Kings Row is apparently a good place to live. The billboard in town says as much. It’s the goings-on in the community that tells a different story — providing a conflicting more subversive view of small-town America.
The story starts out with 5 children. It feels like we hardly get to know them before they are already grown. For some, it feels like we hardly get to know them, period. Robert Cummings is Parris, a fresh-faced polite young man who still exudes a naive innocence and he manages it at 31 years of age. He certainly doesn’t look it.
Those qualities are precisely what is called for in Kings Row, a film directed by Sam Wood (The Devil and Miss Jones) that feels like an enigma — a sprawling coming-of-age drama that dares to show the dark underbelly of society in a very patriotic time.
Despite being hampered by the Hays Codes and its gatekeeper Joseph Breen, Casey Robinson’s script is still a fairly adequate adaption. It comes off surprisingly frank for a mainstream success during the war years even if it can’t quite cover all the vast territory the book undoubtedly expounded upon. But it was a notable forerunner of such pictures as Peyton Place (1957) or even Blue Velvet (1986) years later. It does not shy away from cancer, death, suicide, psychological duress, and all sorts of malice.
Cummings is joined by Ronald Reagan playing his best buddy Drake McHugh, an affable straight shooter with that winning Reagan charisma. Reagan and Ann Sheridan prove to be a great delight with undeniable chemistry if not for the fact that they don’t actually share a scene until well into the picture. In normal circumstances, you would say they’d make a happy couple.
Meanwhile, Cassandra Towers (Betty Field) and Lousie Gordon (Nancy Coleman) seem at the fringes of the narrative if not all but forgotten. Cassandra was formerly Parrises sweetheart when they were kids. But her family is ostracized in town because her unseen mother has mental problems and her father (Claude Rains) pulls his daughter out of school. Parris doesn’t get to see her until years later when he’s under the doctor’s tutelage. He learns to admire the man but that doesn’t make the family dynamic any less disconcerting.
Likewise, before setting his sights on Randy Monaghan (Sheridan) from the other side of the railroad tracks, Drake had his eye on Louise but her parents, Dr. Gordon (Charles Coburn) and his wife (Judith Anderson), were vehemently against such a union. They believe Drake to be unscrupulous, fearing what others will say about his nighttime buggy rides.
Not to be outdone, Drake gets over his first love and moves on with his life. It’s one of the most satisfying parts of the picture. He seems genuinely content. Though he is miles away in Vienna, Parris is continuing his aspirations of becoming the first psychiatrist in his hometown.
But Kings Row remains a coiled spring of melodrama quickly catapulting from romance to drama back to passion then darkness and romance again. Drake’s life back home turns morosely tragic giving rise to the line that would define Reagan’s career, “Where’s the rest of me!”
James Wong Howes’ photography is A-grade as per usual. The shades of melodrama are his to dictate and he does it exquisitely suggesting tonalities with every composition. The well-remembered score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold has an undisputed majesty which seems to be echoed in some of John Williams most resplendent works from Superman to Star Wars.
There is so much that goes as unspoken subtext in the movie, simultaneously helping and hindering the final outcome. Easily forgotten are the troubling parent-daughter relationships with brokenness at the seams. Claude Rains appears in a very severe role as Dr. Towers who seems like a good man but in the same breath, he still has some lifelong demons he cannot contend with.
Charles Coburn is positively acerbic, channeling every bit of malevolence he can muster. It’s another small but markedly different role than his usual cantankerous or avuncular comics. The trifecta of supporting talent is rounded out by Judith Anderson who only has a couple scenes but they paint a picture of yet another strained mother-daughter dynamic. These issues provide an alternative unnerving layer to the drama but there are so many other subjects to be broached so these feel muddled.
Kings Row barrels towards a lightning fast conclusion that looks to resolve the film’s entire length in a matter of a few moments and that proves to be a heady proposition. An almost unnaturally joyous ending cannot quite tie up all the loose ends and the questions we may still have as outsiders trying to come to grips with this world. But there is one that does become evident and one thread of morality that shows itself.
Humanity was not made to live paralyzed by gossip, hearsay, and secrets that can never be completely rectified. Instead, what we can do is bring all that is in the darkness into the light and do our best to hold on dearly to our relationships.
Because strains of hypocrisy, sickness, and pernicious intent will look to undermine our happiness until the end of time. One of the keys is striving for a life that takes the hardship and comes out of it with a continued zeal for life. Battling all that is depressed and despondent with a spirit of pure integrity.
So while there’s still something unspeakably unsatisfying about Kings Row that’s not to take away from its positive outcomes. Just seeing a smile cross Ronald Reagan’s face once more almost feels like it’s enough. I still remember going to the Reagan Library and watching some clips from Kings Row, a film he likened to his best work. Now many years later I can finally say I’ve seen it for myself.