Kings Row (1942)
Release Date: April 18th, 1942 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Sam Wood Actors: Robert Cummings, Ronald Reagan, Ann Sheridan, Betty Field, Charles Coburn, Claude Rains, Judith Anderson, Nancy Coleman
hundering music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold opens “Kings Row,” a Best Picture Academy Award-nominated drama of epic proportions. The composer and his score need mention as it was the inspiration for John Williams’ resounding “Star Wars” theme – the starting notes are hard to miss. Set at the turn of the century in the town of Kings Row, the film digs into dark secrets and their damaging or revolutionary effects on social class warfare, love, and friendships, as governed by tragedy and gloom (which was still toned down considerably from the themes of the novel by Henry Bellamann). Yet it comes together in a satisfactory, memorable fashion, which would lead to critical acclaim and even a television show spinoff in the ‘50s.
Little Cassandra Tower and Parris Mitchell are best friends, even though the adults around them disapprove of the Tower family, headed by Alexander (Claude Rains), a stern, mean-spirited, reclusive doctor with an equally unfriendly wife. Parris is intent on attending Cassie’s birthday party nonetheless, while the majority of neighboring children plan on attending a more popular youth’s event. Cassie’s unsuccessful gathering leads to her eventual removal from school altogether, which prevents Parris from seeing her regularly. The boy is also a good friend to Drake McHugh, an adventurous youngster who plans on teaching his pal how to have fun.
Years later, after the trio is all grown up, Parris (Robert Cummings) returns to the Tower household to study medicine under Alexander, as preparation for medical school. Alexander’s wife is ill and remains unseen. Cassie (Betty Field) has become quite odd, shut away in her parents’ grudging and lonely home, devoid of companionship and socializing, but Parris still harbors strong feelings for her. Drake (Ronald Reagan) is as great a friend as ever, and the two reunite for the bold, brash young man to give his true love, Louise Gordon, an ultimatum about their future. As time passes, Parris begins to enjoy his tutoring under Dr. Tower, but is concerned over his grandmother’s worsening health and a secret affair with Cassie, whose mental stability seems to be dwindling.
A few powerful revelations are revealed, which lead to the introduction of one of the main stars (nearly an hour in) – Ann Sheridan as Randy Monaghan, who becomes the next romantic pursuit for Drake. As the story progresses, love is lost and gained, wealth redistributed, prominence forgotten, and outlooks recalibrated. Parris journeys to Vienna to become a psychiatrist while Drake loses his fortunes and must do manual labor at a railroad. Further tragedy looms in the distance, certain to interfere with happiness. Cummings plays his part with a bit too much wild-eyed naivety, but Reagan is at his very best. A few of their exchanges are less than genuine, weakened by the heavy-handed influences of Parris’ letter-writing and related voiceovers, and Drake’s forced examples of depression, but the supporting characters are all richly developed and serve the story well.
Psychiatry is on the verge of breaking into the medical field, and Parris is intrigued by the idea of curing minds alongside physical ailments. It’s an interesting theme, as it relates directly to the unfortunate conditioning of Cassie. Betty Field turns in a very convincing performance as a woman with constant, shifting, conflicting mentalities. Dementia may have been a surprising notion for ‘40s audiences, but the symptoms certainly aren’t cryptic in “Kings Row.” The film also examines social class struggles and the rift between people, their priorities, intentions, perceptions, and expectations, all concerning money. Betrayal also strikes an electrifying note. The most resonant theme, however, is that of sacrifice – sacrifice for the betterment of others, in the case of Tower and his daughter (and again with Randy’s choices involving Drake’s tragic accident), and further sacrifices for society and for justice. While several of the lesser ideas, such as pity and revenge, aren’t demonstrated with as much tact, the sweeping melodrama is still a winning formula.
– Mike Massie