Kings Row Revisited: Part 1

After watching “The White Ribbon,” one of Michael Haneke’s masterpieces, at the Cannes Film Fest, I kept thinking of another dark and brooding chronicle of the evils and secrets that pervade a small town, the very American “Kings Row.” 
I am not sure that I can explain rationally or intellectually the association between these two films, which, by the way, are set at the same time (before WWI), and contain similar characters (the doctor, the priest, the school teacher). However, “White Ribbon” encouraged me to revisit the 1942 noir melodrama, which I have not seen in 20 years, and to reread the book upon which it is based. The result is a two-piece article about a movie that, like Haneke’s “White Ribbon” (and most of his work), has continued to linger in memory for a long time.
One of Sam Wood’s finest films, “Kings Row” is an unusual small-town melodrama, displaying dark themes that are shocking considering the time it was made. Just as poignant, but more pessimistic in tone, “Kings Row” is a good companion piece to “Our Town” (1940), also directed by Sam Wood, albeit in a vastly different style, in the canon of Small-Town America in film.
The text abounds in various problems, some never treated with such explicitness on the screen before. The movie deals with insanity, homicide, suicide, incest, euthanasia, amputation, malpractice, and embezzlement. An uncharacteristic film of the 1940s (in tone and theme, it belongs to 1950s melodramas), it is instructive that its release was postponed by several months–it opened in February 1942–because Warner felt uncomfortable about distributing such a film shortly after Pearl Harbor.
Consider the following review of Henry Bellamann’s novel, published in the Daily News: “In this book, spiced with harlots, idiots, nymphomaniacs, and homosexuals, there are three fathers who become sexually enamored of their daughters, a sadistic doctor who performs unnecessary operations for the gloating pleasures of seeing his patients suffer to the human breaking point, and a whole horde of half-witted, sensual creatures preoccupied with sex.”
Thus, to meet the standards of Hollywood’s Production Code, significant changes take place in the screen adaptation of the lurid novel.  Thus, scribe Casey Robinson took liberties in adapting Henry Bellamann’s novel about small-town hidden secrets, evils, frustrations, and crimes. 
The incestuous relationship, which is so prominent in the novel, had been excised. In general, Hollywood films of the classic era (and even today) are marked by the mitigated absence of sexual assault of children. Nonetheless, if you watch closely, the narrative of “Kings Row,” in spite of dismissal of explicit incest, can’t conceal completely the suspicion of incest.
The story centers on two major families, the Powers and the Gordons, each comprised of a doctor, his wife and their only daughter. (More about the narrative structure and meaning in the second part of this series)
Fearing the impositions of the Production Code, the incestuous relationship between Dr. Tower and his daughter was changed into insanity. In the film, Dr. Tower kills his daughter, after realizing he is incapable of treating her insanity.

Dr. Alexander Tower (Claude Rains), relatively new to town, is described as brilliant but he no longer practices medicine. Tower’s wife is confined to the house for unexplained reasons, and early on, he pulls his daughter, Cassandra (Betty Fields) out of a school and restricts her to the house as well. In the course of the story, the wife dies, and Dr. Tower kills his grown-up daughter before taking his own life.

How does the movie deal with his murderous act? Through a diary that Parris Mitchell finds in Dr. Tower’s house. In the novel, the diary reveals that Dr. Tower has perpetrated incest on his daughter Cassie. The film version, however, presents an attenuated version of a father-son relationship by erasing the novel’s incest and the more explicit rivalry between Dr. Tower and Parris over Cassandra. In the film, the explanation for the murder is not Dr. Tower’s madness or his jealousy over his daughter, but rather his wife’s madness and increasingly his daughter’s. Dr. Tower’s homicide is depicted as mercy killing, carried out for the sake of both Cassie and Parris.
The other prominent physician is the sadistic Dr. Gordon (Charles Coburn). Early on, Parris and his friend Drake McHugh (played by Ronald Reagan as an adult) pass by a boy who’s crying on the sidewalk in front of the doctor’s house. The boy relates that Dr. Gordon is inside operating on his father without anesthetic, because the man’s bad heart won’t tolerate it. Horrible screams come from the house and the boy runs up the steps, pounding futilely on the locked door. As spectators, we are made aware of catastrophic events, but we are barred from seeing them. Much later, it’s revealed, almost in passing, that the boy’s father had died in agony.
When Drake, the object of Louise Gordon’s unrequited love, falls onto the train tracks, he is operated on by Dr. Gordon, who amputates both of his legs. Most viewers remember Ronald Regan’s line when he wakes up in shock and screams, ”Where’s the rest of me?”
In the book, Drake dies of cancer as a result of unnecessary amputation, but in the film, Drake regains faith in life, due to the unbounded love of his wife (Ann Sheridan) and unconditional friendship of Parris. Speaking of friendship, even in the 1940s, discerning viewers could detect strong homoerotic overtones in camaraderie between Parris and Drake. By today’s standards, their relationship would be perceived as homosexual, but that was another cherished taboo in the golden age of Hollywood and the subject for another article. 
Like Orson Welles’s “The Magnificent Ambersons,” made in the same year, “Kings Row” is situated at the turn of the century, and like that picture, it takes place in a Mid-Western railroad town. The narrative begins in 1890, with the protags as children, then jumps to 1900 and follows its main characters through 1905.
Like Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt,” made a year later, “Kings Row” deals with the duplicity of human nature. What is different, however, is the narrative strategy and visual style of the aforementioned films. “Kings Row” is a polished Hollywood melodrama, with strong noir elements, compared with the more epic scale of “Magnificent Ambersons” and the psychological thriller-drama format of “Shadow of a Doubt.” Perhaps the best way to analyze “Kings Row” is as a melodrama marked by excessive plotting, sentimental contrivances, exaggerated emotions, some improbable motivations, and catharsis achieved through shock and tear-jerking.
The commercial success of “Kings Row” not only surpassed expectations but was also a surprise: The movie grossed over $2 million, a considerable amount by 1940s standards. It’s worth noting that “Kings Row” was one of the ten Best Picture nominees in 1942, a year in which the top award went to the schmaltzy WWII melodrama, “Mrs. Miniver,” one of the worst films to ever win the Oscar.

Ann Sheridan as Randy Monaghan

Robert Cummings as Parris Mitchell

Ronald Reagan as Drake McHugh

Betty Field as Cassandra Tower

Charles Coburn as Dr. Henry Gordon

Claude Rains as Dr. Alexander Tower

Judith Anderson as Mrs. Harriet Gordon

Nancy Coleman as Louise Gordon

Kaaren Verne as Elise Sandor

Maria Ouspenskaya as Madame von Eln

Harry Davenport as Colonel Skeffington

Ernest Cossart as Pa Monaghan

Ilka Grüning as Anna

Pat Moriarity as Tod Monaghan

Minor Watson as Sam Winters