MOzarks Moments: Jane Wyman becomes a star and divorces a future president

Clockwise from top left: Newlyweds Jane Wyman and Ronald Reagan pictured on board a special train  making whistle-stops for Warner Bros in 1940 L.A. Times. An ad for a 1940 movie in which Jane Wyman got top billing over her husband. The 1948 feature in 'Photoplay' that discussed at length “The Fightin' Reagans.” Jane Wyman pictured in the L.A. Times in full starlet mode.

Jane Wyman, 24, a young lady from St. Joseph, was becoming a movie star in Hollywood and her third marriage was to a fellow actor by the name of Ronald Reagan. 

In 1941, she appeared alongside Jimmy Durante and Phil Silvers in the the movie “You're in the Army Now.” Wyman still holds the cinema record for the longest kiss from that movie, a three minute and five second lip-lock with Regis Toomey.

By then, Wyman had already appeared in 48 movies. In those days, studio contract-players were paid a weekly retainer so the studio kept them working in movie after movie, often with only a couple of days between them to get a little rest. Wyman was in 11 movies in 1936, nine in 1937, seven in 1938, five in 1939 and six in 1940.

By 1941, she was starring in fewer, but better movies. She was also well-regarded by directors as a real professional. Nolan Miller, who was a longtime dress designer for movies said after Wyman's death that, “She was at the studio before anyone else. She knew everyone's lines.”

Wyman only made four movies in 1941, three in 1942 and just one in 1943. Meanwhile, husband Ronald Reagan was serving in the Army Air Force as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Signal Corps. He would eventually be promoted to Captain before World War II was over.

An article in the Los Angeles Times from July 28, 1944 is headlined, “Jane Wyman's Career Gaining New Impetus.” It went on to say, “Plans for Jane Wyman are becoming more and more expansive, not to say expensive. Long on the Warner lot, she has just lately received that extra recognition which counts for stellar spotlighting. Her contract has been extended by J. L. Warner.”

Wyman appeared in three movies that year and only one in 1945, but that 1945 movie helped change her career. The 1945 movie was “The Lost Weekend” with Ray Milland and was directed by Billy Wilder. It was a dramatic role and the movie was about an alcoholic's desperate life during a four-day drinking bout.

The movie won three Oscars, including Best Picture. Wyman held her own on-screen in this taunt drama. Producers and directors noticed and she was given the plum role opposite Gregory Peck in “The Yearling.”

A story headlined “Plaudits Handed to Jane Wyman: Change in Screen Personality Stamps Her as Dramatic Star,” ran in the October 21, 1945 issue of the Los Angeles Times.

It went on to say, “Suddenly after more than seven years as a comedienne in pictures, Jane is being lauded as a dramatic actress. Two different studios have put their seal on her competence. One is Paramount, where she appeared in 'The Lost Weekend,' and the other is M.G.M. where she is filming 'The Yearling.'”

While she was becoming a dramatic actress, there was plenty of drama in her marriage to Ronald Reagan. In March of 1945, the Reagans adopted an infant son and named him Michael. Their daughter, Maureen, was 4 years old at that time. But by Christmas of 1945, Wyman was separated from Reagan and staying in a Las Vegas hotel.

However, in February of 1946, it was reported that the Reagans, although now married six years, were returning from their long-deferred honeymoon to New York City.

Wyman won her first Oscar nomination for her dramatic role in “The Yearling,” but was back performing in a musical later that year. In the movie, “Night and Day,” in which Cary Grant played the piano and Wyman sang and danced.

On June 26, 1947, Wyman gave birth three months prematurely to a daughter who only lived nine hours. This undoubtedly created extra stress on their marriage and by December, it was reported that the couple were on the verge of another separation, although Ronald Reagan told the L.A. Times that it was “merely a tiff.”

In late February of 1948, the Reagans attended the L.A. Times Sports Award Dinner at the Biltmore Bowl despite having separated early that month.

That same month, Photoplay Magazine had a feature in the couple entitled “Those Fightin' Reagans” and subtitled, “Three Times Before They Have Said Goodbye, Is This the Last Time for Ronnie and his Jane?”

Ronald Reagan was quoted in the feature saying, “‘Please remember,’ he told us, ‘that Jane went through a very bad time when, after the strain of waiting for another baby, she lost it. Then, perhaps before she was strong enough, she went into 'Johnny Belinda.' It was a taxing, difficult role. Perhaps, too, my seriousness about public affairs has bored Jane,’ he added slowly.”

In the latter part of April, it was revealed in the L.A. Times that the couple had been reconciled and their differences ironed out. But a story in the Times just two weeks later said that Wyman was seeking a divorce.

They were divorced near the end of June. In the story about the divorce it was disclosed that “In politics, it wasn't so much that she couldn't agree with her husband, but she couldn't bring herself to display the interest he showed.”

She couldn't know it, of course, but by divorcing Ronald Reagan, Wyman gave up the role of a lifetime; First Lady. However, it was probably a role she would have had no taste for.

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