Kings Row (1942) with Robert Cummings, Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan

Somebody needs to give Kings Row the Mildred Pierce treatment. Reboot it, expand it, show us what couldn't be shown before. More faithfully adapt it as a cable miniseries.

Kings Row A Good Town

While the 1942 film from Warner Brothers is a sanitized version of Henry Bellamann's 1940 novel of the same name that is neither unexpected nor necessarily bad. Like any film adaptation elements of the novel have been either reimagined or even completely chopped out of the film.

Working under the restrictions of the Production Code it can be no surprise that Jamie Wakefield, a boyhood friend who made advances towards Parris, is nowhere to be found. And if homosexuality was forbidden then certainly Dr. Towers' incestuous relationship with daughter Cassandra wasn't something PCA head Joseph Breen was going to allow. Nor a mercy killing, that was out too. Nymphomania? Nah. None of this should surprise you.

I am more surprised by how far Kings Row managed to go. Sam Wood's film throws a veil over Kings Row but if you look carefully the light peeks through on some of the more forbidden elements of the book. I have only read about Bellamann's novel. I have not read the book itself. Still, the incest was not a surprise. The Cassandra character is very strange and Betty Field's performance, which is a bit much, does make it feel as though she's holding something back. The relationship between Cassandra and her father, Dr. Tower, is unsettling. It's obvious something is wrong.

Scotty Beckett and Claude Rains

Young Parris Mitchell (Scotty Beckett) shakes with Dr. Tower (Claude Rains)

The AFI catalog notes about Kings Row include excerpts from the Warner Brothers Archives collection at USC. Several of Kings Row's darker elements have attention called to them in these notes. A memo from Wolfgang Reinhardt to Hal Wallis, explaining why the former was turning down the opportunity to produce the film, states that, "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."

Also mentioned in the notes is the response of Production Code Administration boss Joseph Breen to studio head Jack Warner about an early draft of the script objecting to, "illicit sexual relationships between Parris and Cassandra and Drake and Randy without sufficient compensating moral values as well as the general suggestion of loose sex ... which carries throughout the entire script ... In addition, the suggestion, in the characterization of Cassandra, of gross sexual abnormality; the mercy killing of the grandmother by Parris; and the sadistic characterization of Dr. Gordon ..."

Despite all of this Kings Row is not completely neutered. Dr. Tower commits an absolutely reprehensible act. Dr. Gordon is called a monster by his own daughter, Louise, and the description is apt. And then there's the sex. Plenty of that in Kings Row.

Ronald Reagan in Kings Row

Drake McHugh (Ronald Reagan) out "buggy riding" with the Ross girls

Randy Monaghan (Ann Sheridan) tells boyfriend Drake McHugh (Ronald Reagan) that, "When a boy who belongs uptown begins taking a girl from the lower end of town out buggy riding at night people talk. You know that, don't you?" Disgusted by the gossip, Drake replies, "I'll say. Gabbo, gabbo, gabbo. I'd like to hear them to my face sometime," to which Randy responds, "Well, we can't honestly blame them for saying something that's so, can we?"

That gossip was brought to life earlier by the society conscious wife of Dr. Gordon (Judith Anderson) when she scolds her daughter, Louise (Nancy Coleman), for her reaction to seeing ex-boyfriend Drake taking Randy on one of those buggy rides. "You can be sure that when a boy runs around with a girl like that it's just for--" Louise interrupts, shocking her mother with the declaration, "I wish it was me!"

Buggy riding seems to become a euphemism for sex throughout Kings Row.

The film went further than I had expected in leaving no doubt of Parris (Robert Cummings) and Cassandra's (Betty Field) first sexual encounter. It is also clear that Cassandra continues to sneak out every night for premarital romps with Parris, usually over at Drake's place. And, if you pay attention to the big scene wrapping up the Towers' portion of the story, it is clear that Parris had gotten Cassie pregnant.

Sam asks Dr. Gordon if there is "Anything new?"
"Just something about the girl," Gordon replies.
"You mean her having her things packed ready to skedaddle?"
Gordon, being evasive because of Drake's presence, says, "Tell you later." And it is left at that.

Betty Field and Robert Cummings

Cassie (Betty Field) finally gets a moment alone with Parris (Robert Cummings)

One of the wonders of the Production Code, one which pays off a little more with every movie you watch that was made under its watchful eye, is that its excising of the lurid, the filthy, the immoral, often allowed the imagination, our lurid, filthy, immoral imaginations, to take things further than have even been implied. Kings Row, the movie, is good clean innocent fun for even a ten year old. The older you get, the more exposed you have been, the less clean and innocent it becomes. The Code itself has added an all new unintended layer to Kings Row.

Bosley Crowther wrote a hilariously hypocritical review panning Kings Row in the February 3, 1942 edition of The New York Times.

Crowther writes, "The script by Casey Robinson ... labors over things of passing consequence—surface details in a web of clashing lives—and skimps the motivating fundamentals which should be most carefully clarified." Such as? Of Parris, Crowther writes, "But in the novel his ambition and the subsequent course of his life was influenced by many psychological factors which are barely suggested—or omitted entirely—in the film." Like? I'll have to censor this one just to keep from giving too much away, but, "Now the boy studies with the strange Dr. Tower, as in the book, but the reason why Dr. Tower ... is given a decidedly moral twist." Compared to what?

Ann Sheridan, Robert Cummings and Ronald Reagan

The stars of Kings Row: Ann Sheridan, Robert Cummings and Ronald Reagan

Crowther spends six paragraphs absolutely destroying Kings Row mostly for avoiding subjects that he does not dare do anymore than hint at himself in the Times. He does make some valid critical points about the film itself as well as the poor timing of its release--just months after the attack on Pearl Harbor--and its individual participants. He especially torches stars Cummings, Reagan and Sheridan. But if he cannot write about what the movie held back how in the world did he expect Warner Brothers to film it?

These points aren't made in defense of the code or general censorship. They're made in defense of the existence of Kings Row, the movie. It feels as though it has been unfairly maligned for not going someplace it could not possibly go. While watching the movie it seemed to not only go to a lot of places I found shocking for the period it was released, but that suggest the clearly unmentionable not only in a tasteful but even artistic way.

While I expect to hear from readers of Bellamann's novel, I think it is fair to say that today the movie has been seen by more people than those who have actually read the book. I think it would also be fair to assume that the opposite was true in 1942. A fresh film adaptation of a bestselling novel is likely to be attended by a fair number of people who have not only read the novel, but done so in recent memory. The film was a hit. Despite the proper assumptions by Crowther and others that its release was poorly timed it proved the perfect escapist material for moviegoers at the start of the war.

Robert Cummings and Ronald Reagan

While Kings Row fell outside of the top ten box office moneymakers for 1942 it was only just outside of that list. Its $2.35 million in domestic rentals placed it ahead of classics such as Now, Voyager, Gentleman Jim, and The Palm Beach Story in 1942. Kings Row doubled the original box office take from a pair of films appreciated far more now than then: Sullivan's Travels and The Magnificent Ambersons. I think I can safely refer to Kings Row as a hit.

Does Kings Row, seventy years later, deserve to be recalled alongside those classics it outdrew? I think so. Most of them at least. Still, it has many flaws.

It is, depending upon your perspective, either too long at 127 minutes or not long enough if you felt, as I do, that some of the characters weren't developed enough.

Set beginning in 1890 and taking us just past the turn of the century it also falls short in suggesting the nostalgia of that time and place. Put our characters in some modern clothes, give Harry Davenport a shave (please, someone give Harry Davenport a shave!), and turn Drake's horse and buggy into a car and these characters feel like 1940's folks to me.

Harry Davenport as Colonel Skeffington

Harry Davenport as Colonel Skeffington

In order to make up for all of the darker elements which do make the cut the ending to Kings Row is super syrupy. That ending begins with a rousing moment when Parris comes and tells Drake to stick his chin out in order to prepare for some rough news. But then the Cummings character drones on (and now here's a quote from "Invictus" ...) in such a way that you feel for Drake's immobility all the more. I almost left the room. Drake can't. Drake is more stirred than I was though and Kings Row concludes on an all too optimistic high.

Betty Field as Cassandra is another major problem for Kings Row. Field's portrayal of schizophrenia causes Cassie to come off as a bug eyed lunatic. More frustrating is that none of the other characters even realize there's anything wrong with her. Except her father. He picked up on the subtle hints of insanity when Cassie was still a child and locked her away once he spotted them. But Robert Cummings, otherwise mostly likable as Parris Mitchell, doesn't see it at all. His sensitive Parris is supposed to still see Cassie as she was as a little girl when they walked home from school together.

Betty Field in Kings Row

Betty Field in a more typical moment as Cassandra Tower

Yes, part of the point of Kings Row is that people weren't aware of mental illness at this time. The idea is fleshed out in conversation between Dr. Tower and Parris over the new field of psychiatry and later between Parris and Drake when Parris tries to explain how he wants to heal minds. But Cassandra resembles a character who's been tormented throughout a modern slasher film while Parris is responding to her as though they were on line at the store. Field is just too much.

Heck even Reagan's Drake thinks all girls act like that sometime. Wow.

But there is plenty of good about Kings Row as well. Claude Rains is absolutely perfect as Dr. Tower, a tired aging genius saddled to Kings Row by his wife's mental illness and doing all he can to protect his daughter from a likewise fate. Until he feels he can no longer offer that protection and finishes his too brief reign over the town with the most reprehensible act imaginable. Still, it was nice to watch Rains slowly defrost his character as he inevitably warmed up to the very charming Parris. Parris and Dr. Tower easily had the most intriguing relationship in all of Kings Row.

I think I can safely declare "Where's the rest of me," without tacking up a big spoiler alert.

Where's the rest of me

Yes, Ronald Reagan's Drake winds up having both of his legs amputated and the explanation why is pure evil. Drake spends the first half of Kings Row as Parris' sidekick. Beyond the temper tantrum ending Drake's engagement to Louise all of Reagan's early scenes are in support of Cummings. That changes for awhile when Parris goes off to study psychiatry in Vienna. Kings Row belongs to Drake and Ann Sheridan's Randy Monaghan long enough that they remain the most interesting elements of Kings Row even after Parris returns and the focus is shifted back on the Cummings character.

Ann Sheridan in Kings Row

Ann Sheridan makes her first appearance as Randy Monaghan

With movies like Torrid Zone, City for Conquest, and They Drive by Night (all 1940) already having elevated Ann Sheridan's career, she seems strangely cast in Kings Row. While we meet her Randy as a child, along with all of the other primary cast members of that generation, it is more than halfway into Kings Row before top-billed Ann Sheridan shows up. Her Randy stands beside Drake at the railroad station, an important physical boundary of Kings Row, as Parris heads off on the first leg of his trip to Vienna. Randy remains by Drake's side to the end.

The railroad tracks are the physical dividing line between the good part of Kings Row, home to Parris, Drake, the Towers, Gordons, Colonel Skeffington and all the rest, and the bad side of town. That's where Randy Monaghan comes from. The dividing line is mental too as we see when Randy has Drake drop her off before crossing the line making reference to "the other side of the railroad tracks. My side." Drake eventually crosses those tracks, first for the love of Randy but soon out of necessity due to his own bad turn. Randy's father (Ernest Cossart) will even secure him a job for the railway, but that doesn't turn out very well.

Maria Ouspenskaya and Robert Cummings

Maria Ouspenskaya and Robert Cummings

As for others in Kings Row, Maria Ouspenskaya is always welcome, though she is so gosh-darned good in this that she's a bit hard to bear.

Charles Coburn, who I typically like, brings absolutely nothing extra to the role of Dr. Gordon. He has one great scene with Nancy Coleman, as his daughter Louise. It is his last scene and Coburn's Gordon is pure evil, but it felt like anyone could have handled this at least as adequately as he did. The scene belongs to Coleman with her anguished reactions to Coburn, whose back we're looking at. Perhaps it is thanks to Betty Field's over the top performance as Cassandra, but Nancy Coleman's portrayal of Louise, who time drives towards a similar unhinging, comes off as much more realistic. At least by comparison.

Nancy Coleman in Kings Row

Nancy Coleman, as Louise, battles with her father (Charles Coburn)

Judith Anderson is definitely Coburn's better half as his society conscious wife and particularly stands out in a scene with Cummings when she tries to explain why she has called Parris over in his capacity as a psychiatrist. "Can you help me with her," she asks him. Then adds, "To keep her quiet," which means more to us than it does to Parris at that point, though keeping her quiet becomes the great moral question for Parris near the end of Kings Row.

Kaaren Verne shows up near the tail end of Kings Row as Elise. She doesn't do much but gush over Parris and too quickly become his moral compass. Not a great role, but Verne is fine in it.

The acclaimed score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold made me think of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia throughout. I think influence puts it mildly.

Charles Coburn and Ronald Reagan

Charles Coburn stares down Reagan from behind

Along with the public's vote of confidence with its dollars Kings Row also picked up three Academy Award nominations including James Wong Howe's for Best Black-and-White Cinematography, and two biggies, Sam Wood for Best Director and Best Picture for Warner Brothers. The more topical and, let's face it, better Mrs. Miniver (1942) claimed all three of those Oscars.

Kings Row is interesting. It is dark. It is ambitious yet falls short of some of its goals. There is a varying range in the quality of its performances best illustrated by star Robert Cummings whose effectiveness can vary sharply from scene to scene. Overall his Parris worked for me.

Kings Row would be a prime candidate for the same treatment HBO gave Mildred Pierce last year. It would likely fair even better as there appears to more material to be expanded upon. Not necessarily better material, but more. More characters in need of expansion; More formerly censor sensitive topics to be fully revealed; and a more complicated era to attempt to bring back to life, at least in a better way than buggy rides and fake beards manage.

Robert Cummings, Ann Sheridan and Ronald Reagan

"Stick your chin out, Drake."

Besides the 1942 film from Warner Brothers the only other time Kings Row has been adapted on film was for a seven episode television series in 1955 which starred Jack Kelly, Robert Horton and Nan Leslie in the Cummings, Reagan and Sheridan roles with Victor Jory as Dr. Tower. I have a feeling anyone who thought the earlier movie had whitewashed the book would have been even more upset by what early television had done to it!

Hopefully one of these days the right person gets the Bellamann book handed off to them and sees the potential that could not possibly be realized in 1942.

Click on Clude to visit the Summer Under the Stars blogathon for August 5

The Real Kings Row

As a native of Missouri blogger Terence Towles Canote takes a special interest in the novel Kings Row by Henry Bellamann. Terence writes about Fulton, MO, the town where Bellamann was born and which is clearly the setting of his book. Check it out at A Shroud of Thoughts.

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Comments

  1. Karen Whedon says:

    I really enjoyed this article. I’ve loved “King’s Row” since the first time I saw it – shortly after Ronald Reagan became President. I was living in Washington, DC gand remember reading whenever Michael Feinstein would entertain at the White House or wherever the Reagans would appear, he would play the “King’s Row” theme. Naturally, the Reagans loved it.
    I also read both “King’s Row” and the sequel, “Parris Mitchell of King’s Row.” The sequel ties some things up. It’s been a long time, and I think I would like to reread them as I have grown to appreciate the film and some of its subleties even more.
    I like Ann Sheridan in her role as Randy as it is such a refreshing departure from the Oomph-type, wisecracking roles. I believe she was also filming “The Man Who Came to Dinner” at the same time, and was excellent in both films.
    I look forward to your comments when Warren Williams Day approaches!

    • Hi Karen, thanks for your addition here!

      I’ve got a used copy of Kings Row on order, though my reading is always so backed up I have no idea when I’ll actually get to it!

      I’m pretty sure you’re right about this being the one she was doing at the same time as “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” Seem to recall reading about her flying from one set to the other and having to act out the very different parts sometimes during the same day!

      Oomph or no oomph, I’m always a fan of Ann Sheridan. One of those Golden Age personalities who can make a bad movie better just by turning up.

      Oh, I’m definitely excited for Warren William day on August 30. I’m sure I’ll have a bit more than usual for that day!

  2. Great article, Cliff. I agree, someone needs to come in and remake King’s Row like with Mildren Pierce. I’m definitely adding this book to my reading list!

  3. Rod Croft says:

    I found your article on “Kings Row” extremely interesting and agree that it “is good clean fun for even a ten year old”, as I was about that age when I first saw the film at a revival screening, many years ago.
    What left a lasting impression upon me, as a child, was Dr Gordon’s inhumane treatment of Drake . I was not aware of the sexual aspects of the story until, at a more mature age, I read Bellamann’s novel, and was able to re-visit the film itself.
    I admire the film makers in the days of the Production Code, as they were forced and, ( in most instances), were able, to present a film on at least two levels – one, suitable for all audiences; and one, that mature adults could appreciate.

    • Thanks so much @8fe0abdf57df174f7c5f89ac1b737fea:disqus – you make a great point that I absolutely agree with about how films made under the code can often relate to us from different levels. This sometimes provides unexpected rewards when we revisit a title years after having previously viewed it.

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  1. [...] theater paradise of the ’70s. Dennis Nyback’s Rose Bud Movie Palace was showing King’s Row the day I got off the train, in ironic tribute to some presidential candidate. My first night in [...]

  2. […] theater paradise of the ’70s. Dennis Nyback’s Rose Bud Movie Palace was showing King’s Row the day I got off the train, in ironic tribute to some presidential candidate. My first night in […]

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