Kings Row Revisited: Part 2

By taking the children’s point of view, Kings Row anticipates the importance of youth culture in the 1950s. With few exceptions, the villains and causes of most problems are the oppressive and insensitive parents. Moreover, no member of the established professions is portrayed favorably. The bank president is corrupt, and Dr. Gordon is engaged in malpractice; a sadist, he uses no anesthesia in his operations. Dr. Gordon’s record is bad, but there is one exception: Parris’s grandmother, whom he treats kindly because of her privileged class position.

The narrative provides an interesting view of the medical profession and the emerging field of psychiatry. Dr. Tower is a man who sacrificed his brilliant career when he settled down in Kings Row because of his wife’s insanity. Serving as a tutor to Parris (whom he regards as surrogate son), he prepares him for medical school. “Do you want to be a good doctor or one of these country quacks (the imminent carpenter)” asks Tower.

Like the hero of John Ford’s Arrowsmith, Parris wants to be a doctor like “those you read in books, the legendary sort of doctor.” Dr. Tower’s approach to medicine is “a game in which man pits his brain against the forces of destruction and disease.” Psychiatry is the new, intriguing field, and the film acknowledges the influence of Freud and psychoanalysis on American culture. Randy and Drake cannot even pronounce the word when they first learn about Parris’s intentions to become a psychiatrist, a further indication of her lower-class origins and his lack of sophistication.

Like The Magnificent Ambersons, Kings Row is marked by a dark, elegiac mood. The values of the old social order are represented by Parris’s grandmother, Madame Von Elm, French by birth, aristocratic by breeding, and one of the community’s pioneers. When grandmother dies, “a whole way of life passes with her, a way of gentleness and honor and dignity that may never come back to the world.”

Yet Kings Row does not prescribe regression into the past; like Magnificent Ambersons, it shows that life must go on. As much as reality may be painful, coming to terms with the “Truth” is essential for the individual as well as community’s welfare. This set of values (awareness of the “Truth”) will recur in numerous small-town films of the 1950s.

While the lead roles in Kings Row are played by second-rate actors such as Ronald Reagan and Robert Cummings, the supporting ones are cast with Hollywood’s finest character players: Claude Rains, Maria Ouspenskaya, Judith Anderson, Charles Coburn, and Henry Davenport.

Kings Row boasts high production values: Oscar-nominated cinematography by James Wong Howe, and production design by William Cameron Menzies (of Gone with the Wind and Our Town fame). Shot in black and white, the film employs some noir elements. Long shadows are cast in the indoor confrontational scenes, and close-ups are expressions of fear and horror and thus menacing rather than reassuring. The somber cinematography and disquieting editing magnify the feelings of entrapment and claustrophobia. The low-key lighting and oblique camera angles accentuate the film’s distorted vision.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s music has dark and oppressive tones too, just as the film’s themes. The critic David Platt (Daily Worker, February 6, 1942) went so far as to praise Kings Row as “the first penetrating psychological study of small-town life, far superior in imagination, and more honest in treatment than Thornton Wilder’s pussy-footing Our Town.

Kings Row’s view of the town as a community is decidedly ambiguous. The town contains good and evil, but no resident can escape its coercive influence, particularly children in their formative years. The themes of paranoia and duplicity–nobody could be trusted, not even your own family–overshadow the neat ending, one that in tune with the times, was meant to restore social order and reassurance. Graduating from medical school, Parris returns to Kings Row; his first patient is Drake, his best friend. At the time, the homoerotic overtones in the relationship between Drake and Parris must have eluded the viewers–and the censors.

True love, overcoming obstacles (Drake and Randy’s marriage), and the sacrifice involved in maintaining friendship, are all celebrated. If this film were made in the l950s, it probably would have ended with Randy and Drake leaving town and Parris staying in Vienna, but it the l940s, there was still belief in the town’s moral power over its individuals.

Casting

Ida Lupino, Olivia de Havilland, and Ginger Rogers were initially considered for the role of Cassandra. Director Sam Wood pushed hard to cast Lupino, saying that she “has a natural something that Cassie should have.” Wood believed that de Havilland, who turned down the role, was too mature for the part. Lupino also turned it down, despite Wallis’ arguments, saying that it was “beneath her as an artist.”  Bette Davis wanted the part, but the studio was against it, fearing she would dominate the movie. In the end, Betty Field was cast in this crucial role.

James Stephenson was originally cast as Dr. Tower but he died and was replaced by Claude Rains.  John Garfield was considered for the role of Drake McHugh, and Philip Reed, Rex Downing, and Tyrone Power were considered for the role of Parris.  Producer Hal B. Wallis borrowed Robert Cummings from Universal, when Fox refused to lend Power.

Dennis Morgan, Eddie Albert, Robert Preston, and Franchot Tone were also considered for the Drake role. Reagan became a star as a result of his performance, but shortly after he was drafted to serve in World War II.

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