time Reagan had become one of the Republican party’s most recognizable voices, his political views had shifted to the hard right.

After becoming the Governor of California in 1966, Reagan eventually set his sights on the presidency. He lost to Gerald Ford in the primary elections in 1976 before defeating incumbent president Jimmy Carter in 1980 to become the nation’s 40th President.

Watch Rockin’ Ronnie on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.