Friday, 3 February 2017

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 antecipation 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 honor Ronald Reagan's 116th birthday, which is next Monday. According to most critics, this is the best of his films.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Sam Wood, Kings Row (1942) tells the story of five friends living in a small midwestern town in the late 19th century. They are: Parris Mitchell (Robert Cummings), a medical student who lives with his French 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 his daughter's romance with Parris, he locks her away from him. As for Drake, he intends to marry Louise despite the disapproval of her father, but she does no have the strenght to defy her parents.

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 to Vienna. The next day, Parris learns that Dr. Tower poisoned Cassie 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 his legs needlessly. Parris, meanwhile, has learned of the events and, after Randy and Drake marry, 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. This is confirmed by Elise Sandor and her father, who now live in Parris' old house. At first, Parris wants to keep the truth from Drake, but instead, persuaded by Elise, confronts him with the facts. Unexpectedly, Drake is relieved, and is finally able to accept his life. Having cured his friend, Parris is now free to marry Elise.

Drake McHugh: Randy, where's the rest of me?

While leading a successful career as a music teacher at several educational institutions, Henry Bellaman 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. His fifth novel, Kings Row, came in 1940 and finally brought him money and fame. 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 Midwestern town. 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.

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 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 actor, Wood became Cecil B. DeMille's assistant in 1915, four years before making the full transition to directing. He began at Paramount and then moved to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where he would spent most of his career. By the time he signed on to helm Kings Row, Wood had already scored two Academy Award nominations for Best Director: for Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) and Kitty Foyle (1940).

Betty Field and Robert Cummings
Wallis originally envisioned the character of Paris Mitchell being played by Tyrone Power, who was interested in making the film. When Darryl F. Zanuck at Fox refused to loan Power out to Warners, Wallis decided to borrow Robert Cummings from Universal instead. Making his breakthrough in Henry Koster's Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939), Cummings had recently reached stardom with his turn in Wood's The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), a pre-war comedy set in a department store.

Many actresses were considered for the role of Cassie Tower, including Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Olivia de Havilland 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 expressed interest in 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).

Although John Garfield, Dennis Morgan, Eddie Albert and Franchot Tone were originally considered to playto play Drake McHugh,, the part was eventuually assigned to Ronald Reagan.d A graduate of Eurekaeka 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 led a seven-year contract with Warner Bros. Making his screen debut in Love Is on the Air (1937), Reagan appeared in 19 films before the decade was over, notably Dark Victory (1939) with Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart. His performance 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.

Kings Row was released on February 2, 1942 to generally positive reviews from critics. James Agee, the esteemed film critic who them wrote for Time magazine, called Wood's screen interpretation of the Bellamann's novel "potent, artful cinema." Russell Maloney in The New Yorker said Reagan "capably breezes through the part," and Philip Hartung in Commonweal lauded Reagan for "a splendid performance." For Reagan, the only downside to this movie 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 war. It was released in 1942, when Reagan was in the Army. His agent, Lew Wasserman, negotiated for him a new million-dollar seven-years with Warners on the strenght of 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 Reagan in light comedies than in the dramatic roles he thought his performance in Kings Row had earned him.

Dictionary of Midwestern Literature, Volume One: The Authors edited by Philip A. Greasley (2001) | Dictionary of Missouri Biography edited by Lawrence O. Christensen, William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer and Kenneth H. Winn (1999) | Govern Reagan: His Rise to Power by Lou Cannon () |

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