I live in Rolla, Missouri, which is in the south-central part of the state. 1 and 1/2 hours northeast of Rolla is the city of Fulton, Missouri. Fulton has two claims to fame, as fame goes. It’s the place where Winston Churchill, on March 5th, 1946, made his famous “Iron Curtain” speech at Westminster College. Fulton’s second claim is that in 1940, former hometown boy, Henry Bellamann, published a novel titled Kings Row, which readers in Fulton soon figured out was based upon their town. The novel angered the community because despite Bellamann’s disclaimer that Kings Row was a fictional place, and all of the characters were fictional, Fulton readers could depict their town from Bellamann’s descriptions, and also the citizens he described. Bellamann’s novel was about a midwestern town, near the turn of the century, where outsiders perceive it as an idyllic place to live and raise one’s family, but in reality, the town contains evil people, hiding their evil secrets, and where the wealthy families mistreat the poorer ones.
After the anger lessened on Fulton’s part, Hollywood announced that Warner Brothers studio had bought the film rights to Kings Row and in 1942 the movie reached America’s box offices. Despite the lurid tale, Kings Row was a smash hit, and some film buffs say it contains the best role President Ronald Reagan ever played when he was an actor. The film was also nominated in 1943 for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography, Black and White. Let’s dive into the film’s plot, shall we?
The film concerns itself mostly with a group of children, ages 10-11, who are occupied with most things 10 and 11 year olds would be occupied with: having fun, playing with their friends, school, and trying to please their parents and/or guardians(two of the boys are being raised by relatives, since both are orphans.) There is Parris(Robert Cummings), Drake(Ronald Reagan), Cassandra(Betty Field), Randy(Ann Sheridan), and Louise(Nancy Coleman.) We only see the children for half an hour into the film, and then it jumps ahead to their young adult years, when they’re in their late teens. When we meet the children we learn that Parris is polite. sensitive, and curious. Drake is a jokester and thinks he’s a lady’s man. Randy is a tomboy. Louise is obedient to authority. Cassandra is weird and moody. The change to late teen years brings about the fact that all five are good looking people with varying degrees of wondering what to do with their lives.
Parris has been raised by a wealthy grandmother(Maria Ouspenskaya) who immigrated from the Lorraine area of France. Her husband began a successful nursery business outside of Kings Row, and she, Madame Von Eln, carried on with the business after she was widowed. Owing to her ancestry, she has made sure Parris can speak and read and write in French and German, and she’s also raised him with excellent manners. She has also insisted on his taking piano lessons. When Parris is a teen, he begins to grow infatuated with Dr. Tower’s (Claude Rains) daughter, Cassandra. Cassandra is pretty, and seems to be able to only open up and really talk when she’s with Parris. However, her father is very strict with her and always keeps her at home, even pulling her out of school and homeschooling her when she turns 12. Due to his actions, Cassandra really has no friends in Kings Row, other than Parris. Cassandra’s mother(Eden Gray) is considered very odd by the townsfolk, as she never leaves the house, and can be seen in the living room sitting in a chair, or peeking out at passerby’s from curtained windows. Parris cares deeply for Cassandra, even declaring he loves her. He and Cassandra begin to secretly see one another under Dr. Tower’s nose; Parris had gone away to Europe for medical school, and came back to Kings Row, to study psychiatry with Dr. Tower’s help.
Drake, always the merry prankster looking for love, raised by an aged aunt and uncle, is very wealthy when they pass away and leave him the full of their estate. Drake wants to marry Louise, but her father, Dr. Gordon(Charles Coburn) a severe man, doesn’t like Drake, thinks Drake is immoral, and tells Louise she can’t marry him. Louise is too weak to stand up to her father, so Drake breaks off his engagement to Louise and after a while, begins to date Randy, the girl descended from Irish immigrant railroad workers, who lives on the wrong side of the tracks, literally.
Randy is very likeable, and very pretty. She is full of common sense, has a good sense of humor, and is a hard worker; Drake couldn’t do better to date and woo her. Tragedy hits Drake twice: he finds out an unscrupulous banker has swindled him of his inheritance, and having to work for a living and getting a job in the rail yard, he is accidentally crushed by a boxcar. SPOILER!!! When Dr. Gordon, Louise’s father, is called in to treat Drake, he decides to punish Drake for all of his past moral failings and needlessly amputates Drake’s legs! It is as Drake awakes from his surgery, feels for his legs, and realizes they’re gone, that Reagan’s most famous line was uttered, “Where’s the rest of me??!!” (Reagan felt he owed so much to Kings Row and that line that he used it as the title to his autobiography.)
Robert Cummings is winning as Parris, the fresh-faced naive boy turned the same, even as a young adult; naive until he discovers what Dr. Tower did to his wife and to his daughter. The naivete is gone and Parris decides to study psychiatry, which at the turn of the century, was a new medical field.
Ronald Reagan is great as Drake. One can tell by watching Reagan that he was enjoying the fun of the character and that he was probably having the time of his life playing Drake. A lot of credit has been given to director Sam Wood, for working with Reagan on his part, but once again, Reagan was also from a midwestern state, Illinois, and a small town, so I am sure he could see some of the same points of distinction or similarities the screenplay was bringing out about life in a small midwestern town.
Ann Sheridan is superb as Randy. Her efforts to display Randy’s character come shining through.
Betty Field is eerie as Cassandra. She goes about with her eyes wide-open, as though she is expecting a ghost around every corner. One can feel that Cassandra is living under a large amount of stress, but one doesn’t know why. It will be revealed later in the plot of the film.
The adults in the film are some of the greatest character actors and actresses to ever grace a film: Claude Rains as the strange Dr. Tower, Charles Coburn as the stern Dr. Gordon, Dame Judith Anderson as Mrs. Gordon, Harry Davenport as Colonel Skeffington, Maria Ouspenskaya as Parris’s grandmother, and, I must confess an unknown to me actress, Eden Gray portrays the reclusive Mrs. Tower.
I don’t want to reveal too many more spoilers for Kings Row, but I will say that after all the evil deeds are exposed and the topic of mental illness is discussed, there is a happy ending, or at least a hopeful ending!! Turner Classic Movies will be airing Kings Row next week on Tuesday, April 12, at 8:00 est/7:00 cst. The film is also available to view on Amazon’s instant rent and there are various clips on Youtube, but not the entire film.
I decided to read Kings Row prior to writing this blog, and went to Rolla’s library 3 weeks ago to get the book. Alas, it wasn’t available so I ordered it through their interlibrary loan program, and 2 weeks later, Kings Row arrived for me, coming in from Sedalia, Missouri’s library. I have read 1/3 of the book and it is a good read. Bellamann wrote a very descriptive picture to give the reader a mental image of Fulton, er Kings Row. There are a lot of characters and good character development in the book, but as is so often when a book is turned into a film, many of the characters in the book were cut from the film’s screenplay. Some of the taboo topics in the book didn’t make the screenplay either due to the Hays Code: premarital sex, homosexuality, and incest. The topics of mental illness, sadistic malpractice, murder, and suicide were acceptable for the screenplay.
Many have speculated as to why Henry Bellamann would have written such a negative novel about his hometown. There are several theories, but at last, Fulton seems to have accepted it’s place in literary and film history. Here’s a link to an interesting piece I read about the book and the film from a 1987 article in the LA Times.
My post today is for the Beyond the Cover: Books to Film Blogathon, hosted by two excellent bloggers who know their classic movies: Ruth at Now Voyaging and Kristina at Speakeasy. Be sure to visit their blogs to read about other bloggers contributions in the world of literary art being turned into visual art via film.