Filmsite Movie Review
Kings Row (1942)
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Kings Row (1942) is a thought-provoking, emotional, melodramatic, 'Peyton Place'-like film with a turn-of-the-century, small-town setting that revealed evil, cruelty, duplicity and depravity. Directed by Sam Wood and with James Wong Howe's impressive cinematography and Erich Wolfgang Korngold's magnificently rich score (although unnominated for an Academy Award!), the tragic Warner Bros. film presented a compelling, penetrating and difficult coming-of-age story with eloquence and power.

Wood had previously directed two Marx Brothers films, Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), Our Town (1940), Kitty Foyle (1940), Raffles (1940), and The Devil and Miss Jones (1941). Korngold's bombastic, orchestral soundtrack became the inspiration for John Williams' main theme to Star Wars (1977) as well as elements for the theme of Superman (1978).

The film was a penetrating look at American morals (rivalries, jealousies, and sordid affairs) hidden within a gossipy small mid-western town, seen through the eyes of a group of childhood friends who, when they reached adulthood ten years later, experienced a series of tragic incidents that brought out sadism, insanity, moral decay, deceitfulness, and pettiness that had been deceptively underneath the surface of every-day life in the early 1900s.

Its screenplay by Casey Robinson was based upon Henry Bellamann's best-selling, widely-read (at the time), scandalous 1940 novel of small-town life at the turn of the century, based upon Bellamann's home-town of Fulton, Missouri. The Hays Code of 1934 required that much of the questionable, edgy and unfilmable content of the novel be modified or "bowdlerized" - eliminating or seriously muting subjects such as "loose" and illicit premarital sex (and pregnancy), miscegenation, euthanasia, embezzlement, homosexuality, malpractice involving a sadistic and vengeful surgeon, and father-daughter incest leading to a murder-suicide. A careful reading of the sub-text of the dialogue and relations between characters can bring out the censored meaning of the severely-edited parts of the sanitized film.

A revealing memo to Warner Bros.' executive producer Hal B. Wallis explained the reasons why German-born producer Wolfgang Reinhardt had declined to produce the film:

"As far as plot is concerned, the material in Kings Row is for the most part either censurable or too gruesome and depressing to be used. The hero finding out that his girl has been carrying on incestuous relations with her father...a host of moronic or otherwise mentally diseased characters... people dying from cancer, suicides -- these are the principal elements of the story."

The film's tagline commented on the nature of the town:

  • "The town they talk of in whispers."
  • "Where every heart concealed a secret sin."

The film's main adult characters were originally five innocent childhood friends in the same town who would experience life-long friendships as they grew into adulthood, including:

  • Parris Mitchell (Robert Cummings), the film's hero - an idealistic, studious and compassionate young man, and the protege of Dr. Tower (under his training), who studied abroad in Vienna to become a psychiatrist before returning to Kings Row
  • Randy Monaghan (Ann Sheridan), a pretty, sensible, tomboyish working class girl, who lived across the tracks, who dated and eventually married Drake
  • Cassie Tower (Betty Field), the neurotic, unbalanced, confined, increasingly mentally-ill, home-schooled daughter of the town's non-practicing Dr. Alexander Tower (Claude Rains) who was Parris' mentor
  • Louise Gordon (Nancy Coleman), the sheltered, frail, repressed, and misunderstood daughter of the sadistic, morally-righteous town's main surgeon, the inept Dr. Gordon (Charles Coburn)
  • Drake McHugh (Ronald Reagan in his best film role), a light-hearted playboy wastrel, and Parris' good-natured best friend, whose misfortune included becoming the victim of embezzlement, and suffering severe mutilation by an incompetent doctor after a train accident

Railroad tracks in the town of Kings Row played an important role in defining the dividing boundary (or barrier) line between social classes -- the respectable good people and the bad. The reputable people lived on one side (Parris, Drake, the Towers, Gordons, Colonel Skeffington, and more), while Randy was on the wrong side of the tracks.

The most memorable and unforgettable scene was Drake's realization that his legs had been amputated -- and his exclamation: "Where's the rest of me?" This would later become the title of 40th President Ronald Reagan's auto-biography first published in 1965 (but updated in 1981).

The shooting of the film was over-budget and took longer than expected. The general timing of the release of the 127 minute long film in mid-April of 1942 (after its premiere in early February) was unfortunate - it was only a few months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It wasn't in the top 10 of box-office hits for the year (topped by Mrs. Miniver (1942)), but its $2.35 million domestic revenue was notable - it surpassed other hits the same year, to name a few:

The wartime film was nominated for three Academy Awards with no wins (all lost to William Wyler's Mrs. Miniver (1942)): Best Picture, Best Director (Sam Wood), and Best B/W Cinematography (James Wong). Director Wood's other film, the baseball-sports classic biopic about Lou Gehrig, The Pride of the Yankees (1942) was also up for eleven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Gary Cooper), and Best Actress (Teresa Wright), and only won Best Film Editing.

It was remade as a seven episode TV series titled Kings Row (1955-1956), part of the Warner Brothers Presents show. The more modern adaptation starred Jack Kelly (as Parris), Robert Horton (as Drake), Nan Leslie (as Randy), Robert Burton (as Dr. Gordon), and Victor Jory (as Dr. Tower).

Plot Synopsis

Title Credits - and Summary of Prologue:

The title credits played with the memorable and epic Korngold thematic score in the background. The film opened in 1890 in a small rural Midwestern town [Fulton, Missouri in the novel], with the town's sign conveying that it was an ideal, seemingly peaceful place:

A Good Clean Town
and a good place to

The opening prologue of the film fully introduced the innocent childhoods of the five leading characters:

  • Parris Mitchell (Scotty Beckett as a Boy, and Robert Cummings as an Adult): parentless and living in an estate with a wealthy lifestyle (i.e., expensive piano lessons, and a maid named Anna), due to support and an expected inheritance from his aging and ill aristocratic grandmother Madame Von Eln; he was refined, polite, sensitive and intelligent
  • Drake McHugh (Douglas Croft as a Boy, and Ronald Reagan as an Adult - with the best performance of his entire film career): an orphan living with his Aunt in town; he was Parris' best friend, and temporarily wealthy (due to a trust inheritance); also worldly-wise, wild, playful, brash and carefree
  • Cassandra 'Cassie' Tower (Mary Thomas as a Girl, and Betty Field as an Adult): the beautiful daughter of one of the town's most brilliant members - the reclusive Dr. Tower; she was Parris' best female friend, who began to act strange, unstable and neurotic as she grew up, partly due to the strict upbringing of her father who confined her (for home-schooling) and her mentally-troubled mother
  • Louise Gordon (Joan Du Valle as a Girl, and Nancy Coleman as an Adult): the upper-class, pretty and popular daughter of two respectable members of society: her prudish mother Harriet and her rigid and moralistic father - surgeon Dr. Gordon
  • Randy Monaghan (Ann Todd as a Girl, and Ann Sheridan as an Adult - in her best-acted film): the red-headed daughter of a lower-class railroad worker, from 'across the tracks' - tom-boyish, feisty, but with a whole-hearted and generous nature

Many of the film's themes, social relationships, class distinctions, and events in the condensed, expository prologue were contrasting foreshadowings (or pre-echoes) of significant future developments, associations and oppositions.

Childhood Friendships in Kings Row: The 13-Minute Prologue

On a warm spring afternoon after the day's session was over, cheerful school children in Kings Row ran through the white-picket fenced entrance onto the street in front of the school. Some of the bullying students were taunting and pulling a retarded tall boy in circles - the first sign of corruption or trouble in the "good clean town." Three children with their schoolbooks were briefly introduced at the front gate: Parris Mitchell, Cassandra "Cassie" Tower, and Drake McHugh - who winked at a group of girls, signifying his precocious sexuality.

As they often did after school, Parris and Cassie escaped to a natural, peaceful setting where they skipped rocks on a stream's surface. Realizing that the pond water was warm, Parris suggested that they go swimming and both removed their clothing for nude skinnydipping - Cassie was naked from the waist-up, still wearing her bloomers. Afterwards, Cassie stated that her disapproving, rigid and disciplinary father, Dr. Alexander Q. Tower (Claude Rains), would punish her with a switch if he noticed her wet hair from their illicit behavior. Parris was attracted to her: "You're awfully pretty, Cassie...the prettiest girl in the whole school."

[Note: In the ancient mythical Greek story of Troy, Paris and Princess Cassandra (with the gift of prophesy and cursed with despair) were long-lost siblings.]

The parentless Parris (who was fluent in French) lived with his loving, aristocratic upper-class French grandmother, Madame von Eln (Maria Ouspenskaya), in a luxurious estate home located on the Von Eln Nurseries property. As he began to practice the piano, playing Chopin's Fantasie Impromptu in C Sharp Minor, the popular young Parris realized that he had been invited to attend two competing Saturday birthday parties on the same day for his young lady friends: Cassie and Louise Gordon, daughters of two medical practitioners in town. Anna (Ilka Grüning), the gossipy house-keeper/maid, recommended that Parris attend the more popular Gordon party - due to commonly-accepted disapproving perceptions in town about the Towers:

"There is something queer about those Towers. A doctor who says he's a doctor, but never has a patient. And his wife, who stays in that upstairs room all the time. It gives a person the creeps. It ain't the proper association for a boy like him..."

The reclusive 'doctor' had an unfriendly (possibly insane) wife sequestered upstairs. Nonetheless, Parris - who was encouraged to make his own independent decisions by his grandmother ("Parris has learned to decide for himself what's right and what's wrong"), insistently chose Cassie's poorly-attended party, while the majority of the town's children went to Louise's party. Only five neighbor children were seated with Cassie at a decorated outdoor table in front of the Tower's home in town. Cassie was tearfully distraught by the poor attendance and unsuccessful gathering: "I wish everybody'd go home...I invited ever so many."

As Parris left the downbeat party, he noticed the strange Mrs. Tower (Eden Gray) peering out at him from the second story curtained-window of the Gothic home, who backed away as he called out to her. At the foot of the Tower staircase, Dr. Tower intercepted Parris, who was attempting to ascend the stairs and pay his respects to Mrs. Tower (who remained upstairs during the entire party). Parris was abruptly escorted to the front porch. Parris inquisitively asked: "Doesn't Cassie's mother like parties?" - and then the distressed Cassie passed them and ran inside. Parris graciously thanked Dr. Tower and commented: "Aw, gee, what a shame. All that ice cream and cake, too."

On his way home, Parris passed by the raucous, well-attended outdoor Gordon party, and was greeted by his adventure-loving friend Drake McHugh, who criticized the "sissy party" and said he would rather be with his friend Parris. The two boys proceeded to explore the railroad depot yards, to possibly run into the tough "Fulmer Green and his gang." They encountered tomboyish Randy Monaghan, nicknamed "Red," who asked why they had crossed the tracks into her lower-class neighborhood: "What are you all doing way down here?" She joined them to swing on the rings at Elroy's Icehouse, after Drake explained some facts about Randy's strict father in her single-family: "Her old man knows better than to let her go around with boys. She's kind of tough, though. You ought hear her cuss." Parris attempted to "skin the cat" on the rings, but wasn't as adept on the rings as the fun-loving, athletic Drake or Randy, and he fell to the ground. Randy criticized his restrictive, fancy clothing:

Randy: "Trouble is your pants are too tight. Take 'em off, why don't you?"
Parris: "I can't. I haven't got anything on under them." [Note: This confirmed that Parris had skinny-dipped with Cassie.]

When Drake and Parris crossed the tracks to return home, Drake promised to return to see Randy's off-limits area again sometime soon, and she responded that she would await him: "All right! It's a free country. I guess."

They came upon Dr. Gordon's (Charles Coburn) buggy parked outside the lower-class home of the McIntosh family, and spoke to young son Willie (Henry Blair) crying on the front steps, due to his father's illness: (Drake: "I heard his pa's sicker than a cat.") Dr. Gordon was seen at an upstairs window preparing to operate on the leg of Willie's father - ("Pa's got ulcers on his leg...They're terrible bad, though. He's got to have them cut out"). A loud scream was heard from inside, and the terrified Willie protectively yelled toward the direction of the house for the doctor to quit torturing his father: ("He's got to quit that. That's my Pa!"). Drake asked: "Didn't Dr. Gordon give your old man chloroform?" but the operation would be without chloroform as anesthesia, due to his patient's heart disease. Parris, who was planning on being a doctor, was astonished: "I thought they had to give chloroform for an operation." Willie ran and banged on the locked front door: "He's gotta quit that. He's gotta quit! I'll kill that old doctor. I'll kill him!"

Frightened by the painful-sounded hollering and screaming, Drake and Parris fled in a panic. As they parted at Drake's home a bit later, Drake promised a fun friendship together (with some homo-erotic overtones suggested for their future): "You stick with me and I can teach you a lot....We're friends and we ought to go on being friends." Drake's impatient black mother-figure Aunt Mamie (Leah Baird) ordered (off-screen) the lazy Drake to do his chores - a regular occurrence ("Here's where I catch it again").

[Note: Parris, Drake, and Randy all lived in one-parent/guardian families.]

As Parris walked home, and was about to cross the fence stile steps near the Von Eln estate, his good friend Cassie appeared from behind a tree. She questioned his friendly association with Randy Monaghan, but he ignored class divisions: "That doesn't mean anything." She was there to tell him "something terrible" - she would was going to be removed from school altogether, and home-schooled by her father: "Papa says he's gonna teach me out of books and things. He says it'll be better for me." Parris realized that their friendship would be severely curtailed by her father's confining restrictions - an end to their idyllic times together:

Parris: "But if you don't go to school, then you can't walk home with me, or go swimming or play with me or anything."
Cassie: "Maybe I can't ever go anywhere. Maybe I'll just have to stay home like Mama does all the time."

She fled, and after an extreme close-up of Parris' concerned face, he turned to cross the fence - followed by an impressive, flash-forward cinematic cut-dissolve.

A number of main contrasts had been established in the prologue:

Contrasting Elements in Prologue
Two Town Doctors
Dr. Gordon and Dr. Tower
Two Daughters of the Doctors - Socially-Contrasted Birthday Parties
Louise Gordon and Cassie Tower
Different Socio-Economic Sides of Town
Suburban Uptown Wealthy Area (Parris, Drake, Louise, and Cassie), and "Across the Tracks" (Randy and Willie McIntosh)
First Appearance -
At Upstairs Windows
Mrs. Tower and Dr. Gordon
Two Sadistic Operations
(Without Proper Anesthesia)
Mr. McIntosh
and Drake (later)
Confined or Locked Away by Parental Figures
Mrs. Tower
and Cassie and Louise (later)
Two Heroic Boys -
Complementary Role Models, with Homo-Erotic Undertones
Drake: Carefree, Extroverted and Outdoorsy
Parris: Intellectual, Studious and Sensitive

Flash-Forward to the Year 1900:

Now crossing back over the steps were the legs of Parris Mitchell (Robert Cummings as Adult). The camera rose and titled up to view the entire adult figure of the matured Parris. The film had jumped ahead ten years.

Parris' Instructional Tutelage With Dr. Tower - Preparation for Medical School:

As Parris climbed up to the nearby road, carefree Drake (Ronald Reagan as Adult) was escorting two pretty young sisters in his new horse-drawn buggy (purchased with his inheritance allowance): Poppy (Julie Warren) and Jinny Ross (Mary Scott). They were going for a ride into the country. Parris hadn't seen Drake for awhile (but knew of his reputation with the ladies). And he was so busy with his studies to become a doctor that he couldn't join the happy trio and forgo his serious preparations that afternoon. Parris explained that he was on his way to begin his medical studies under the tutelage of the stern and secretive local physician Dr. Tower, Cassie's "old man." The Towers had a reputation for being reclusive, as Drake reminded them about their rarely-seen childhood friend:

"Her old man keeps her under lock and key like he thought every fellow in town was aiming to kidnap her. I guess they'd like to at that. Say, I haven't seen Cassie since we were kids together in school....Sure wish I was in your boots. Let me know how you come out...Only gal in school that used to wear silk stockings."

After Parris entered the gated yard of the Tower home and rang the bell, a shadow fell upon him. The wide-eyed Cassie cautiously answered the door. They hadn't seen each other in 10 years, and Cassie seemed changed. She appeared frightened, agitated, hesitant, anti-social and scared, and without personally greeting Parris, she directed him to her father's location: "Down there. The last door." She ignored Parris' concerns about her ill mother. Dr. Tower's first instructions to Parris were to avoid using the front door entry in the future and instead use the side study door for both entering and exiting. Parris' plans were to attend medical school in Vienna after preparing for his exams with his accomplished mentor. The intimidating Dr. Tower stood over Parris and queried him about his career goals: ("Do you want to be a good doctor or one of these country quacks?"), but then lengthily described his own strict philosophy and approach to psychiatric medical care:

"Well, Mitchell, of course, I don't know at all your approach to medicine. Perhaps you regard it as an opportunity to become one of those bedside manners with a list of the proper pills to give the patient, particularly when you don't know what is the matter with him. Or perhaps your aim is to become an eminent carpenter with a knife and a chisel and a saw. Perhaps, even you flow over with the nobility of relieving humanity's suffering. I'll tell you my approach to medicine. It is a game. It is a game in which man pits his brain against the forces of destruction and disease. In the beginning, I don't expect you to be able to participate in the game. You'll only listen and accept. You will study and you will make notes and you will memorize, and you will do all this only because I tell you to."

The passage of time was indicated by the changing of seasons.

Preparations for the Coming Death of Parris' Grandmother:

In the living room of her estate one winter evening, Parris' grandmother Marie met with bearded patriarch and lawyer Colonel Isaac Skeffington (Colonel Skeffington) and Dr. Henry Gordon. She announced that in preparation for her death, she intended to leave her entire inheritance to her nephew: "I want to leave everything to Parris so that his schooling is assured. I want to do the best I can for him with what I have." She agreed that she must urgently prepare a will, since she didn't feel she would live much longer at her age (a fact confirmed by Dr. Gordon). She was calmly accepting of her coming demise: "We all have to die. I shan't want to. For Parris' sake, I shan't want to at all." After Marie regally ascended the stairs at her bedtime, Colonel Skeffington delivered a moving tribute as he bemoaned the passing of the older generation:

"When she passes, how much passes with her? A whole way of life. A way of gentleness. And honor and dignity. These things are going, Henry. And they may never come back to this world."

Marie found the academically-motivated Parris where she usually would locate him at night - studying in his bedroom with "thick and heavy" books. She knew that sending him to Dr. Tower for training would work out, and again instructed him to always independently judge people for himself (since gossip based on appearances was unreliable, especially in Kings Row), as she had advised when he was younger:

"I only know that you have to judge people by what you find them to be and not by what other people say they are."

Although Parris admitted that he didn't "understand" Dr. Tower, he felt "lucky" to be working with him ("the most brilliant man I have ever met"). Parris expressed his profound love for his grandmother. He lovingly lifted her up in his arms, carried her across his bedroom, and declared: "I'm crazy about you, lady."

Continued Training - And a Glimpse of Cassie:

During one of Parris' instructional lessons on a spring day (after "a hard winter"), Dr. Tower stressed the importance of observation and intuition, rather than just intellectual knowledge:

"And in diagnosis, you must never underrate the value of subconscious observation. Instinct, if you want to call it that. Or, more properly, intuition. It's what makes a born physician."

And then he encouraged the hard-working, exhausted Parris to take an afternoon break and get "rowdy" outdoors with his friends. When Parris claimed he had only one friend, the doctor mused about his own loneliness, now that his wife had recently died: "Well, a little loneliness won't hurt you, to speak of. You get used to it." The funeral was not publicized, but Parris and his grandmother had sent condolence notes. Parris wished to personally console Cassandra, but realized that Dr. Tower would object. When he left the house, Cassie was on the front porch and she tentatively smiled and waved, but then anxiously looked around (fearing her father?) and rushed inside when Parris approached. At the same time, Drake drove by in his buggy and picked up Parris, to rescue him from keeping his "nose buried in those books all the time."

Drake's Difficult Relationship with Louise Gordon:

When asked how Cassie was, Parris was unable to answer: "Dr. Tower makes me use the side door and I just don't see her." Drake drove to the Gordon's place to speak to Louise - his expected fiancee - it was a surprise to Parris. Drake acknowledged the town's gossip: "I thought everybody knew everything about everybody in this town." Parris was asked to help because Drake claimed: "I'm in a mess. You'll see." The pretty but frail Louise admitted that her father was "unreasonable" and "mean" and she was afraid of him. According to the angered Drake, the "old geezer" had forbidden their relationship - as Louise explained - it was due to gossip about Drake's loose reputation with other women:

"All right, I'll tell you what Papa said. Well, it's about Poppy Ross....He said you're wild. Of course, I don't pay any attention. I know you've been taking her out buggy riding. I don't mind. Not too much. I know you get lonesome and you're not in love with Poppy, but I'm lonesome, too, and I haven't any Poppy Ross. And people are talking and Papa and Mama hear them..."

Louise became frantic when her parents, Dr. Gordon and his wife Harriet (Judith Anderson), arrived and questioned why Drake was there. Mrs. Gordon criticized Drake for his profligate ways and lower status: "Drake McHugh, it's a mercy your dear Aunt Mamie isn't alive to see you these days. She was a righteous, God-fearing woman." Drake explained how his inheritance from Aunt Mamie would come in two years, but in the meantime, he and Louise could "make out together somehow." But Louise was unable to resist the glaring condemnation of her viciously restrictive parents. Drake stormed off to his buggy, and shared his frustrations with Parris: "Just because I'm out in the open about things! Just because I don't sneak around." Hot-headed, he was determined to spite the Gordons:

"I'll show them. I'll get my horse and buggy and drive by the Gordons every day with Poppy Ross. I don't care. I'll even have her right to my house if I want to. Say, I wonder why I never thought of that."

As a calming influence, Parris was the voice of reason: "It is awfully hard for a girl to stand up against her family."

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