Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Certain admired Hollywood pictures are greeted with laughter even in museum screenings; part of the experience of watching David O. Selznick's Duel in the Sun is to wonder at the movie's frequent moments of unintended hilarity, even as we respect the artistry of director King Vidor. Kings Row shares some of that quality by virtue of a few howler lines and an intensely emotional performance by Robert Cummings. Yet the film has power and authority to burn, and is a unique kind of classic.
An even darker vision than Thorton Wilder's Our Town (also directed by the formalistic Sam Wood), Kings Row conceives of evil forces lurking behind the staid facades of the turn-of-the-century American Midwest. Näive interpretations of mental illness from the original book are retained in Casey Robinson's screenplay, as sexual repression drives parents to destroy their own offspring. All this in a town with a posted motto that reads, "A good place to raise children."
Kings Row is an odd movie to come out just as WW2 began, dealing as it does with unspoken class barriers, promiscuity, horrifying death pacts and willful mutilation. It's also an extremely affecting drama that pairs Ann Sheridan with a surprisingly effective Ronald Reagan, in what is easily the best role of his film career. It's been reported that the studio delayed Kings Row by a year because its downbeat story might be too depressing for audiences already disturbed by the war.
A group of spirited kids grow up in Kings Row, a town dominated by 'respectable' families. Drake McHugh (Ronald Reagan) is the good-natured hellion of the bunch and considered a wastrel because he's content to live on his trust money. He's loyal to his best friend Parris Mitchell (Robert Cummings), a piano student who wants to become a doctor and adores his sickly grandmother Madame Marie von Eln (Maria Ouspenskaya). Tomboy Randy Monaghan (Ann Sheridan) has the hardest path to follow, as she's from the wrong side of the tracks and doesn't want to be considered one of McHugh's 'easy' girls, even though she loves him dearly.
Dark broodings overshadow King's Row. Parris takes pre-med instruction from the mysterious Doctor Alexander Q. Tower (Claude Rains), who has inexplicably withdrawn his emotional daughter Cassie (Betty Field) from school and keeps her sequestered in their house. Worse, Parris intuits that Dr. Henry Gordon (Charles Coburn) is really a sadistic fiend who operates without anesthesia on patients he considers 'sinful.' Gordon's daughter Louise (Nancy Coleman) is becoming neurotic from the Victorian repression enforced by her father and mother (Judith Anderson) ... and is likewise made a veritable prisoner to keep her from the 'evil' represented by Drake McHugh.
Kings Row is prime material for rediscovery by a new generation. The first thing that will knock younger viewers for a loop is the bombastic Erich Wolfgang Korngold music score, which clearly provided the inspiration both in form and specific orchestration for John Williams' Star Wars theme. In the past, the overpowering music often seemed jarringly overdone, especially in certain key moments. When young Parris Mitchell crosses a whitewashed plank fence stile and comes back an adult, the main theme crashes in as if it were the Resurrection. Today, Korngold's delirious score will now probably seem much less extreme.
The film is dominated by two additional artistic giants. Cameraman James Wong Howe, aided by Robert Burks' special effects, creates an evocative world of 1900. Especially well captured are the frantic moods around the film's 'mad women' Cassandra Tower and Louise Gordon, where choice of lenses and diffusion add to the sense of frightened spirits choked by forces beyond their control. The overall look of the film is the work of William Cameron Menzies, the acclaimed designer of, among many other great pictures, Gone with the Wind and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Menzies' contributes more than just his signature plank fences disappearing over rolling hills; the blocking of every shot reflects his designer's eye.
Kings Row's high drama works itself out in a misleadingly ordinary-looking town. Audiences in 1942 must have thought it hysterical chaos, one of those movies where "one has to read the book" to figure out what was going on. Although edgy material like the motivation of Charles Coburn's sadistic doctor is thoroughly explained, the script is beholden to outmoded, literal interpretations of the teachings of Sigmund Freud. Parris Mitchell goes to Vienna to learn the new field of psychiatry and returns to King's Row armed with the wisdom of great minds, which surfaces in lofty statements and quotes from poetry.
Parris is the only one to see through the older generation dominated by warped father figures. Old, mad Dr. Gordon has ordained himself as the punishing hand of God, smiting transgressors with his scalpel. Even the benign Dr. Tower labors under the weight of bad science and guilt, believing that his daughter Cassie has inherited his wife's mental affliction. Tower's brutal attempts to keep Cassie away from the world result in exactly the madness he feared. It's a self-generated Gothic curse straight out of Edgar Allan Poe. 1
Opposing this evil are the two friends Parris and Drake. Parris is the model student and devoted grandson respected by all, whereas Drake's cocky attitude and freewheeling reputation with the girls has set most of the town against him. (spoiler) Drake's freedom and lack of piety bring down the wrath of his elders, first when a banker steals his inheritance, and second when he falls into the clutches of the man who most hates him, the vindictive Dr. Gordon. Drake manfully faces his sudden poverty, and even saves Parris from trouble by taking unnecessary blame upon himself. But Dr. Gordon is able to cut short Drake's pride and his health, and Randy and Parris have to rally to help him pull himself together again.
Kings Row overflows with unusual characters. Robert Cummings is much maligned for his "gee whiz" take on the Parris Mitchell role, an approach that's exactly right for the character. Ann Sheridan evokes hopes for the future, especially in a near-perfect scene where she convinces potential real estate developer Drake to consider building affordable family housing instead of ritzy estates (a theme borrowed for Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life). The usually so-so Ronald Reagan has a tour-de-force character arc. He's a smug rake in a horse-drawn buggy, then a stand-up friend, a humbled job seeker and finally a bed-ridden cripple convinced that life has completely abandoned him. Reagan's famous line is a screamed, "Where's the rest of me?!" but what we remember is that he holds up his end of the film, and much more. Critics in 1942 were surprised when the "lightweight" Reagan and Sheridan did so well.
The rest of the picture is impeccably cast. Betty Field has only a few scenes but chills our blood with her intensely disturbed Cassandra Tower. Claude Rains is properly secretive as Parris' well-meaning mentor. Nancy Coleman (Edge of Darkness) defies her parents with wild-eyed stares, realizing that the pitiless Charles Coburn and Judith Anderson would rather she be dead than have the family's good name tarnished. As Parris' sentimentalized grandmother Maria Ouspenskaya probably has a bit too much screen time. Relative newcomer Kaaren Verne is idealized as Parris' true love, a convenient vision of perfection. Verne's character comes from Vienna and so understands his appreciation of progressive continental ideas. But when Parris first sees her he mistakes her for the ghost of his childhood sweetheart Cassie. Verne lives in Parris' old house and even sleeps in Parris' own childhood bedroom, making us wonder what Freud would say.
Kings Row has more than its share of dated and awkward lines: "I don't know about those things, I'm just a woman." On the other hand, the film shouldn't have to apologize for its over-emphatic emotions. Both Ann Sheridan and Bob Cummings have scenes that end in huge close-up, sharing ecstatic, transcendent emotions with the camera. Sheridan even murmurs a prayer. These expressionistic moments are really the high points of the film ... and encourage the nostalgic idea that once upon a time there were people who could be transformed by the honesty of their emotions.
Warners' DVD of Kings Row presents the B&W flat movie in a good transfer. In a few scenes the image is a bit unsteady (shrinkage?) but the newly buffed mono soundtrack is a stunner, revealing wonderful emotional details in the Korngold score ... see the movie more than twice and the score will become the motivation to see/hear it again.
Instead of a trailer we get five brief teasers, each highlighting a key character line from the young talent. One short subject is simply the U.S. Marine Band playing in the nation's capitol, directed by Jean Negulesco. The cartoon is a Merrie Melody called Fox Pop. I have to admit I was hoping for a cartoon featuring a child-like mouse character with a be-ribboned hat, that always acts meek and wide-eyed. That character always reminds me of the "young Parris" in the movie, even though it's probably based on something else entirely.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Kings Row rates:
Video: Excellent/Very Good
Supplements: Short subject, cartoon, theatrical teasers
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 9, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
1. Note from correspondent Karen --, 8.29.06: Dear Glenn, I must admit I got a giggle or two out of your reference to Kings Row's "benign Dr. Tower" and his reasons for keeping Cassie immured. I was motivated to read the novel many years ago after having seen the movie for the first time, mainly to confirm my suspicion that the good doctor's daughter was being forced to submit to an incestuous relationship, which indeed was the case. It's odd that I would have picked up on it because I tend to be incredibly naive about such things. In fact, to this day I STILL don't see anything untoward about Claire Bloom's behavior in The Haunting, despite the fact that not only does everyone else "get it," but that it's confirmed in the DVD release's commentary as well. It's nice to know that someone else might have missed some innuendo as well. :) BTW, the book is worth reading (and can probably be had for cheap secondhand). It's almost as sordid as Peyton Place, and as well written but not as graphic. An unusual book and though the film -- the outline for which by necessity had to be the result of serious culling -- manages to do it justice, it's much too sprawling and complicated to be captured by anything shorter than a miniseries. Give it a shot if you can make the time--it's fun! Best, Karen
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson