May 21, 2009
Kings Row (1942)
Grade: 45/100

Director: Sam Wood
Stars: Robert Cummings, Ronald Reagan, Ann Sheridan

What it's about. Set circa 1890 to 1910. Parris (Robert Cummings) is a promising young man, raised by kindly grandmother Maria Ouspenskaya. Parris is tutored as a doctor by family friend Dr. Tower (Claude Rains), whose comely daughter Cassandra (Betty Field) is unstable and reclusive. Parris loves her anyway.

Parris' best friend is Drake (Ronald Reagan), a trust fund playboy who runs about town with good rich girl Nancy (Louis Gordon) and hottie 'bad' poor girl Randy (Ann Sheridan). Nancy's surgeon father (Charles Coburn) disapproves of Drake, and won't allow her to marry him. He makes sure he doesn't by amputating his legs following a minor accident. Luckily for Drake, Randy stands by her man.

Parris, by now a degreed psychiatrist, vows to rehabilitate Drake, as well as cure Nancy, who has become nearly deranged. Since it is a movie, Parris is given a perfect girlfriend, Elise (Kaaren Verne).

How others will see it. Kings Row is generally well regarded, today as well as when it was first released. It received three prestigious Oscar nominations, in the categories of Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography (James Wong Howe). It also did well at the box office. It especially helped the career of Ronald Reagan, and is widely considered his best role. (Although not his most famous role, which occurred in the infamous chimp movie Bedtime for Bonzo. Personally, I like Reagan best in The Voice of the Turtle).

Reagan's big line, of course, was "Where's the rest of me!!?" It became the title of his autobiography, written before his political career took off. Reagan was a favorite of Hollywood powerbroker Lew Wasserman, who valued Reagan's true talent: his ability to deliver a speech.

Nearly 70 years after it was made, Kings Row remains popular today, and not just for the presence of the beloved future president. For the classic film fan, there is a slew of familiar faces, even in the minor roles. These include Charles Coburn, Judith Anderson (Rebecca), Maria Ouspenskaya, Harry Davenport, and especially, Claude Rains. Cummings is well known today for his two Hitchcock movies, Saboteur and Dial M for Murder. Sheridan is practically the most beautiful leading lady in Hollywood history.

I suspect that the popularity of Kings Row extends beyond its cast. Many viewers soak up the melodrama, like they would in a soap opera. But some people, like myself, are deeply suspicious of the film. The single best word to be used against it is, overwrought.

How I felt about it. I can handle the famous line, "Where's the rest of me!" Who knows how you would react if you woke up and your legs were gone? I am less charitable toward the other dialogue. I won't waste my time transcribing Kaaren Verne's final speech to Parris, but the gist of it is, "I'll follow you anywhere because I love you." Wouldn't it be nice if she had simply said that instead? Even more telling is the film's final scene, a distant shot that shows Parris and Elise running toward each other on the spacious lawn of his former (and future?) estate. How touching. It's like The Shawshank Redemption, but without the homoeroticism.

Many who dislike Kings Row do so for the wrong reason: the Production Code, which required heavy-duty censorship of the source novel. I haven't read it, but apparently, Parris kills his grandmother via a drug overdose, Dr. Tower and Cassandra have an incestuous relationship, and Parris knocks up Cassandra, which helps explain her desperation to elope with him.

It is true, however, that the character of Cassandra is a weak point in the film version, probably because her actions make more sense in the novel. As presented, Cassandra is murdered by her father to spare Parris, an allegedly noble act that in fact makes about as much sense as giving Rosemary Kennedy a lobotomy. Your own daughter deserves better.