Monday, October 20, 2014

Apparently I haven't blogged about Kings Row before

A search of the blog claims that I've never done a full-length post on Kings Row before. It's airing tonight at 10:00 PM on TCM as part of a night of "Bob's Picks", so now would be a good time to do that full-length post on the movie.

The movie is set late in the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th in the fictional small town of Kings Row, which really could substitute for any small town anywhere in the country, bet it Peyton Place, NH, or the small Mississippi town in Intruder in the Dust. The story is told more or less in three parts, with the first part introducing us to the various protagonists as children. There's Parris, who lives in a big house with his grandmother; Drake, who's going to receive a stipend from a trust fund when he grows up; Cassie, the doctor's daughter; and Randy, the daughter of a railroad worker who lives on the "wrong" side of the tracks. Not that it matters to the kids, who have always been less conscious of class than the adults. Randy likes Drake, while Parris and Cassie have a crush on each other. The latter relationship is much to the chagrin of Cassie's father, Dr. Tower (Claude Rains). Rumor has it that Cassie's mother is not right in the head, and that's had an effect on Cassie. Or, at least, the doctor thinks it has, so he eventually pulls Cassie out of school and the others only see her through upstairs windows.

Fast forward to when everybody is a young adult. Drake (now played by Ronald Reagan) is now living off that trust fund, with a fashionable carriage and chasing after the fashinable women. Randy (Ann Sheridan) still lives with her father in a ramshackle place on the other side of tracks. Cassie (Betty Field) still lives as a recluse with her father, while Parris has decided to study medicine to become a doctor, and is doing so with Dr. Tower. This gives Parris the chance to try to see Cassie, although Dr. Tower strictly forbids it. This, even though Cassie wants to see Parris. But is she going crazy, just like everybody rumored about her mother? Eventually, two tragedies happen. One befalls Drake when the bank manager at the bank where Drake's trust fund is administers runs off having embezzled all the money, leaving Drake penniless. The other befalls Parris and Cassie when there's a murder-suicide at the Tower residence involving the doctor and Cassie.

Parris gets an opportunity to study psychoanalysis in Vienna, presumably under a youngish Dr. Freud. Drake goes off to work at the rail yards with Randy's father, which allows Drake to discover that Randy was really the girl for him all along. They fall in love and have plans for the future, but those plans change when there's an accident at the railyard and Drake's legs get pinned. Dr. Gordon (Charles Coburn) is called in and he decides to operate -- by amputating both of Drake's legs! (This leads to the classic line, "Where's the rest of me?" when Drake discovers he's an amputee.) Randy writes to Parris in Vienna for help, since the amputation has left Drake bitter and feeling no hope for the future. Parris returns and finds that Drake's isn't the first amputation in town, and that perhaps Drake's amputation wasn't medically necessary. So what's going on here?

Kings Row is the sort of movie that makes you wonder what Douglas Sirk would have done with the material if he had been around in Hollywood and getting prestige movies to direct in the early 1940s. By the end of the movie, the material really does get to be that over the top, although not in a bad way. Cummings and Reagan both have roles that test the limits of their acting abilities. Both strive valiantly, but ultimately come up a bit short in spots. It's not quite a big deal with Cummings since his character goes away for much of the final third of the movie, while Reagan's difficulties in playing characters with a really dark part is particularly noticeable after the amputation when he's supposed to have no hope. Reagan was always more suited to play the equanimity he shows when he first takes the railroad job, the "I'm not going to let this get me down" attitude that allows his affable nature to shine through. When something finally dows get him down, in this case the amputation, Reagan looks like he's going through the motions.

Still, Kings Row is a very entertaining movie in part because of the material, and in part because it's Ronald Reagan trying to pull off this material. The TCM Shop is offering the movie on DVD as part of one of their four-film box sets, this one of Ronald Reagan movies. I don't know if it's available on a standalone DVD.

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