“The town they talk of in whispers!”

Reagan’s favorite acting role, and probably his finest, was that of Drake McHugh in this sordid small-town melodrama. The film follows childhood friends Drake (Reagan), Parris (Robert Cummings), Cassandra (Betty Field) and Randy (Ann Sheridan) as they grow into adulthood and suffer a relentless series of events including insanity, suicide, unrequited love, and the unnecessary amputation of Drake’s legs by a sadistic doctor. Waking after the operation, Drake’s memorable line “Where’s the rest of me!?” would become the title of Reagan’s 1965 autobiography.

King’s Row by Sam Wood (USA, 1942, 127 min.).

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King’s Row was based on a controversial book by Henry Bellamann, who was accused of slandering the residents of his Missouri hometown by using them as fodder for the depraved characters in the novel. Although the film adaptation was shocking for its time, it buried or downplayed the most scandalous aspects of the book: homosexuality, premarital sex, and an incestuous relationship between Cassie and her father. The tawdry malaise surrounding the film makes it a somewhat surprising choice for Reagan’s personal favorite. On the other hand, it sparked his transition from supporting to leading roles in studio features; he would share top billing with Errol Flynn in Desperate Journey later the same year. The strength of his acting here is thanks in part to director Sam Wood (Goodbye, Mr. Chips; A Day at the Races), a methodical director known for filming each shot countless times to encourage his actors to tease out new subtleties in their characters.