Kings Row (1942)

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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.

3.5/5 Stars

Woman on the Run (1950)

Woman_on_the_RunB-films have little time to waste and this one jumps right into the action. In a matter of moments, a man is shot, another man has killed him and a third witness gets away into the night. Although Frank Johnson (Ross Elliot) is rounded up by the police to be a witness he gives them the slip for an undisclosed reason and they must spend every waking hour trying to track him down.

What’s important to this particular story is that he left behind his wife Eleanor (Ann Sheridan) to be questioned by the police and they are hurting for a break. They need answers so they slam her with all sorts of inquiries.

She’s not all that cooperative though and the reasons are rather hard to discern. Is it belligerence, fear, or sheer apathy to the entire ordeal? Because you see, Ms. Johnson for some time had been drifting apart from her husband an accomplished painter who nevertheless put little stock in his own skill.

And that’s where the film’s two themes begin to intertwine.  The police surmise that the runaway man is fleeing a killer, but for his wife the implications are twofold. In her eyes, he’s just as likely running away from a marriage he couldn’t cope with. That is her dilemma which she masks both pointedly and inadvertently with various diversions to keep the police reeling.  After all, she’s not particularly keen on helping them or sticking around for that matter.

Whereas in earlier roles Ann Sheridan was always slightly overshadowed by other performers, most notable of those being the always electrifying James Cagney, here she gives perhaps her finest performance and she’s at the center of it all. That’s not to say she isn’t surrounded by a stellar supporting gallery.

Dennis O’Keefe, remembered as a gritty leading man in pictures such as T-Men and Raw Deal, showcases a new playful side as a journalist trying to nab a scoop on the runaway witness and at the same time making eyes at the man’s bride. But he manages to give the part some life that goes far beyond a one-dimensional characterization. There’s more to him as we soon find out.

The other important player turns out to be Inspector Ferris (Robert Keith) who as the long arm of the law is looking to find his man before his adversary does. But he’s not about to take flack from anyone and if ever there was a cop who was no-nonsense he fits the bill. His croaking voice always interrogating his subjects in a continuous effort to get his job done. Too bad he wasn’t quite counting on Ann Sheridan.

A relentless climax aboard a roller coaster at a local amusement park precedes Hitchcock’s Strangers on the Train when it comes to making carnival games such a deadly ordeal. And there are hints along the way ratcheting up the tension whether it’s a familiar cigarette lighter, a striking coincidence, or a passing remark that initially goes unnoticed.

The script strikes a strange path at times given to clunky expositional dialogue that feels as trite as can be and then in the very next sequence there’s a bit of patter or a dry quip that makes things all the more interesting. Also, a pair of small supporting roles for Victor Sen Yung and Reiko Sato add another layer of authenticity to the characterization only surpassed by the on location shooting that catches the essence of mid-century San Francisco.

In the end, Woman on the Run turns out to be one of those wonderful treasures that has rather unfairly gotten buried in the dusty attic of film noir. But far from being an antique, it plays fairly well today with an underlying tension running through Sheridan’s performance as she not only reflects on her own dwindling marriage but stresses to discover her husband’s whereabouts in fear of his very well-being.

It’s surprisingly entertaining and you get the sense that if Norman Forster (a fairly prolific actor, director, and screenwriter) were someone other than Norman Forster, this picture might have been scrutinized more closely. As it is, it’s just waiting for more people to dredge it up. How did I get here? If you’re a sucker for film noir and Ann Sheridan there’s no better place to go than Woman on the Run.

3.5/5 Stars

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

angelswithdirtyfaces-theatricalposterWhaddya hear, whaddya say ~ Jimmy Cagney as Rocky Sullivan

If he hadn’t been on the stage and screen, it’s easy to get the sense that James Cagney, born and bred on the streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan could have easily been a gangster. And it’s true that in films like Public Enemy and White Heat he embodied gangsters for ensuing generations solidifying his own legend.

Angles with Dirty Faces features another stellar performance as Rocky Sullivan, but what makes it truly unique are the intertwining worlds of faith and crime that meet and ultimately provide the major conflict in the narrative. It’s at these crosswords — the moral fabric of the film — where things get fascinating and to understand those things it’s necessary to see where Angel with Dirty Faces opens.

Two young hoodlums get caught in the act of snitching from a train car and in the ensuing chase one gets nabbed by the cops while the other slips away from their clutches to live another day. This succinct scene is a fitting reflection of all that happens thereafter. The one fellow will grow up to be the notorious gangster extraordinaire Rocky Sullivan who will be at odds with the authorities from his first moments in juvie to his final days.

Meanwhile, Jerry (Pat O’Brien) becomes a local priest who makes it his life’s work to reform the young men in the community who are more than likely destined for the life of Rocky and his fellow gangsters. Through a certain amount of kindness and quiet strength, he attempts to mold the boys through constructive activities like basketball, choir, and other extracurriculars. However, the bad boys (the real life Dead End Kids ensemble, less actors than personified hellraisers) are not quite swayed by his regimen, more content rough-housing, causing mayhem, and idolizing their rebellious hero the great Rocky Sullivan.

When he finally gets out of his stint in prison, Rocky has some choice words for his crooked lawyer (Humphrey Bogart) who hands over a load of cash to save his neck although he’s not looking to be swindled. But although he continues to have his hand in the local corruption and crime scenes, Rocky still maintains his ties with his old friend while renting a room from the girl he used to rib, the now stunning Laury Martin (Ann Sheridan). Here the core relationship between Rocky and Jerry becomes paramount as Jerry vows to tackle corruption in the city with the help of a local paper, even if his old buddy gets in the way.

So Jerry begins his full-fledged crusade against vice because he sees it as a threat to his parish — made up of the impressionable boys in his stead. But just as crucial is the boy’s idol worship, namely of Rocky. This is Jerry’s final goal to bring their idol tumbling down and it doesn’t involve simply destroying the aura surrounding a gangster — it involves two old friends making one final promise. The crime syndicate is thrown into an uproar as Rocky is wanted for murder, cornered, and finally apprehended.  Oh how the mighty have fallen, although he’s not about to go yellow because that’s the only thing he has left–his own bullish sense of moxie.

Still, Jerry asks him to imbue a different kind of courage (Not the courage or heroics of bravado but the kind that you, me, and God know about). And as the electric chair looms in front of Rocky as an arbiter of justice, you could easily make the claim that this is his modern-day cross with him as the martyr. But this gets into the ultimate dilemma where everything begins to break down. Either Rocky committed his final act out of undying affection for an old friend (and not remorse) or more feebly still he was not repentant at all but was, on the contrary, legitimately groveling in the face of death.

The first time seeing this film I mistakenly mistook Rocky’s actions as heroic in the end because as our protagonist that’s what we like to project onto him but it simply does not line up. The way he’s so belligerent before breaking down as he gets ready to meet his maker. The way the priest looks on with tears in his eyes, newspaper men too awestruck to jot down a single note. I mistook Cagney’s astonishing acting for Rocky’s own showmanship. However, the more astounding conclusion is that Rocky is hardly high and mighty in the end. His rough veneer is equally easy to shatter as his being is brought to the ultimate low, death.

It reflects the moral ambiguity of man that these angels with dirty faces are not in the singular sense but the sum of man in his plurality. We are all prone to evil just as we are all capable of good. But we can hardly save ourselves just as we are not always wholly good or wholly evil. The best we can do is make the way better for other people. If this film is any indication sometimes it’s extremely difficult to parse through the differences between the altruism versus the evil versus just plain cowardice.

Films about friends on diverging paths have continued to exist from Cry of the City to Mystic River but Angels with Dirty Faces is arguably one of the most compelling. Once again, Cagney steals the film with his usual no holds barred approach.  It electrifies the screen like very few others, making Angels with Dirty Faces an undisputed gangster classic and one of his very best.

Furthermore, the often discounted Michael Curtiz shows his versatility with the foremost of Warner Bros. winning craftsmen including directors William A. Wellman and Raoul Walsh. Notably, each man paired with Cagney with great results, because, after all, he is without question the king of the gangsters.

4.5/5 Stars

They Drive By Night (1940)

They_Drive_by_NightThis is a surprisingly nice little film-noir that follows two brothers (George Raft and Humphrey Bogart) who make their meager living transporting loads of produce by night on a big rig. Despite the seemingly mundane topic, They Drive by Night has some juicy bits of drama as the brothers struggle to survive and make their way in life. Along the way there is disaster and treachery. Ida Lupino is absolutely psychotic in her role opposite George Raft and Alan Hale. Then Ann Sheridan plays the nice girl role. I wouldn’t say that this is a great Noir but it certainly is far from boring.

Raoul Walsh proves just how adept he was at making entertaining melodramas and Humphrey Bogart is yet one step closer to his breakthrough with The Maltese Falcon (1941).  The truck drivers can always be found at the local diner getting their burger, talking up the waitress and maybe playing some pinball. When there time is up, it’s a long night ahead hauling fruit crates. The film is a slice of Americana reflecting a bygone era, at least for most of us.

3.5/5 Stars