Skip to main content

Film Friday: «Kings Row» (1942)

In movieland, the month of February is almost entirely dedicated to the Academy Awards, the industry's oldest and most prestigious awards ceremony. In anticipation to the 89th Oscars on February 26, every «Film Friday» this month will be about a Best Picture winner or nominee. This particular one also serves to honour Ronald Reagan's 116th birthday, which is next Monday. According to most critics, this is the best of his films.

Directed by Sam Wood, Kings Row (1942) tells the story of five young people living in the small Midwestern town of Kings Row in the late 19th century. They are: Parris Mitchell (Robert Cummings), a medical student who lives with his grandmother; Cassandra Tower (Betty Field), the misunderstood daughter of Dr. Alexander Tower (Claude Rains); Drake McHugh (Ronald Reagan), a wealthy and fun-loving orphan; Louise Gordon (Nancy Coleman), the daughter of the sadistic town physician, Dr. Henry Gordon (Charles Coburn); and Randy Monaghan (Ann Sheridan), a tomboy whose father (Ernest Cossart) is a railroad worker. When Dr. Tower learns of Cassandra's romance with Parris, he locks her away. As for Drake, he intends to marry Louise despite the disapproval of her father, but she does not have the strength to defy her parents.
LEFT: Ann Sheridan and Ronald Reagan. RIGHT: Ronald Reagan and Robert Cummings.

After the death of his grandmother, Parris decides to move to Vienna to study psychiatry and asks Cassie to marry him. She initially resists, running away, but later comes to beg him to take her with him. The next day, Parris finds out that Dr. Tower poisoned his daughter and then shot himself, wanting to prevent Cassie from going insane like her mother. While Paris is in Vienna, Drake's trust fund is stolen by a dishonest bank official and he is forced to work locally for the railroad. When he is accidentally crushed by a boxcar, Dr. Gordon is called to treat him. Gordon's hatred of Drake prompts him to amputate both of his legs needlessly. 
Meanwhile, Parris receives news of the events and, after Randy and Drake marry, he offers them money to start over. Later, Parris takes a leave of absence from his studies to visit Kings Row and decides to remain there when he learns that because of Gordon's death, the town needs a doctor. At Mrs. Gordon's request, he visits Louise, who has not left her room since Drake's marriage. Louise reveals that her father amputated Drake's legs because he believed it was his duty to punish wickedness. At first, Parris wants to keep the truth from Drake, fearing it will destroy his fragile recovery, but then he decides to confront him with the facts. Unexpectedly, Drake reacts with laughter and defiance, and is finally able to accept his life.
DRAKE McHUGH (Ronald Reagan): Randy, where's the rest of me?

While leading a successful career as a music teacher at several educational institutions, Henry Bellamann was encouraged by his wife to pursue his interest in the literary world. His first published work was a book of poetry entitled A Music Teacher's Notebook, released in 1920. Six years later, he made his debut as a novelist with Petenera's Daughter, the story of a woman who falls in love with a farmer who deserts her when she becomes pregnant. There followed Crescendo in 1928, The Richest Woman in Town in 1932 and The Gray Man Walks in 1938.
It was only in 1940, with the release of Kings Row, that Bellamann finally found money and fame as a novelist. Set in the late 19th century, the book followed Parris Mitchell and his best friend Drake McHugh as they struggle to conform to the intolerance and hypocrisy of a small town in the American Midwest. By dealing with such controversial themes as mental illness, incest, homosexuality and suicide, Kings Row debunked the myth of the Midwestern small town as a place that fosters goodness, peace and harmony in its residents.
LEFT: Henry Bellaman, author of Kings Row, in 1905. RIGHT: First edition of Kings Row issued by the Council of Books in Wartime in 1944.

Soon after the publication of Kings Row, 20th Century Fox sought to buy the novel as a vehicle for Henry Fonda, whose career had gained momentum following an acclaimed, Oscar-nominated performance in The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Eventually, however, the rights were purchased for $35,000 by Warner Bros., which then promptly refused David O. Selznick's offer of $75,000 to sell them to him. Warners head of production, Hal B. Wallis, tried to engage Wolfgang Reinhardt as producer of Kings Row, but he turned it down, arguing that the material «is for the most part either censurable or too gruesome and depressing to be used.» Wallis ended up producing the film himself, while veteran Sam Wood was hired as director.
A former real estate broker, Wood began his Hollywood career as an actor, before finding work as an assistant director to Cecil B. DeMille. In 1919, he made the full transition to directing, first at Paramount and later at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where he would make most of his films. By the time he signed on to helm Kings Row, Wood had already scored two consecutive Academy Award nominations for Best Director, for Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) and Kitty Foyle (1940).
Sam Wood filming a scene in Kings Row with Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan.

Wallis originally envisioned the character of Paris Mitchell being played by Tyrone Power, who expressed his interest in starring in the film. When Darryl F. Zanuck, head of production at Fox, refused to loan Power, Wallis decided to borrow Robert Cummings from Universal instead. After years of small roles in B pictures, Cummings had recently reached stardom as Jean Arthur's love interest in the comedy The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), directed by Wood for RKO.

Many actresses were considered for the role of Cassie Tower, including Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Olivia de Havilland, Gene Tierney, Priscilla Lane and Ida Lupino. Wood pushed hard to cast Lupino, saying that she «has a natural something that Cassie should have,» but she turned it down, as did Rogers and de Havilland. Warner Bros. reigning queen Bette Davis then began lobbying for the part, but the studio was against her casting, believing that she would dominate the picture. Davis then suggested Betty Field, who had established herself as a dramatic actress in the Best Picture nominee Of Mice and Men (1939).
LEFT: Betty Field and Robert Cummings. MIDDLE: Ann Sheridan, Ronald Reagan and Robert Cummings. RIGHT: Robert Cummings and Ronald Reagan.

Although John Garfield, Dennis Morgan, Eddie Albert and Franchot Tone were originally considered to play Drake McHugh, the part was eventually assigned to Ronald Reagan. A graduate of Eureka College, Reagan began his professional career as a sports announcer at several radio stations. In 1937, while travelling with the Chicago Cubs in California, he took a screen test that materialised in contract with Warner Bros., where he would make the majority of his films. Making his screen debut in Love Is On the Air (1937), Reagan appeared in 19 pictures before the decade was over, notably Dark Victory (1939) with Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart. His performances in Knute Rockne, All American (1940) and Santa Fe Trail (1940) led to his being voted the fifth most popular young star in Hollywood in 1941.
Reagan initially struggled with the scene in which his character cries out in horror after realizing that both of his legs have been amputated. «I felt I had neither the experience nor the talent to fake it,» he recalled. «I simply had to find out how it really felt.» He rehearsed repeatedly by himself, consulting several physicians and psychiatrists, and even talking with disabled people. In the end, he shot the scene in one take, with no rehearsal. Reagan later used his iconic line, «Where's the rest of me?», as the title of his autobiography, published in 1965.
Robert Cummings, Ann Sheridan and Ronald Reagan in publicity stills for Kings Row.

Due to its controversial themes, screenwriter Casey Robinson believed Kings Row would not be approved by Joseph Breen, head of the Production Code Administration. In a letter to Wallis, Breen wrote, «To attempt to translate such a story to the screen, even though it be re-written to conform to the provisions of the Production Code is [...] a very questionable undertaking from the standpoint of the good and welfare of this industry.» The censor strongly objected to «illicit sexual relationships» between the characters and to «the general suggestion of loose sex.» He also expressed concern about the characterization of Cassandra Tower, who is a victim of incest with her father in the novel, and the «sadistic» depiction of Dr. Gordon.

To resolve these issues, Wallis and Robinson met with Breen and the producer made it clear that the film «illustrate how a doctor could relieve the internal destruction of a stricken community.» Breen said that his office would approve the project if all references to incest, nymphomania, euthanasia and homosexuality, all of which had been suggested in the novel, be removed. In addition, all references to nude bathing were to be eliminated, as well as the suggestion of a «sex affair» between Randy and Drake. After several drafts of the script were rejected, Robinson was able to satisfy Breen and he finally gave his approval.

Original lobby cards for Kings Row.

Kings Row was released on February 2, 1942 to generally positive reviews from critics. James Agee, the esteemed film critic who then wrote for TIME magazine, called Wood's screen interpretation of the Bellamann's novel «potent, artful cinema.» It was also a great financial success, earning $2,350,000 at the box-office that year. At the 15th Academy Awards ceremony held at the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles on March 4, 1943, the film received nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Cinematography (Black-and-White).
Reagan was universally praised for his performance as Drake McHugh, which Philip Harting in Commonweal called «splendid.» For the actor, the only downside to this film that brought him to the brink of stardom was its timing. Kings Row was filmed in 1941, the year the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and plunged the United States into World War II. It was released in 1942, when Reagan was in the Army. His agent, Lew Wasserman, negotiated for him a new million-dollar seven-year contract with Warner Bros. on the strength of his work in Kings Row, but Reagan's military service deprived him of the opportunity to take advantage of his breakthrough role and other rising stars eclipsed him during the war years. This led to a series of post-war conflicts with Warners, which preferred him in light comedies rather than in the dramatic roles he thought his performance in Kings Row had earned him. Reagan and most film critics have always considered Kings Row his best performance as an actor.
City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s by Otto Friedrich (University of California Press, 1986)
Dictionary of Midwestern Literature, Volume One: The Authors edited by Philip A. Greasley (Indiana University Press, 2001)
Dictionary of Missouri Biography edited by L. O. Christensen, W. E. Foley, G. R. Kremer and K. H. Winn (University of Missouri Press, 1999)
Govern Reagan: His Rise to Power by Lou Cannon (Public Affairs, 2009)


Popular posts from this blog

Golden Couples: Gary Cooper & Patricia Neal

It was April 1948 when director King Vidor spotted 22-year-old Patricia Neal on the Warner Bros. studio lot. A drama graduate from Northwestern University, she had just arrived in Hollywood following a Tony Award-winning performance in Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest . Impressed by Patricia's looks, Vidor approached the young actress and asked if she would be interested in doing a screen test for the female lead in his newest film, The Fountainhead (1949). Gary Cooper had already signed as the male protagonist, and the studio was then considering Lauren Bacall and Barbara Stanwyck to play his love interest.          Neal liked the script and about two months later, she met with the director for sound and photographic tests. Vidor was enthusiastic about Patricia, but her first audition was a complete disaster. Cooper was apparently watching her from off the set and he was so unimpressed by her performance that he commented, « What's that!? » He tried to con

Golden Couples: Henry Fonda & Barbara Stanwyck

In the mid- and late 1930s, screwball comedy was in vogue and practically every actress in Hollywood tried her hand at it. Barbara Stanwyck never considered herself a naturally funny person or a comedienne per se , but after delivering a heart-wrenching performance in King Vidor's Stella Dallas (1937), she decided she needed a « vacation » from emotional dramas. In her search for a role, she stumbled upon a « champagne comedy » called The Mad Miss Manton (1938), originally intended as a Katharine Hepburn vehicle. Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda as Melsa and Peter in The Mad Miss Manton .   Directed by Leigh Jason from a script by Philip G. Epstein, The Mad Miss Manton begins when vivacious Park Avenue socialite Melsa Manton finds a corpse while walking her dogs in the early hours of the morning. She calls the police, but they dismiss the incident — not only because Melsa is a notorious prankster, but also because the body disappears in the meantime. Sarcastic newspaper editor

Films I Saw in 2020

For the past four years, I have shared with you a list of all the films I saw throughout 2016 , 2017 , 2018 and 2019 , so I thought I would continue the «tradition» and do it again in 2020. This list includes both classic and «modern» films, which make up a total of 161 titles. About three or four of these were re-watches, but I decided to include them anyway. Let me know how many from these you have seen. As always, films marked with a heart ( ❤ ) are my favorites. Sherlock Jr. (1924) | Starring Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire and Joe Keaton The Crowd (1928) | Starring James Murray, Eleanor Boardman and Bert Roach Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) | Starring Henry Fonda, Alice Brady and Marjorie Weaver Brief Encounter (1945) | Starring Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard and Stanley Holloway The Bells of St. Mary's (1945) | Starring Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman The Girl He Left Behind (1956) | Starring Tab Hunter and Natalie Wood Gidget (1959) | Starring Sandra Dee, Cliff Robertson an

Wings of Change: The Story of the First Ever Best Picture Winner

Wings was the first ever film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Since then, it has become one of the most influential war dramas, noted for its technical realism and spectacular air-combat sequences. This is the story of how it came to be made.   A man and his story The concept for Wings originated from a writer trying to sell one of his stories. In September 1924, Byron Morgan approached Jesse L. Lasky, vice-president of Famous Players-Lasky, a component of Paramount Pictures, proposing that the studio do an aviation film. Morgan suggested an «incident and plot» focused on the failure of the American aerial effort in World War I and the effect that the country's «aviation unpreparedness» would have in upcoming conflicts. Lasky liked the idea, and approved the project under the working title «The Menace.»   LEFT: Byron Morgan (1889-1963). RIGHT: Jesse L. Lasky (1880-1958).   During his development of the scenario with William Shepherd, a former war correspondent, Morga

80 Reasons Why I Love Classic Films (Part II)

I started this blog six years ago as a way to share my passion for classic films and Old Hollywood. I used to watch dozens of classic films every month, and every time I discovered a new star I liked I would go and watch their entire filmography. But somewhere along the way, that passion dimmed down. For instance, I watched 73 classic films in 2016, and only 10 in 2020. The other day, I found this film with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. that I had never heard of — the film is Mimi (1935), by the way — and for some reason it made me really excited about Old Hollywood again. It made me really miss the magic of that era and all the wonderful actors and actresses. And it also made me think of all the reasons why I fell in love with classic films in the first place. I came with 80 reasons, which I thought would be fun to share with you. Most of them are just random little scenes or quirky little quotes, but put them together and they spell Old Hollywood to me. Yesterday I posted part one ; here i

Top 10 Favourite Christmas Films

Christmas has always been a source of inspiration to many artists and writers. Over the years, filmmakers have adapted various Christmas stories into both movies and TV specials, which have become staples during the holiday season all around the world. Even though Christmas is my favourite holiday, I haven't watched a lot of Christmas films. Still, I thought it would be fun to rank my top 10 favourites, based on the ones that I have indeed seen. Here they are.  10. Holiday Affair (1949) Directed by Don Hartman, Holiday Affair tells the story of a young widow (Janet Leigh) torn between a boring attorney (Wendell Corey) and a romantic drifter (Robert Mitchum). She's engaged to marry the boring attorney, but her son (Gordon Gebert) likes the romantic drifter better. Who will she choose? Well, we all know who she will choose.   Holiday Affair is not by any means the greatest Christmas film of all time, but it's still a very enjoyable Yule-tide comedy to watch over the holi

The Gotta Dance! Blogathon: Gene Kelly & Judy Garland

In 1940, up-and-coming Broadway star Gene Kelly was offered the lead role in Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's new musical Pal Joey , based on the eponymous novel by John O'Hara about an ambitious and manipulative small-time nightclub performer. Opening at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Christmas Day of that year, the show brought Gene his best reviews up to that date. For instance, John Martin of The New York Times wrote of him: «A tap-dancer who can characterize his routines and turn them into an integral element of an imaginative theatrical whole would seem to be pretty close, indeed, to unique .»   One of Gene's performances in Pal Joey was attended by established Hollywood star Judy Garland , who requested to meet him after the show. Gene agreed and then accompanied Judy and her entourage, which included her mother Ethel and several press agents, to dinner at the newly-opened Copacabana nightclub, at 10 East 60th Street. They sang and danced until 3 a.m., after whi

Films I Saw in July & August

In the past five years, I shared a year-end list of the films I saw throughout 2016 , 2017 , 2018 , 2019 and 2020 . For 2021, I decided to do this monthly and share a list of the films I saw during each month of the year. These are the films I saw in July and August, which make up a total of 18 titles. As always, films marked with a heart ( ❤ ) are my favourites.   Resistance (2011) | Starring Andrea Riseborough, Tom Wlaschiha and Michael Sheen Siberian Education [Educazione siberiana] (2013) | Starring Arnas Fedaravi čius The Last of Robin Hood (2013) | Starring Kevin Kline and Dakota Fanning The Water Diviner (2014) | Starring Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko and Yılmaz Erdoğan Holding the Man (2015) | Starring Ryan Corr, Craig Stott and Anthony LaPaglia The Last King [Birkebeinerne] (2016) | Starring Jakob Oftebro and Kristofer Hivju The Pass (2016) | Starring Russell Tovey and Arinzé Kene Access All Areas (2017) | Starring Ella Purnell, Edward Bluemel and Georgie Henle

The Sinatra Centennial Blogathon: Frank Sinatra & Gene Kelly

  In January 1944, MGM chief Louis B. Mayer happened to see a young crooner by the name of Frank Sinatra perform at a benefit concert for The Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles. According to Nancy Sinatra, Frank's eldest daughter, Mayer was so moved by her father's soulful rendition of « Ol' Man River » that he made the decision right then and there to sign Frank to his studio. Sinatra had been on the MGM payroll once before, singing with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in the Eleanor Powell vehicle Ship Ahoy (1942), although it is very likely that Mayer never bothered to see that film. Now that Frank was «hot,» however, Metro made arrangements to buy half of his contract from RKO, with the final deal being signed in February of that year. Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in  Anchors Aweigh Being a contract player at the studio that boasted «more stars than there are in the heavens» gave Frank a sudden perspective regarding his own talents as a film performer. The «g

Films I Saw in May & June

In the past five years, I shared a year-end list of the films I saw throughout 2016 , 2017 , 2018 , 2019 and 2020 . For 2021, I decided to do this monthly and share a list of the films I saw during each month of the year. These are the films I saw in May and June, which make up a total of 16 titles. As always, films marked with a heart ( ❤ ) are my favourites.   Pelle the Conqueror [Pelle Erobreren] (1987) | Starring Pelle Hvenegaard The Elementary School [ Obecná škola] (1991) | Starring Václav Jakoubek Female Agents [Les Femmes de l'ombre] (2008) | Starring Sophie Marceau Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe [Vor der Morgenröte] (2016) | Starring Josef Hader ❤ Cold War [Zimna wojna] (2018) | Starring Tomasz Kot, Joanna Kulig and Borys Szyc Dreamland (2019) | Starring Finn Cole, Margot Robbie, Travis Fimmel and Garrett Hedlund Mr Jones (2019) | Starring James Norton, Vanessa Kirby and Peter Sarsgaard Official Secrets (2019) | Starring Keira Knightley, Matt Smith an