In the mid-1980’s, a rather underhanded rumor began to proliferate among the popular cultural mandarins in news media; that the 40th President of the United States, Ronald Wilson Reagan had never been much of an actor prior to entering the White House. Although the liberal biases were begrudgingly forced to accept Reagan’s presidency as both beloved and Teflon-coated, (how could they otherwise when Reagan, ever the master of his medium, was able to exploit TV itself to reach the American people like no other president before or since), the legacy of Reagan’s past life as an affable ‘star’ was insidiously distilled into a colossal and rather confounding joke; one for which his segue into politics had, arguably, rescued what little reputation was left to be had. ‘Cruddy actor’ was the term most commonly coined to explain away Reagan’s years as a Warner Bros. contract player; a moniker blanketing his entire career, though in fact, referencing only one movie, 1951’s infamous misfire, Bedtime for Bonzo; indeed, a horrendous effort for which perhaps no excuse or apology will suffice, except to say it must have at least ‘seemed’ like a good idea at the time.
Yet, it behooves us to reconsider most every iconic actor has made at least one bad movie. John Wayne made several, including The Conqueror (1956). Joan Crawford did Berserk (1967), and then, Trog (1970). Bette Davis had Beyond the Forest (1949) to live down. Yet, if the world could forgive these Hollywood alumni their artistic trespasses, why not the same leniency applied to Reagan’s celluloid legacy? Lest we forget, Reagan acquitted himself rather nicely of a cameo in Davis’ Dark Victory (1939) before embarking on a career to include such memorable outings as Knute Rockne: All American (1940), This is the Army (1943), The Hasty Heart (1949), Storm Warning (1951) and The Winning Team (1952). With the passage of time, the envy and self-serving attitude of the media in the eighties is even more transparent; attempts made to tear down Reagan’s movie-land legacy, their sole counterbalance to spite his unprecedented soaring popularity in the polls. Yet, to simply think of Reagan’s movie career in the shadow of a single misfire is ridiculous and, in fact, thoroughly misguided.
In the days before the proliferation of home video made it possible to unearth the antiquity of any actor’s career – and late night movies were the only way to ever hope to catch a glimpse of old-time Hollywood’s formidable back catalog – one could so easily be inclined to take such snap analyses at face value or, in my case, before the days of the internet, begin to probe the vast resources of yellowing film history text books at the public library in search of Reagan’s previous life. What I quickly discovered was a rather extensive back catalog of accomplishments. Surely, if Reagan had been as utterly atrocious as I had been led to believe, a mogul as savvy as Jack L. Warner would have terminated his contract long before 1950 and Reagan’s subsequent ventures into television (that lasted until 1965, when he officially retired to pursue a life in politics) would not have outlasted a decade. Ah, but then I discovered Sam Wood’s Kings Row (1942); Reagan cast as Drake McHugh, a dashing turn-of-the-century playboy whose life is almost destroyed by an unscrupulous doctor’s maliciousness. Luminously photographed by master class man and ‘A-list’ cinematographer, James Wong Howe and penned with an exceptionally concise emotional intensity by Casey Robinson – then, one of the studio’s hardest working and undeniably most brilliant screenwriters, Kings Row remains perhaps the exemplar of just how good Ronald Reagan could be, given the right material in a very prestigious part. The film is, of course, based on Henry Bellaman’s best-selling novel. Shortly after the book’s runaway success, Bellaman openly conceded he had modeled his ‘fictional’ characters on real people known to him in his own small Missouri enclave of Fulton – a confession effectively to ostracize the author from polite circles in that society shortly thereafter.
The book is about some very troubled lives; small town bigotry, mental disease, deviant sexual proclivities and first generation classicist biases. The novel reveals salacious moonlit affairs and some truly vial backstabbing; all of it seen primarily through the eyes of an innocent; Parris Mitchell (Robert Cummings). Orphaned but afforded the luxury to study abroad by a rich benefactress, Madame Von Eln (Maria Ouspenskaya), Parris leaves the seemingly idyllic, if provincial, town of Kings Row as an impressionable youth to pursue his dreams of becoming a great doctor, only to return home years later, disillusioned by how much the people he has known all his life have changed (or perhaps stayed the same is more to the point) since his memory of those bygone days. There are, to be sure, citizens of the realm still worth remembering; the kindly – but mysterious – Dr. Alexander Tower (Claude Rains), whose guardianship of Parris’ early career and training are wrecked by a dark family secret. And there is Parris’ enduring friendship with Drake McHugh; a highborn who loses his family fortunes through no fault of his own, eventually leading to an untimely and wholly unnecessary sacrifice. In the final act, Parris’ burgeoning romance with Elise Sandor (Kaaren Verne) is threatened by his experimental ‘cure’ for Drake’s deep depression; also, his belief that the tortured Louise Gordon (Nancy Coleman) can escape a complete mental implosion by exposing one of the town’s most wicked secrets.
Samuel Grosvener Wood is a sadly forgotten director today. His prolific career as a workhorse at MGM included such iconic films as the Marx Brothers’ riotous, A Night at The Opera (1935) and the poetically understated, Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), light-hearted melodramas like Ginger Rogers Oscar-winning, Kitty Foyle (1940), and, manly tear-jerkers, The Pride of the Yankees (1942) – to say nothing of his unsung contributions as an uncredited second unit director on Gone With The Wind (1939). By 1942, Wood had culled a lifetime of directorial experiences to benefit Kings Row: arguably his finest achievement. The film is an exquisite tapestry of interwoven lives imbued with a thread of kindheartedness for Bellaman’s motley brood. Indeed, in perusing Bellaman’s novel again, one is immediately struck by the lack of empathy for these characters; Wood bringing ‘compassion’ to the forefront, and a richly rewarding redemption in personal faith. The film would be nothing at all, but darkly tragic and depressingly gritty without this ever so slight veneer, wholly a concoction of Hollywood’s then fervent belief in achieving clarity via the proverbial ‘happy ending’. On celluloid, Kings Row remains darkly attractive, brooding and, at times, harrowing and bleak, and yet, the emancipating quality achieved by Wood for the film – particularly, in its ending – does not betray Bellaman’s carefully crafted ‘best-selling’ prose, in much the same way Selznick’s tampering with the finale to GWTW only serves to elevate and celebrate the triumph of the human spirit. It all works like magic – practically, and with the seamless result of some very articulate behind-the-scenes planning, superbly executed in front of the camera to take full advantage of a studio system at its zenith – all pistons firing in unison.
The story essentially focuses on five lifelong friendships begun in childhood; optimist Parris Mitchell (Scotty Becket as a boy, Robert Cummings as a man), free spirit Drake McHugh (Douglas Scott/Ronald Reagan), tomboyish Randy Monaghan (Ann Todd/Ann Sheridan), defiant Louise Gordon (Joan Duvalle/Nancy Coleman) and mentally unstable, Cassandra Tower (Mary Thomas/Betty Field): all of whom reside within the parameters of this outwardly idyllic mid-western turn-of-the-century hamlet. Parris is a sensitive child, pure of heart and utterly devoted to his aging grandmother, Madame Marie Von Eln (Maria Ouspenskaya). The first third of the picture is devoted to one of the most tender and understated coming-of-age representations in screen history, as young Parris acquires the cold harsh facts of life and unravels a mystery behind small town bigotry that has caused a once prominent physician, Dr. Alexander Tower (Claude Rains) to live in virtual isolation. Tower’s wife (Eden Gray) suffers from dementia and has been made a virtual prisoner, confined to the upstairs quarters of the family home. Tower’s daughter, Cassie is Parris’ best friend in childhood and vice versa. At the start of the movie, Parris’ grandmother, Marie confides in him an invaluable life lesson;“You have to judge people by how you find them…and not by what others tell you they are.”
The years pass. Mrs. Tower dies. Owing to his discovery of the first signs of dementia in Cassandra, Dr. Tower confines her to the family’s home in her teenage years. At the same time, he befriends Parris as the son he would have wished to call his own and encourages his studies in medicine. Marie has set aside necessary funds for Parris to pursue medical training at a prestigious college in Vienna. At the same time, Dr. Henry Gordon (Charles Coburn) has diagnosed Marie with terminal cancer. Marie elects to keep her condition a secret from Parris, certain if he discovers the truth he will surely sacrifice his plans to remain behind and look after her. Marie places the entirety of her estate in trust with the town’s attorney, Colonel Skeffington (Harry Davenport); a benevolent trustee. She had hoped to live long enough for Parris to leave Kings Row, but dies a short while later, leaving Parris heartbroken.
But Parris is vehemently discouraged by Dr. Tower to ever see Cassandra again. Nevertheless, he pursues a romantic liaison; using Drake’s fashionable home on Union Square as their secret rendezvous; this pair of sports living it up while Drake double-dates the Ross sisters, Jinny (Mary Scott) and Poppy (Julia Warren), but also makes more serious intensions known to Louise. Regrettably, Henry Gordon, and his prudish wife, Harriet (Judith Anderson) find nothing amusing about their daughter’s infatuation with Drake. After Drake proposes to Louise in front of her parents, she foolishly sides with her overbearing father’s wishes instead, forcing Drake to forsake her. As Parris packs his bags to depart Kings Row, Cassandra bursts into Drake’s home; wild-eyed and fearful. Her cryptic plea leaves Parris perplexed. He decides to follow her, arriving in time to see Dr. Tower turn in for the night. The next day, Drake learns Dr. Tower poisoned Cassandra before taking his own life with a single bullet. The homicide/suicide is a scandal that rocks the community, thoroughly investigated by Col. Skeffington and Dr. Gordon. Believing Tower might have murdered Cassie because of the affair with Parris, Drake assumes full responsibility – thus, shifting whatever misperceived shame and/or blame might arise to his already notorious reputation. Gordon is all too willing to believe this story and more certain than ever Louise will have no part of Drake. Drake’s head, however, is quickly turned by a chance meeting with childhood friend, Randy Monaghan at the depot the next day as he prepares to see Parris off to Europe.
Time once again passes, although it hardly heals old wounds. Drake and Randy’s playful friendship blossoms into a legitimate romance; tested after Drake learns Lucius Curly (whom we never see), the president of the bank where his inheritance is being held in trust, has absconded with his entire fortune as well as a few others belonging to several prominent clients in town. Left penniless, Drake quickly discovers Randy’s love for him has not diminished. But Randy is fearful of what her father (Ernest Cossart) and elder brother, Tod (Pat Moriarity) will think of her fooling around with a man who is not of the working class. Her fears prove unfounded when Drake barges in on the family at dinner and declares his intentions to marry Randy. He also rather sheepishly asks Randy’s ‘Pa’ to help him find a job in the rail stockyards where he and Parris used to play as boys. Alas, as fate would have it, this will be a deciding factor in Drake’s fate. For upon securing a position in the rail yards, and making good, much to Randy’s delight, Drake is befallen by a tragic accident that nearly crushes him beneath a moving freight car. Calling for the doctor during one of Col. Skeffington’s parties, Henry Gordon rushes to the scene with his kit. He performs a double amputation without the benefit of chloroform; a similar procedure he conducted many years earlier on the father of young Willie Macintosh (Henry Blair) that resulted in the elder Macintosh dying from shock and blood poisoning. Drake, however, survives his operation. But his state of mind, the very essence of what was once a carefree bon vivant has been irreversibly shattered. Drake falls into a crippling depression. Tod and Pa Monaghan side with Randy. She marries Drake, not out of pity, but love and moves him into an upstairs bedroom inside their cramped shanty flat.
Tod carries a guilty secret; he suspects Dr. Gordon performed unnecessary surgery on Drake out of spite. In the meantime, Louise – who unbeknownst to anyone witnessed the savage operation – confronts her father, admonishing him as a sadist and threatening to spill his wicked secret to the entire town. Louise is silenced by Gordon with the threat of institutionalization, repeatedly drugged and kept a prisoner in her own home. Her mind truly begins to implode into a semi-lucid state. Having written Parris of Drake’s accident, Randy is bequeathed the generous remainder of monies Parris accrued from the sale of his late grandmother’s estate in the hopes it will provide them both with a fresh start and give Drake a renewed sense of purpose. Parris – now a full-fledged psychiatrist, is offered a position with one of Vienna’s leading hospitals for the treatment of the delusions of the mind. Instead, he elects to take a leave of absence in Kings Row.
Mistaking Parris’ arrival as a homecoming, Col. Skeffington sets up a general practitioner’s office for him opposite his own, only to discover Parris has every intention of returning to Vienna once he believes he has helped Drake regain his confidence. Parris also learns in the interim, Dr. Gordon has died of a heart attack. A letter arrives, sent by Harriet Gordon who pleads with Parris to attend her daughter. But Harriet is not in search of a solution to her ailing child’s precarious mental state; rather, seeking a professional opinion to help institutionalize her and thus keep her late husband’s sadistic surgeries quietly concealed from the rest of Kings Row. Conflicted about what ought to be done, Parris makes a pilgrimage to his grandmother’s home. He meets the new tenants, Mr. Sandor (Erwin Kalser) and his nineteen year old daughter, Elise (Kaaren Verne). She rekindles memories of the late Cassandra within him and proves a very astute confidante, steadily falling more in love with Parris every day. When Elise suggests to Parris he is perhaps too close to Drake to accurately assess what needs to be done, Parris elects to apply a risky remedy that will either stir his best friend from his depression or forever wreck his already fragile emotional psyche.
The penultimate confessional is first pitched to Randy. But even she believes that to admit Dr. Gordon may have amputated Drake’s legs needlessly, will destroy her husband’s resolve. Parris disagrees and thus begins the treatment, Parris declaring “You’re not my friend. I’m just your doctor. My grandmother used to say, some people grow up and some just grow older. I guess it’s time we found out about us – you and me. Whether I’m a doctor. Whether you’re a man. There’s a piece of poetry – Invictus…out of the night that covers me, black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul. In the fell clutch of circumstance, I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance, my head is bloody, but unbowed.” Parris pauses a moment to let his words sink in before adding to his own belief that Drake’s double amputation was performed out of spite by Gordon rather than necessity; the wicked doctor’s last chance to destroy Louise’s love for the man he always considered half as good for her, now ‘literally’ made half by having his legs severed.
This climax is photographed with exemplary restraint by Wood and given immaculate stature from both Cummings and Reagan; the latter’s reaction translating in an instant from abject bewilderment, anger to fear, then finally, liberation with a sudden dissolution into laughter, renewing Drake’s boastful swagger. It is Reagan’s finest moment in the picture – if not, in fact, his entire career and punctuated by an ebullient groundswell in Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s magnificent underscore. Recognizing his cure has taken hold, Parris races from the room, down the stairs and into the stark and liberating lightness of dawn; his exuberance exquisitely realized in the movie’s penultimate moment; a long shot, as Parris cautiously approaches his grandmother’s home with Elise steadily advancing across the open fields towards him. A lesser director might have cut to an extreme close-up, the lover’s embrace in a fantasia of passionate kisses. But Wood wisely lets this last shot in the picture linger to reflect the promise and daydream of what Elise and Parris’ lives together might hold from this moment forward; punctuated by a clash of Korngold’s cymbals and the profoundly moving choral arrangement.
Kings Row is a supremely satisfying melodrama, yet a somewhat strained epitaph to the button-down Victorian era, herein roiling in the counterfeit projections of an author clearly commenting on the social afflictions and moral turpitude of his present age. Viewing the movie’s sanitized reconstitution of Bellaman’s prose, it is all too easy to forget the novel was teeming with hetero and homo-erotic taboos. Indeed, in preparing the picture, Jack Warner was sincerely cautioned by Hollywood’s governing censorship mandarin, Joseph Breen, not to press on. In reality, the picture is made with more than a modicum of good taste, the lily gilded perhaps just a tad too heavily only at the start of the picture, as a carriage and horses pass by a large placard advertising Kings Row as “a good clean town to live in and raise your children.” However, almost immediately what follows in the Casey Robinson screenplay begins to prove otherwise; even as a very young and decidedly innocent Parris and Cassandra indulge a coeducational skinny dip in a nearby pond.
At some point, producer, Hal B. Wallis entertained the notion of casting Warner contract player, Ida Lupino as Cassandra; a role much coveted by a diverse cross section of actresses, including Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Gene Tierney and Pricilla Lane. Wallis had also desired 2oth Century-Fox’s resident heartthrob, Tyrone Power for the part of Parris. He received a flat out refusal from mogul, Darryl F. Zanuck, who likely recalled another unhappy loan out of his number one box office draw to MGM a few years earlier for Marie Antoinette (1938) and was unwilling to repeat the same mistake twice. Instead, Robert Cummings was borrowed from Universal. Likewise, Reagan’s involvement on the picture came about only after Rex Downing and John Garfield both turned the part down. Just as production was about to get underway, actor James Stephenson – originally cast as Dr. Tower – suddenly died; replaced at the last minute by the inimitable Claude Rains – an impeccable second choice.
Bellaman's novel came with its own controversies and drawbacks; not the least of which was its incestuous relationship between Dr. Tower and Cassandra. Indeed, the original screenwriter, Wolfgang Reinhardt balked at the assignment, while Casey Robinson – the man who ultimately committed himself to the project - fervently believed it was a fruitless endeavor under the stringency of Hollywood's self-censoring code of ethics. Joseph Breen, then head of the Code, passed along his own strenuous objections to Wallis, beginning with “to attempt to translate such a story to the screen…is, in our judgment, a very questionable undertaking from the standpoint of the good and welfare of this industry. No matter how well done, it will bring condemnation from descent people everywhere because it stems from so questionable a novel to begin with.” Bellaman’s novel, with its frequent illicit rendezvous, questionably loose sexual mores, haunting and lurid depictions of family incest, mental disease and barbarous sadism, to say nothing of Parris ‘mercy killing’ of his beloved grandmother caught in the death throes of painful bone cancer, were heavily rewritten to satisfy and, in fact, rather miraculously override Breen’s concerns. Primarily to placate Breen, Wallis arranged a meeting between him and Robinson and associate producer, David Lewis, whereupon Wallis made his intensions clear: the purpose of the movie would be to “illustrate how a doctor could relieve the internal destruction of a stricken community.”
In reviewing Kings Row today, it is remarkable just how much of Bellaman’s provocative prose remain intact. Yes, we lose the incest angle; the affair between Parris and Cassandra now perceived by Dr. Tower as an entrapment that will destroy Parris’ chances of becoming a great physician just as Tower’s own career was ruined by his constant devotion to a mentally unstable wife. Thus, Tower’s poisoning of Cassandra, as well as the taking of his own life, appear to be driven by a perverse if queerly noble altruism. It also serves as a plot device to set Parris upon his truer destiny – essentially to become the great doctor he was born to be. Even more remarkable, there is very little dilution of the unmarried sexual liaisons in the film; Drake with the Ross sisters, or with Louise, and later, with Randy who tells Drake openly before his ‘accident’ she will enjoy his company but never become his wife; the inference blunted, but still frank – that whoring around on the sly is preferred. Also, we are privy to Cassandra’s troubled seduction of Parris during a violent thunderstorm while Dr. Tower is away; the mood palpably lascivious as the two fatal lovers throw caution to the wind – literally – and lock in each other’s arms; the lights going out, their clinch back lit and silhouetted against a window pelted by rain and the constant beating of tree branches fiercely shaken by flashes of lightning and thunder.
These more salacious aspects from the novel are intricately implied in the movie – so as not to give undue offence – but sandwiched between some of the most eloquent screenwriting Casey Robinson ever committed to film. Good writing can go an awfully long way to suggest bad thoughts and deeds without ever succumbing to the allure of exploiting them for their smut value. And Robinson does more than merely parallel the novel’s sensual content through clever prose. He enhances both the book’s premise and its content in cinematic terms while never luxuriating in either its titillation or its froth. In the end, Kings Row remains more than a precursor to another tawdry novel looming on the horizon, Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place (not nearly as successfully adapted into a movie). Robinson’s writing, Wood’s direction, and the performances throughout all conspire to will a mammoth achievement that is both hot-blooded and menacingly perverse. And yet, Robinson extols the virtues as well as the vices of this Victorian mid-western town; perhaps affording both it and the movie’s narrative the greatest exaltation in a scene where Colonel Skeffington quietly observes Marie Von Eln’s labored, ascending the stairs and being put to bed by her ever-faithful housemaid, Anna (Ilka Grüning). “When she passes…” Skeffington astutely surmises, “…how much passes with her…a whole way of life; of gentleness and honor and dignity. These things are going and may never come back to this world.” – and so, even more regrettably (and prolifically) they have.
I am sincerely going to champion the Warner Archive (WAC) to get behind a Blu-ray release of Kings Row – one of their crown jewels in forties screen entertainment (with a nod to My Reputation, The Letter, Humoresque, and, Mildred Pierce). The present DVD release via Warner Home Video proper is a very mixed bag. The B&W image is mostly strong in its contrast, and, relatively clean throughout, but occasionally suffers from some heavy age-related artifacts that, at times, distract. A good deal of the image seems more softly focused than it ought and film grain waffles between being practically nonexistent to succumbing to an artificially digitized look. Again, on smaller monitors these effects are barely noticeable. We must also contend with ever so slight hints of gate weave, jerking the image from side to side. Again, it never gets to egregious levels, but it is present and accounted for. In this age of digital fixes, it ought not to have been an issue. Nevertheless, the performances herein shine through the occasionally sloppy mastering efforts. The audio fares better – mono as originally recorded, clean and well placed with solid clarity and only a modicum of intermittent hiss heard only during the briefest quiescent moments. Extras are the biggest disappointment; two vintage short subjects and a badly worn trailer. At the bare minimum, this one rates an audio commentary. Bottom line: Kings Row is an undermined gem in the Warner canon. Warner’s present policy regarding classics to hi-def seems to negate the possibility this deep catalog classy classic will ever see the light of day via their mainstream video apparatus. But WAC might find a place for it. If we can get careworn ole chestnuts like 1943’s Thank Your Lucky Starson Blu-ray, there is reason to hope more worthy classics like Kings Row cannot be far behind! Good solid entertainment like Kings Row is exceptionally hard to come by. Enjoy it now in its present ‘imperfect’ condition and pray for better things in the future.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)