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

The Stratton Story (1949)

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If you’ve never heard of the baseball player Monty Stratton, you’re not alone. In my days of wanting to be a ballplayer myself, I knew quite a bit about baseball Hall of Famers going back to the genesis of the game. But Stratton was not a Hall of Famer like Honus Wagner or Ty Cobb, George Sisler or Rogers Hornsby or even the members of the Bronx Bombers including Lou Gehrig and Joe Dimaggio. Though famed Yankee Bill Dickey does makes a cameo in this one.

Stratton was not in the same category as these men and there is a reason for that. Tragedy struck his life. Interestingly enough, Hollywood looked to make a movie out of it calling on the talents of Jimmy Stewart as well as director Sam Wood. It’s Wood’s association with the picture which causes me to surmise it was meant to be another Pride of the Yankees (1942) with Wood taking up duties again and one All-American in Gary Cooper being traded out for another in Jimmy Stewart.

No disrespect to Monty Stratton or anything that he went through but at face value, his story is hardly that of Lou Gehrig. Still, maybe that’s the point and we can learn something from that. Generalizing and putting all baseball biopics together is in error and in this case, it feels callous. This is a film that makes Monty Stratton’s story into his own and it’s at times winsome in its simplicity and still equally moving.

Watching this picture anchored by James Stewart in another everyman role is as charming as ever. Equally enjoyable is Frank Morgan or even the budding romance with June Allyson coming to fruition within its frames. His brusque mother (Agnes Moorehead) who only knows the tough life of a farm woman even has her affectionate side; you simply need to get to know her. Also, having an old pro like Jimmy Dyke playing the big league manager is yet another touch of authenticity that might be easily overlooked in the modern day.

Through and through, this is Stewart and Allyson’s film as we watch Monty make a name for himself going from being an indefatigable farm boy with a cannon to the minors in Omaha, and finally to the big leagues where dreams are made. Equally important to his career trajectory is the parallel story of how a potentially disastrous first date turned into a lifelong romance with his girl Ethel.

She sees him through a great deal both the highs like the birth of their son to the lows, a fatal event that will change Stratton’s life forever. It’s in this portion where we could criticize the film for stalling but it does rightfully so as Stewart must make a decision whether or not he’s going to fight back to regain his life.

Eventually, he does, going further than any naysayer might give him credit for. Then again, you get the sense that Monty Stratton was the kind of ballplayer that most folks found it in their heart to cheer for. Part of that appeal is Stewart’s typical geniality certainly but the man he was portraying had to be fairly special too.

The spectator in the movie theater might remark Gable and Turner are better kissers on screen but I’d truthfully rather watch Stewart and Allyson. They’re more my type of people.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I would have liked Monty Stratton too. He seemed like a humble fellow who lived his life with everyday dignity. They don’t always make them like that now. The same could be said for this movie.

The film closes with the prototypical “The End” credit but that really was not quite right. Because Monty Stratton was still pitching and had a long life ahead of him just waiting to be lived. That’s the power of this story. It recognizes a man who did not let circumstance deter him from continuing to live a full life.

Stratton died on September 29th, 1982 and within that time he made a second comeback to baseball, moved back to Texas to start a farm team, and was deeply invested in his community until his final days both in promoting Little League and attending his local church.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

b9d42-prideofthe3Before superheroes headlined any Marvel or DC blockbuster, it was real life heroes that audiences wanted to see. No pastime was quite as popular as baseball and in that era Lou Gehrig was one of the titans along with Babe Ruth and the rest of the Yankees. You see this film is less of a biography (It certainly is not completely accurate), and more of a visual eulogy to a contemporary hero. The prologue explains as much:

“This is the story of a hero of the peaceful paths of everyday life. It is the story of a gentle young man who, in the full flower of his great fame, was a lesson in simplicity and modesty to the youth of America. He faced death with that same valor and fortitude that has been displayed by thousands of young Americans on the far-flung fields of battle. He left behind him a memory of courage and devotion that will ever be an inspiration to all men. This is the story of Lou Gehrig” ~ Damon Runyon

As a modern viewer, I am just happy I can recognize baseball names like Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, Bill Dickey, Tony Lazzeri, and of course, Babe Ruth. When audiences went out to see this film starring Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright back in the day, they were practically living it. World War II had already heated up and one of the great American heroes had died the previous year. Lou Gehrig was all those things in the prologue and more making it hard to get it all into a film.
Like any other superhero, he has an origin story beginning with his childhood in Manhattan, living with his poor German immigrant parents. His domineering mother convinces him to go to Columbia for engineering, but he soon ends up in the big leagues because of his tremendous skill with a bat. He is often a shy and even awkward young man, but he loves his parents and he can sure play ball. It’s that last point that gains him a lot of respect after a less than graceful start as “Tanglefoot.”
He soon becomes a lethal one-two punch with Babe Ruth, after initially being dismissed as the rookie and a boob. Journalist Sam Blake (Walter Brennan) has a major influence in Gehrig’s life and never loses faith in the young man’s abilities. He also does Lou a favor by introducing him to an attractive young Chicago socialite named Eleanor Twitchell (Teresa Wright), who finds Gehrig quite ridiculous at first. Soon, however, a budding romance begins with the often reserved Gehrig falling for the vibrant and vivacious young Eleanor. He gets engaged, married, hits two home runs for a little boy, and wins a world series. A lot of his other exploits are laid out for us too and the trophies and accolades start stacking up. All of this happens during the happy times when Gehrig is on top of the world, first with Murder Row and then The Bronx Bombers.
But all fairy tales must come to an end, and Lou Gehrig’s is especially tragic. He plays an, at that time, unheard of 2,000 consecutive games, but he also falls into a rapid decline. Eleanor looks on helplessly as her husband begins to deteriorate in front of her eyes, and the fans know something is not right. Gehrig gets examined and learns he has ALS, but very little is known about it. Much less can be done to treat it.
His final appearance at Yankee Stadium came on Lou Gehrig Day in 1939. That day he gave his “Luckiest Man Speech,” and he walked off the field for good. Gary Cooper delivers the partially revised dialogue with a calm and clear delivery that seems to truly epitomize Gehrig. Although he is playing the man, it is almost as if he is giving a eulogy.
That’s a fitting ending because we do not need to see the suffering or the death. What we remember is the wonderfully full life he led. Perhaps this film had more cultural relevance back in 1942, but I would argue that it is still a stirring, heart-wrenching film. You have a small heart if you cannot find a place in it for this one.
Although he was not too good at baseball, in the other sequences Cooper seems like the perfect man to embody Gehrig. He is distinctly American, strong, quiet and he also has a pleasant charm with a comical streak in him. The look on his face when he realizes his weakness tears the heart. Teresa Wright had many fine performances early on in her career, but I will step out on a limb and say that this is probably the best one. She has so much spirit and at the same time, she is funny with a noticeable tenderness. She is the perfect wife and a wonderful actress to embody Eleanor Gehrig.
In a society that places so much interest in make-believe superheroes, I don’t mind taking some time to acknowledge a real one. We were the lucky ones Lou, thanks. Let anyone and everyone who does the Ice Bucket Challenge know who you are. You deserve to be remembered. Always.
4.5/5 Stars

The Pride of the Yankees (1942)


Starring Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig and Teresa Wright as his wife, this movie honors Gehrig’s life after a tragic death from ALS. From the time he was a boy, Lou could play ball but his immigrant mother wants him to become an engineer. The quiet, young man goes to Columbia and plays some ball. There he is seen by the Yankees who agree to sign him. Despite her disapproval at first his mom becomes his biggest fan. With the Yankees Lou seems slightly out of place being an introvert. Pretty soon he meets Eleanor Twitchell (Wright) however and then gains a spot as the starting first baseman. The two of them fall in love and get married as Gehrig flourishes in the shadow of Babe Ruth. With his career still going strong, Gehrig becomes captain and plays 2,000 straight games. It cruelly comes to an end when he begins feeling weak and is diagnosed with ALS. His career is over and yet in his farewell speech Gehrig gratefully considers himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. He walked out of the limelight and died soon after, dearly missed. This is one of those truly moving films.

“I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” You just cannot make up stuff like that. Here’s to you Lou!

4.5/5 Stars