Thursday, September 28, 2017

Classic Films in Focus: KINGS ROW (1942)

Mixed reviews are often the hardest ones to write, and I have mixed feelings about Kings Row (1942), the Sam Wood drama adapted from the controversial novel by Henry Bellamann. I think, ultimately, the film is useful as an example of the ways the Hays Code could undermine the purpose of an artistic work in its relentless censorship of any really serious engagement of complicated issues, especially those involving sex. The original novel was an explosive bestseller, while the adaptation is far more conventional and even banal. It's hard to watch Kings Row and not notice the gaps and missteps where material had to be cut out or heavily revised in order to appease the puritanical Joseph Breen, but the film still has some very fine performances, especially from one of my favorite supporting actresses, the diminutive Maria Ouspenskaya.

In the film, Robert Cummings plays the protagonist, Parris Mitchell, who grows up in turn-of-the-century Kings Row, a sort of Everytown, USA. Parris has a privileged childhood despite being orphaned, and his best friend, Drake (Ronald Reagan), enjoys similar wealth and ease. Parris suffers a doomed romance with a fragile girl named Cassie (Betty Field), whose father, Dr. Tower (Claude Rains), serves as a mentor to the aspiring physician. Drake, meanwhile, draws the ire of his sweetheart's parents with his wild ways and ultimately settles down with Randy (Ann Sheridan), a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, but his luck takes a turn for the tragic. When a vengeful action threatens to destroy Drake, Parris and Randy work together to restore his will to live.

The movie garnered three Oscar nominations, with nods for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography, and James Wong Howe certainly does make the most of the sets and faces on offer. The film also features a plethora of fine performers in supporting roles, including Charles Coburn, Judith Anderson, Henry Davenport, Claude Rains, and the always terrific Ouspenskaya, whose small stature never prevents her from totally dominating a scene. Cummings, Sheridan, and Reagan get the most screen time as the adult versions of the three main characters, whose friendship sustains them through the lowest points in their lives. Sheridan manages to make Randy appealing in spite of the weird tightrope she has to walk about what kind of girl Randy is and the blatantly sexist drivel she has to spout to soothe Drake's wounded self-esteem. Cummings is good looking but not terribly exciting as Parris, while Reagan gets the role of his career as the once carefree victim of Fate's turning wheel.

However, the changes that the Hays office demanded rob Kings Row of most of its purpose as a scathing commentary about the dark side of small town American life. The opening sign extolling the town's virtues should be read ironically, but instead the film bears it out as truth. We never really get the sense that Kings Row is a bad place at all; there's one sadistic doctor with very limited screen time and one crooked banker, but most of the other negative elements have been swept under the rug. The most glaring changes involve the Tower family; the movie makes Cassie a hysterical, mentally disturbed girl whose father is a paragon of paternal concern... for Parris, not his own child. With Drake's initial girlfriend, Louise (Nancy Coleman), also dissolving into hysteria and incipient madness later in the film, Kings Row seems to suggest that what's really wrong with small town America is just a bunch of overwrought girls, not the secret and villainous actions of their powerful, authoritarian fathers. Parris, who is supposed to be a caring psychiatrist, even goes so far as to consider having Louise committed to an asylum to shut her up although he knows perfectly well that she is telling the truth. He only reconsiders because it turns out not to be necessary to protect Drake, whose mental health means more to him than Louise's life. That sexist attitude makes Parris less sympathetic as a character, for it shows how easily he can become just a new generation of the same old attitudes embodied by Dr. Gordon and Dr. Tower.

Director Sam Wood earned two other Oscar nominations in addition to Kings Row, the others being for Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) and Kitty Foyle (1940). See more of Ann Sheridan in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), They Drive by Night (1940), and Nora Prentiss (1947). Robert Cummings stars in Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder (1954), while Ronald Reagan has his other most memorable dramatic roles in Dark Victory (1939) and Knute Rockne, All American (1940). If, like me, you just can't get enough of Maria Ouspenskaya, see her in Dodsworth (1936) and Love Affair (1939), both of which earned her nominations for Best Supporting Actress, and don't miss her best remembered performance in The Wolf Man (1941).

You can read a little more about the background of the Kings Row novel and film here.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Nominations for the 2017 National Film Registry

A classic movie friend let me know that we still have a few days left to make nominations to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry for the 2017 year. You can make nominations until September 15, 2017, so if you want to contribute to this year's list you should head on over to the website this week.

The National Film Registry's 2016 additions included Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), Ball of Fire (1941), and The Birds (1963), along with lots of more recent movies like The Princess Bride (1987) and The Lion King (1994). Even though the registry grows each year, my fellow old movie fans will be amazed at some of the classics that haven't yet made the cut; the Library of Congress has a handy list so that people can easily see which of their favorites needs to be nominated. Each person can nominate up to fifty movies on the site's online form; you just need the title and the release year.

I sat down and used the site's list to come up with 50 films that I think should be included in the National Film Registry. Here are the movies I nominated; I hope you'll make time to nominate some, as well! Feel free to share your nomination list in the comments section or shoot me a link if you post your list on your own blog.

Virtual Virago's 50 Nominations to the National Film Registry for 2017
(links go to full reviews of the films on this blog)

The Unholy Three (1925)
The Unknown (1927)
The Man Who Laughs (1928)
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
Night Nurse (1931)
The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
The Mummy (1932)
Dinner at Eight (1933)
Of Human Bondage (1934)
The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)
Captains Courageous (1937)
Stella Dallas (1937)
Wee Willie Winkie (1937)
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
Pygmalion (1938)
You Can't Take It with You (1938)
Dark Victory (1939)
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
The Letter (1940)
They Drive by Night (1940)
Dumbo (1941)
High Sierra (1941)
The Black Swan (1942)
I Married a Witch (1942)
The Palm Beach Story (1942)
This Gun for Hire (1942)
Heaven Can Wait (1943)
I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
Curse of the Cat People (1944)
Gaslight (1944)
Jane Eyre (1944)
Lifeboat (1944)
To Have and Have Not (1944)
The Uninvited (1944)
The Body Snatcher (1945)
Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
Scarlet Street (1945)
Dragonwyck (1946)
The Spiral Staircase (1946)
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
Nightmare Alley (1947)
Easter Parade (1948)
Fort Apache (1948)
The Lady from Shanghai (1948)
Westward the Women (1951)
On Dangerous Ground (1952)
Pickup on South Street (1953)
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Everyone's picks will reflect personal tastes and passions; mine skew toward the genres of film noir and classic horror with favorite actors like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Gene Tierney also getting a lot of attention. Of course I'm going to pick Val Lewton whenever possible, which explains the three Lewton pictures - and I didn't even add Lewton films that aren't already on the Library's list, like Bedlam (1946). Even though I only paid lip service to the silent era (for which I feel terrible), I still ran out of slots by the time I reached the early 1950s, and I had to go back and remove a few choices to squeeze in a couple of favorites there at the end. If nothing else, putting together a nomination list will tell you who and what you value most when it comes to classic movies.