Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The rest of you is over there someplace

As part of TCM's day of Ann Sheridan movies in Summer Under the Stars, TCM is showing a prestige movie that gets aired surprisingly infrequently: King's Row, at 9:45 PM ET.

Nominally Ann Sheridan is the star, as she gets top billing, but King's Row is a movie with more of an ensemble cast. Bob Cummings plays Paris, who is being raised by his grandmother (Maria Ouspenskaya) in a wealthy home on the outskirts of the Anywhere, USA town of King's Row at the turn of the previous century. His best friend is Drake (Ronald Reagan), a young man who has an inheritance waiting for him at the local bank and has nice girl Louise Gordon (Nancy Coleman) pining for him. Meanwhile, Paris is studying medicine from local doctor Tower (Claude Rains), and loves the doctor's daughter (Betty Field), although the doctor thinks this is a bad idea: apparently, the doctor realizes that insanity runs in the family on the mother's side, and that his daughter is bound to go insane. Eventually, the Towers wind up dead in a murder-suicide, and Drake loses his inheritance when the bank manager is found to have embezzled it.

Fast forward a few years. Paris is now studying psychology under Dr. Freud in Vienna, while Drake is working on the "wrong" side of the tracks, literally: this is one of those towns where the railroad line divides the good side of town from the bad, and Reagan is working at the railway stockyard and living with one of his older coworkers and his daughter (that's Ann Sheridan who, despite top billing, doesn't show up in the first part of the movie). Meanwhile, Louise still loves him, even though her father, the local surgeon (Charles Coburn) has definite class ideas that a relationship between his daughter and Drake would be a horrible thing. So, when Drake gets in an accident at the railyard, Dr. Gordon is presented the perfect opportunity to do something about the relationship.

Drake loses his legs as a result of the accident, sending him into a profound depression from which only his old friend Paris, by now a Freudian head shrinker, can save him. Well, that, and the love of Ann Sheridan. Meanwhile, Paris' grandmother has died, but Paris is sure to find love with the new occupants of her house....

King's Row is a sprawling movie, and one that is not without its faults. But, it's still a lot of fun. Bob Cummings was excellent in a movie like Saboteur where he played the everyman, but he's rather miscast in King's Row. Reagan is often criticized because of his later political career, but to be fair, when given the right material, he was certainly better than Cummings. Reagan does quite a good job as the happy-go-lucky heir and, when he's lost the inheritance, does fine as the spunky optimist who will still make a good life for himself despite having to work at the railyard. It's a bit more problematic though, once his character becomes an amputee: Reagan's on screen characters exuded eternal optimism, and the amputee Drake is supposed to be decidedly not an optimist. (I've argued elsewhere that this is the same problem that dooms his performance in Night Unto Night.) Rains and Coburn are both fine as the doctors, and Maria Ouspenskaya is ever the grande dame, for good and bad.

Ultimately, I think that King's Row has obtained is less-than-stellar reputation in part because of the lack of real star power in its cast, and the fact that a lot of people want to criticize Reagan. King's Row, however, is much better than Night Unto Night, effectively combining melodrama and interesting characters into an absorbing story. The movie has also been released to DVD, so you don't have to stay up late tonight to watch the ending.

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