Friday, February 1, 2013

On KINGS ROW (1942)

"Randy!  Randy!  Randy!  Where's the rest of me?"  ~Ronald Reagan as Drake McHugh, once the local ladies' man who awakens to discover that he's now an amputee.
Before 1957's Peyton Place and decades before American Beauty, there was Kings Row.  The Academy Award nominee for Best Picture of 1942 took us to a provincial town in 1890.  It's the kind of place that prides itself on being a wholesome town with good schools, fine Christian citizens and safe streets.  As you can expect, there's plenty of darkness behind that pompous, sunny All-American facade and advertisement.
There's mental illness, child abuse, medical malpractice, murder, embezzlement and gossip.  Kings Row also presents something Hollywood rarely shows without being self-conscious.  It's a tale of deep male friendship, a love story of two men.  Not with sexual intimacy as in Brokeback Mountain but an emotional intimacy.  Foreign films show this kind of male bonding with skill, depth, bravery and wit in films like Pedro Almodóvar's Talk to Her.  That 2002 drama is about emotionally entering into another person.  A gay man and straight man do that in a very unexpected and fulfilling friendship.  In the 2006 French film, My Best Friend, Daniel Auteuil plays the cold businessman who has no best friend and needs one.  No buddy seeks his company.  Other than work, his life is pretty grey.  Here in America, that sort of storyline is usually done for laughs.  Watch Paul Rudd and Jason Segel in I Love You, Man to see what I mean.  That's a fine "bromance."  Midnight Cowboy -- that 1969 classic is a masterpiece example of male bonding and a love story between two men.  That same quality of loyality is in Kings Row -- and it stars a future President of the U.S.A.  Three friends are the heart of this film.  They're played by Robert Cummings, Ann Sheridan and Ronald Reagan.  They're excellent together.
My late father introduced me to this film. He wasn't a very outgoing person.  Not like my mother.  He'd withdraw.  His temper scared me.  It went too far sometimes.  But movies -- seeing them or talking about them -- was a thing that made for pleasant times between us.  Whenever this movie aired on local TV and he came across it, a "Wow" expression appeared on his face. Dad's eyes would shine.  More than once he mentioned how he loved seeing it at the movies when he was young.  I'm so glad he introduced me to Kings Row,  It's a fine film.  It begins by showing us a philosophy I've written in previous blogs -- that childhood is the blueprint for the rest of your life.  We meet the principal characters as they're getting out of elementary school for the day.  Their personalties, talents, traits and key friendships are already formed.  They're already present. Parris Mitchell is the warm, likable bookworm.  You could call him "a mama's boy," but his parents died.  Parris is raised by his wise and loving grandmother.  That's why his clothing has a touch of the Old World about it.  She's European and has an Old World sense of charm and values.
She teaches Parris to judge others " what you find them to be and not what other people say they are."  She does the best she can in caring for him.  "Growing up is so difficult" she confides to her beloved housekeeper.  When we see young Parris at the beginning, he's on his way to piano lessons.  Always the learner.  When we see his best friend, Drake, he's a handsome, assertive boy who's popular with the little girls.  He's already a player.  That doesn't change as they get older. The childhood blueprint held.
Drake is a lusty, happy-go-lucky guy.  He's a trust-fund baby with ready cash.  He loves the opposite sex.  He'd never force himself on a woman but he sure wouldn't ever turn down an invitation either.  But no pretty girl ever comes before or between his loyalty to Parris.  Someone who understands that, and has ever since they were kids, is Randy Monaghan.  She's the good girl from the wrong side of the tracks.  The poor side.  The Kings Row love theme that we'll hear during the adult Randy and Parris relationship is first heard when young Drake spots "Red" (Randy) sitting on a fence.  He likes that girl.  She's not in frilly clothing like the others who want his attention.  As he happily comments to his best buddy, "She's kinda tough though.  You ought to hear her cuss."  Drake and Parris grow up aware that some things are not quite right about their hometown but they're not quite sure what the dysfunctions are.  We're aware of it in the beginning with Kings Row children.  Drake and Parris comfort a buddy who is crying on the front steps of Dr. Gordon's place.  His father is upstairs having a medical treatment.  Then we hear a man's chilling screams of agony. Those blood-curdling screams come from inside a doctor's residence.  What's the story with Dr. Gordon and his Christian wife?  Is Kings Row really a good place to raise your children?  The boys grow up and grow even closer.
Parris is still romantically interested in Cassie, the daughter of Dr. Tower, his mentor.  But there's something odd about home-schooled Cassie.  We see her in shadow.  The camera shows her in a dark corner.  That's film literature for Cassie's true mental state.
Betty Field stars as Cassie.  Cassie's father is played by Claude Rains.  He has a great affection for Parris and for Parris' grandmother.  He inspires the boy to welcome in the new century studying a new medical field -- diseases of the mind.  Such new research is happening in Vienna.  But there's pain in the Tower home.  His work shingle is uneven in the front yard.  Rooms in the home of Parris' grandmother bloom with sunlight through open windows.  Notice the difference at Dr. Tower's place.  Shades are drawn.  Light is kept out.  He's surrounded by books, signs of knowledge.  Yet he looks blocked in his own environment.  A prisoner of it.  Not like Rains as the doctor in Now, Voyager.
Evil Dr. Gordon dominates his space.  He fills it. He repels you from it.
Charles Coburn is sadistic Dr. Gordon, the man who strikes his daughter.
Dr. Tower tells Parris how important psychiatric care is.  He states that people break down under the strain of "bewilderment, disappointment...disillusionment."
When the movie starts, with a majestic and sweeping score by Erich Korngold, Ann Sheridan gets top billing in the opening credits.  However, it's well over a half-hour before she appears.  It's well worth the wait.  Maybe Sheridan didn't have the character acting range of fellow Warner Brothers stars Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland, but she is so right for this character.  Apparently, she went after the part with a passion and the passion shows in her performance.  Sheridan understands the roots of this smart,  working class character.  In some modern movies about male bonding, the wife or girlfriend is an interruption.  She comes in between the friendship.  Randy complements this friendship.  She supports it.  She adds to it.  She's grateful for it.  This is a good trinity.
"Red" can handle Drake's lustiness.  She knows that just about everything stirs him up.  But Randy's love is deep and true.  She sees the good in Drake, good that he may not even realize about himself.  She sees it.  Parris sees it.  When it comes to love, she's in for the long run.  She doesn't just love him because he's a hot-looking guy.  And she honors his love for Parris.  Sheridan is so vibrant in this role.  As for Reagan, a man whom I never voted for, this is his finest film performance and one that's rarely mentioned.  He was famously the gridiron star called "The Gipper" in a Warner Bros. biopic about the late, legendary football coach, Knute Rockne.  In the 1950s, he starred in a goofy comedy with a chimp called Bedtime for Bonzo.  Those movie roles of his got mentioned a lot.  Reagan didn't have the acting chops of other Warner Bros. actors such as Cagney, Bogart and Edward G. Robinson.  But director Sam Wood gets fine work indeed from Reagan in this.  He connects with the character and his co-stars.  He's confident, relaxed, and emotionally open -- as Drake would be.  His line, at the top of this blog, is the most famous line from the movie.  Parris is confused about his feelings after he unexpectedly loses his virginity on a stormy night in Kings Row while lighting cracks the darkness.  Where does he go to talk about it afterwards?  To Drake's.  When Drake awakens, financially broke and amputated, who does he cry out for?  Randy...and Parris.  His best friend is in Vienna studying medicine.  Drake McHugh is a changed man.
Randy's love for him grows stronger.  She still believes in Drake's abilities and possibilities.  However, his emotional state has been dealt a serious blow.  She contacts Parris for help and advice.  Parris returns to Kings Row after receiving Randy's letters.  He returns to help his friend and her.  When Parris bolts into the bedroom and embraces his handicapped male friend, that is a touching love scene. And Randy made it happen.
The roles are reversed now for the big sport who took care of the shy bookworm.  Now the shy bookworm takes care of the big sport who's down on his luck.  The care will be successful.  Director Sam Wood shows us that these two friends -- Parris and Randy -- are more vital to Drake than his two legs.  In fact, he can make it through life without his legs.  But he cannot make it without their love and support.  They are his legs.
One of the other outstanding elements of Kings Row is the cinematography by James Wong Howe.  I wish more of today's filmmakers had the creativity and freedom to shoot movies in black and white.  Howe's work adds depth to the film's literature.  There are times when his photography of this All-American turn-of-the-century town looks like the noir version of a Maxfield Parrish painting.  Maxfield Parrish's paintings had a pastel-filled, idealized neo-clasical look. James Wong Howe's cinematography is brilliant.
I love Ann Sheridan's work in Kings Row.  She commits to her character and triumphantly stretches her talents beyond her glamorous movie star image and studio publicity photos.
As I wrote before, she was no acting threat to Bette Davis, but Ann was one of the few actresses to steal scenes from her.  Sheridan scored as the vain mantrap of a Broadway star in The Man Who Came To Dinner.  She displayed solid comedy skills as she wore a dress with detail that made her tits look like they were trying to hitch a ride.
Ann Sheridan got "two thumbs" up on her bustline.

With Kings Row, Sheridan proved to the studio that she was more than the "Oomph Girl," a nickname given to the vivacious and sexy babe.  Besides its nomination for Best Picture, the movie brought James Wong Howe a nomination for Best Cinematography and Sam Wood a nomination for Best Director.  Wood's other two nominations in that category came for Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) and Kitty Foyle (1940).

Kings Row was one of my dad's favorite films.  It's become one of mine, too.  See it.  I think you'll be moved by its look at male-bonding.  The stars are Ann Sheridan, Robert Cummings, Ronald Reagan.  And Howe.

1 comment:

  1. Happened upon your blog post. Enjoyed. You might be interested in the piece I just wrote about King's Row:


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