Thursday, August 6, 2009

Kings Row

If Andy Hardy’s Carvel represents the idealized version of small town America in the movies with it’s happy families, tight knit communities and moral lessons then Kings Row, Missouri is the antithesis to that. In fact, in Kings Row, Andy Hardy types are few and far between. This is small town American gothic and a film that starts on an ironic note by proclaiming in it’s opening scene that it’s a good clean place to raise a family. This, it most certainly is not. All the children we come to meet in Kings Row grow up to be angst ridden, deeply disturbed or worse.

As a film Kings Row is a quiet masterpiece and an underappreciated melodrama that is today best known for the famous scene where Ronald Reagan screams out in horror “Where’s the rest of me!” But the events that led up to that moment and the film itself revolve around topics such as sadism, incest, insanity and murder - all very heady stuff, indeed.

Produced in 1942 by Warner Brothers and based upon a novel by Henry Bellamann, Kings Row tells the story of five childhood friends who grow up to lead complicated lives. Parris Mitchell (Robert Cummings) has become a medical student, studying privately with Dr. Alexander Tower (Claude Rains), whose daughter Cassandra (Betty Field) is a sheltered neurotic. Louise Gordon (Nancy Coleman) has been raised by harsh parents who warn here away from playboy Drake McHugh (Reagan), who is living off an inheritance.

Drake ends up falling for Randy Monoghan (Ann Sheridan), the former tomboy who has grown up in to a most practical working class girl. Things then get very dark. First, when Dr. Tower discovers Cassandra is pregnant he kills her and himself. Then, after losing his fortune and taking a job at the railroad yard, Drake is injured and Dr. Gordon (Charles Coburn) decides to amputate the young man's legs as a punishment for his former hedonism. This is all in the first half of the film

This is an intense film and the lighthearted moments are few and far between. Kings Row pulls away the veneer of respectability of a small American town to show that titles and class really have no direct correlation to morality and ethics. In fact, it is the leading figures of the town that perform the most heinous acts. Dr. Tower kills himself and his daughter, the president of the bank embezzles Drake’s money, Dr. Gordon abuses his daughter and performs sadistic surgeries on the "sinful". These are people in positions of authority and they are the morally corrupt.

Kings Row is a pre-war predecessor to Peyton Place but it makes Peyton Place look like Pleasantville. At times Peyton Place indulges to0 much in being a pot-boiler and the fact that it is filmed in glorious technicolor undermines alot of dark side of human nature it is trying to expose. Something sinister can always be lurking in the shadows and light of a black and white film. Judith Anderson's face framed in half darkness, or the flash of white lightening illuminating the shadows of a clandestine couple in a dark room sets a much different tone in black and white than it does in technicolor.

Cinematographer James Wong Howe is responsible for the cinematic beauty of Kings Row and along with director Sam Wood and production designer William Cameron Menzies they keep the film from ever coming anything close to campy which in lesser skilled hands it certainly could have been. Although filmed on a soundstage and the Warner's backlot you never have the feeling that you are anyplace but turn of the 20th century America.

Credit also has to go to the cast of young actors particularly Betty Field as Cassandra Tower. Adult Cassandra has very little screen time before she meets her untimely end, but in her twenty minutes or so in front of the camera Field imbues Cassie with all the passion, pathos and neuroticism needed to keep her haunting us and Parris Mitchell until the end of the film.

Also, Ronald Reagan gives the finest performance of his career. Reagan plays Drake initially as a happy go lucky playboy who's all jokes and laughs for the ladies. There is such an infectious twinkle in his eye that you can see why the mothers warn their daughters away from him. Once he loses his money he becomes bitter, moody and self-pitying and later on, after his accident and the loss of his legs, he slips into a deep dark depression. Reagan's Drake is believable and it shows that with a good director and supportive cast he can really act.

Contemporary critics opinions were split. Variety was relatively kind writing:

Kings Row, Henry Bellamann's widely-read novel of small-town life at the turn ofthe century, becomes an impressive and occasionally inspiring, though overlongpicture under Sam Wood's eloquent direction. It is an atmospheric story,steadily engrossing and plausible.

New York Times critic Bosley Crowther's assessment was relatively negative:

One could accept its morbid and spiritually depressing tale if it weretold with coherence and unity and some better-than-average imagery. But itisn't. The script by Casey Robinson is built like an unreliable dam; it laborsover things of passing consequence—surface details in a web of clashinglives—and skimps the motivating fundamentals which should be most carefullyclarified. Sam Wood's elaborate direction is slow and quite affected, attemptingto make the story seem more profound than the script. And the performances ofthe leading actors—especially that of Robert Cummings in the top role—arecompletely lacking in conviction. "Kings Row" was too much for them tohoe.

True, the original novel was a bit too thick for the screen, being acomprehensive story of several sordid and perverse folk living in a queerMidwestern city around the turn of the century. The leading character was—and,in the picture, still is—a likely lad who aspires to become a great doctor. Butin the novel his ambition and the subsequent course of his life was influencedby many psychological factors which are barely suggested—or omitted entirely—inthe film. And thus some essential explanations are left hanging or are slyly overlooked.

Today, there is a new respect for the film as it has found a new audience. Kings Row's legacy is also secured by Erich Wolfgang Korngold's beautiful theme music which is considered one of the finest film scores ever composed. It also served as the inspiration for John William's theme for Star Wars.

Interestingly, in the mid-1950s, Warner Brothers planned a remake of Kings Row. The film was slated to star Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra, Eva Marie Saint and Ronald Reagan cast once again in the role of Drake McHugh. Sadly, it never got out of the planning stages.

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