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.

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