Saturday, January 28, 2017

'Kings Row' is Much More Than Reagan's Personal Best

This welcome sign to "Kings Row" should serve as a warning--the fact that "good" is used FOUR times raises a red flag!
Kings Row, a fondly remembered ‘40s movie, turns 75 this year. Kings Row was a shocking bestseller by Henry Bellamann about the sordid secrets of a Victorian-era small town. The film version was “cleaned” up for 1942 movie audiences, who flocked to Kings Row, reading between the lines where the dirt was scrubbed out. Kings Row later served as a direct inspiration for Peyton Place.

Robert Cummings, Ann Sheridan, and Ronald Reagan lead the large cast.
In all my decades of movie watching, I somehow missed this Warner Brothers epic. I was surprised by several elements of Kings Row—the first was right over the opening credits. Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s famous score apparently “inspired” John Williams’ Star Wars and also Superman. My ears perked right up when I heard Korngold’s musical fanfare. Now, Hollywood’s golden era composers often “borrowed” from classical composers for their scores, so why shouldn’t John Williams? I guess this was the original version of musical sampling.

The second surprise was the cast. This movie cemented Ann Sheridan’s and Ronald Reagan’s pre-WW II popularity. Kings Row’s young stars are indeed front and center, though Ann Sheridan, the one who truly delivers a great performance, doesn’t even appear until half way through the movie. Yet, she gets top billing.

Kings Row was a best-seller based on a real-life small town--yes, scandalous!
Another surprise was reading what was left out of the movie—homosexuality, nymphomania, and incest! As it is, sadism, insanity, a murder-suicide, and cancer were all shocking plot points for a ‘40s flick. One way veteran screenwriter Casey Robinson keeps this saga moving is to recap the story’s most memorable events, which take place off-screen.

What I thought most striking about Kings Row was that it’s not just another small town melodrama. It’s genuinely haunting. The camerawork by James Wong Howe is fluid, going from sharply realistic to shadow-filled and sinister, with actors moving into their close-ups for key dramatic points, instead of just posing. Director Sam Wood left the camera setups and angles to cinematographer Howe and set designer William Cameron Menzies. Kings Row often has a dream-like feel to it—at times, nightmarish.

Reagan's big moment as an actor, brilliant captured by James Wong Howe.
The party line on Ronald Reagan regarding Kings Row is that it’s his best performance. My response: that’s not saying much. A more accurate take is that Drake McHugh is Ronald Reagan’s best role. In early scenes, as the happy-go-lucky small town playboy, Reagan is just adequate. Like many actors of his era, Reagan relies on shtick, because he has little charisma. Striving for high spirits, there’s hollowness to Reagan’s line readings, and you are always aware that he is “acting” and not “being”—unlike true greats such as Fonda, Tracy, or Stewart. When Drake’s character is down on his luck and isn’t so happy, Reagan is sincere, if not dynamic. Still, in the famous scene when Drake finds out the results of his railroad accident, Reagan’s anguished call out to Sheridan feels real, “Randy! Randy! Where’s the rest of me?!”

Errol Flynn, a fellow Warner’s star, had genuine charm and sex appeal to burn. Flynn could have played playboy Drake in his sleep, plus Flynn was only two years older than Reagan. Jack Warner gave up on trying to “borrow” Tyrone Power from 20th Century Fox for Parris, whose quiet sensitivity would have been marvelous against brash Flynn. Once that failed, Kings Row was to showcase newer stars like Reagan and Sheridan, supported by an ensemble cast. Robert Cummings was borrowed from Universal to play Parris, likely in exchange for WB star Priscilla Lane, who was loaned to Universal the same year for Hitchcock’s Saboteur.

Robert Cummings and Ronald Reagan are bland as best buds Parris and Drake. Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn--yes, please!
Next to Robert Cummings as Parris, Reagan comes off like Clark Gable. For starters, Cummings wears so much make up that, at times, he looks like a kewpie doll. The big issue here is that a bland second lead has been cast as the leading man—he can’t even fake it like Reagan! As Parris, Cummings mugs during scenes of comic relief, and is bland and vaguely whiny during dramatic moments. However, like Reagan, Cummings is better in the quiet scenes. But when he tries for charm, as when Parris tells his Grandma, “I’m crazy about you, lady!” in his game show host voice, Cumming is slightly ludicrous.

It doesn’t help that Cummings is saddled with much of the film’s explanatory lines. The scene where Parris prepares to tell Drake the truth behind his accident is hokey and hilarious. First Cummings puffs himself up, gives a flowery speech, and THEN recites the poem “Invictus!” As Cummings and Sheridan cringe and cry, awaiting Reagan’s response, it feels like a silent movie—Parris and Randy all but putting a hand to their brow. Reagan’s Drake stuns them with cathartic laughter! You will be laughing, too, as the music swells, with Cummings literally running to the waiting arms of his girl.

Ann Sheridan as Randy Monaghan: the real star performance in 'Kings Row.'
I often wondered why Ann Sheridan wasn’t a bigger star. Popular in her day, Sheridan never hit the top tier. Was it because she was sexy and glamorous, and not to be taken seriously? Studios and audiences were often dismissive of glamour girls who wanted to “act.” Was it because she wasn’t a “great actress” by the era’s conventions? Perhaps that’s why Sheridan seems so fresh and naturalistic here. Sheridan has the least showy role of Kings Row, yet she is warmly real against the artificiality of Cummings and Reagan. Ann Sheridan is a pleasure to watch as Randy Monaghan, the “bad girl” from literally the wrong side of the tracks, who is actually the heroine.

Sheridan’s no-nonsense acting is also a stunning contrast to Nancy Coleman and Betty Field’s “acting” turns as small town girls gone crazy. Coleman plays the doctor’s daughter, Louise, who lets Reagan’s Drake get away. Louise loses it when she loses Drake, especially when, because of her father, Drake loses his legs. Coleman’s acting is typical of the movie era, which emulated stage acting: lots of telegraphing emotions, but little real feeling.

Attempts at turning Betty Field into a leading lady were mixed. She fare better
later as a character actress in 'Picnic,' 'Peyton Place,' and 'Butterfield 8.'
Whose idea was it to cast Betty Field as Cassie Tower, the prettiest girl in Kings Row, as she is referred to several times? The long, curly blonde wig, glamour makeup, and soft lighting don’t disguise her dumpy figure and sharp, scowling features. Oddly, Field looks like a funny-faced version of Ann Sheridan. Cassie is an unstable girl whose father—another doctor yet!—feels it best to keep her locked away at home. Fields’ idea of playing crazy—eyes darting from side to side—as Cassie carries on a secret affair with Parris, is right out of the silents.

The supporting cast really makes this movie, as often is the case with these episodic epics. They breathe life here, from Maria Ouspenskaya as Parris’ nurturing grandmother, to Charles Coburn and Judith Anderson as the heartless doctor and stone cold wife, to Harry Davenport and Minor Watson as knowing locals, and especially Claude Rains as Henry Tower. His doctor is haunted by an insane wife and a daughter who seems to be following suit. Rains was a great character actor who was allowed to show his versatility, seldom the case during the studio era.

Claude Rains, wonderfully nuanced as the tormented Doctor Tower.
Kings Row is more American gothic than later colorful small town movies like Picnic or Peyton Place. Despite some lacking leads, this is studio filmmaking at its best, when skilled studio technicians and performers came together and made movie magic.

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