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Kings Row (1942), Sam Wood's epic tale of life in a small turn-of-the-century town, begins on a deceptively optimistic note: a billboard that promotes the Midwestern hamlet as "A Good Town. A Good Clean Town. A Good Town to Live In and a Good Place to Raise Your Children." Kings Row is a eulogy for the well-mannered lifestyle of the Victorian Era. "A whole way of life. A way of gentleness and honor and dignity," one character laments, "These things are going... and they may never come back to this world."
But the film gradually reveals that all is not idyllic in this sleepy American town. Beneath the film's surface of quaint nostalgia and small-town melodrama appear signs of widespread malaise, revealing the community of Kings Row as a melting pot of gossip, jealousy, mental illness, possessive parents, class-rivalry, murder and suicide.
Robert Cummings stars as Parris Mitchell, an ambitious youth who begins the study of psychiatry under mentor Dr. Alexander Tower (Claude Rains). Parris's pal, Drake McHugh (Ronald Reagan), is a small-town dandy who chooses to live off his trust fund while romancing several local girls, including Louise Gordon (Nancy Coleman), daughter of the town physician (Charles Coburn). The propriety of Louise and Drake's relationship is carefully guarded by Mrs. Gordon (Dame Judith Anderson) who seeks to preserve her daughter's reputation, even at the expense of her happiness.
Best remembered as the grim Mrs. Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940), Anderson was perfectly cast as Mrs. Gordon. With her high starched collars and elaborate lace finery, she comes to represent the Victorian mindset at its most repressive and inflexible.
Eventually the Gordons' bottled-up resentment toward Drake is released when the young lothario is injured in a train accident and the kindly small-town doctor spitefully amputates both of the boy's legs. This tragic plot twist provided Reagan with the greatest acting opportunity of his career, and the lines he uttered upon discovering his mutilated body later became the title of his autobiography, "Where's the rest of me?"
It was initially believed that Henry Bellamann's novel could never be passed by the censors. Joseph Breen, of the Hays Office, wrote the producers that "To attempt to translate such a story to the screen, even though it be re-written to conform to the provisions of the Production Code is, in our judgment, a very questionable undertaking from the standpoint of the good and welfare of this industry." Thanks to the resourcefulness of screenwriter Casey Robinson (who judiciously removed the novel's suggestions of incest, homosexuality and euthanasia), Kings Row was finally able to reach the screen without sacrificing the integrity of its troubling message, earning Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and James Wong Howe's "Midwestern Gothic" cinematography.
Director: Sam Wood
Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Screenplay: Casey Robinson
Based on the novel by Henry Bellamann
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Production Design: William Cameron Menzies
Music: Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Cast: Ann Sheridan (Randy Monoghan), Robert Cummings (Parris Mitchell), Ronald Reagan (Drake McHugh), Claude Rains (Dr. Alexander Tower), Betty Field (Cassandra Tower), Charles Coburn (Dr. Henry Gordon), Judith Anderson (Mrs. Harriet Gordon), Nancy Coleman (Louise Gordon).
BW-127m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Bret Wood