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Kings Row, a Town Both Idyllic and Sinister

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Dusty is an avid classic movie fan who wants to share movie stories and evoke conversation about them.

Movie Poster

Cast

Kings Row

2 hrs. 7 mins Drama, Mystery, Romance 1942 7.5 stars

Director: Sam Wood

Cast: Ann Sheridan - Randy Monaghan

Robert Cummings - Parris Mitchell

Ronald Reagan - Drake McHugh

Betty Field - Cassandra Tower

Charles Coburn - Dr. Henry Gordon

Claude Rains - Dr. Alexander Tower

Nancy Coleman - Louise Gordon

Kaaren Verne - Elise Sandor

Maria Ouspenskaya - Madame Von Eln

Harry Davenport - Col. Skeffington

Ilka Gruning - Anna

Note: Spoiler alert. This review reveals the outcome of the movie

Troubled Cassie Fears Being Seen

Frightened and Aloof Cassie (Betty Field) and Parris (Robert Cummings)

Frightened and Aloof Cassie (Betty Field) and Parris (Robert Cummings)

Synopsis

The start of the movie shows two young kids, Parris Mitchell and Cassie Tower walking home from school in a rural area outside a small town in Middle America in the later part of the 19th century. It’s an idyllic setting in the heartland during the Victorian era. They go to a favorite pond and swim sans bathing suits.

Soon, however, the mood shifts as Cassie has a birthday party and only a few friends attend. Parris, of course is there; they are childhood sweethearts. Cassie wears her disappointment on her sleeve. When Parris says his goodbyes he thanks Cassie’s father Dr. Tower (played by Claude Rains) and asks to talk to Cassie’s mother too. That request is denied. We see Cassie’s mother peer out the window, but that is all. No one in town ever sees her.

On his way home Parris is joined by his best friend, Drake McHugh. He was at a different party, that of a very popular girl, Louise Gordon. The two go by a house where they encounter a distraught school mate, whose father’s voice is moaning, screaming out with pain from within the house, a ghastly sound. He’s being operated on by Dr. Gordon (played by Charles Coburn) who is not using anesthesia. Parris and Drake meet up with a girl from the other side of the tracks, Randy Monaghan, and they hang out for the afternoon.

At school the next day Cassie delivers the sad news that she will no longer be permitted to go to school; they will never be able to see each other again.

Parris who is orphaned is being raised by his grandmother, Madame Von Eln. (played by Maria Ouspenskaya) they have an extremely warm, fond and healthy relationship.

Years pass by and the next scene shows all these characters as young adults. Parris (played by Robert Cummings) aspires to be a doctor and he begins to study under Dr. Tower. One day when coming to the house he sees Cassie (played by Betty Field) for the first time since they were kids. She’s aloof and mysterious. She acts alternately as if she wants to see him and then doesn’t want to be seen by him. Dr. Tower, when asked will not discuss Cassie and asks Parris to always enter his office by a side door.

In the meantime Drake (played by Ronald Reagan) is in love with a young woman named Louise Gordon (played by Nancy Coleman) who is the daughter of Dr. Gordon who had performed the non –anesthetized surgery in the previously mentioned scene. Dr. and Mrs. Gordon don’t approve of Drake because of his wild ways and they forbid Louise from seeing him. This sets up animosity between Dr. Gordon and Drake.

One stormy night Parris goes to Dr. Tower’s and runs into Cassie who is very happy to see him. Dr. Tower is out of town and they share a romantic evening.

Days later Parris’ grandmother dies; he has lost his entire family all that was left of his family. He plans to go to medical school in Vienna.

One night while Parris is staying with Drake Cassie comes to the door visibly frightened and asks Parris to take her with him to Vienna, but Parris says, “No”.

The next Day the town learns that Cassie was killed by her father just before he shot himself. Parris also learns that Dr. Tower has left all his possessions to him! Parris studies Dr. Towers’ notes and realizes that Cassie’s mother had died of dementia and that Dr. Towner had determined that Cassie had developed all the symptoms of it herself. Dr. Tower had poisoned her to save her from the devastating inevitable outcome of that illness. Parris then decides that in medical school he will specialize in the practice of Psychiatry.

As Parris boards the train to depart Drake sees him off and their childhood friend, Randy (played by Ann Sheridan) also happens to be there. As the train departs Drake takes Randy for a ride in his buggy and a romance begins to develop. Often Drake will drive past his old girlfriend, Louise’s, house to make her jealous; he’s not over her yet. As time goes on he grows fonder of Randy and becomes steadier with her. Randy is from the wrong side of the tracks whereas the others mentioned are from the wealthy area of town.

In time there is a bank scandal and the bank manager skips town with all the funds. Drake’s sizable inheritance is missing and he is plunged into instant poverty. He is destitute and jobless. In desperation he goes to Randy’s father and asks for a job in the rail yards. He gets one and begins to work on the night shift.

Then one night a stacked pile of freight collapses on Drake as he is walking along the tracks. Some worker nearby rescue him and send for a Dr. Gordon. The doctor decides to operate and amputate both of Drake’s legs.

After the operation Drake recuperates in Randy’s house. It is of course very dramatic when he awakens to learn that his legs have been amputated. His mood shifts back and forth as he deals with this awful realization. In the midst of this time Randy announces that she will marry him. Her family, father and brother, are very supportive.

Randy writes to Parris in Vienna explaining all that has happened. Parris returns and starts a psychiatric practice in town.

Louise is one of his first patients and she is troubled because she believes that her father, Dr. Gorgon, who by this time is recently deceased, purposely and unnecessarily amputated Drake’s legs.

At about this time Parris sees a woman at the idyllic pond of his youth who reminds him of Cassie – he thinks he sees a ghost. It is not; rather it is the daughter of the man who bought his house while he was studying in Vienna, Elise (played by Kaaren Verne). She invites him to dinner and to meet her father. It is a very cordial evening and both Parris and Elise fall in love.

One night Louise goes to Randy’s house where Drake, now Randy’s husband, lies bedfast. Louise tells Randy that her father purposely maimed Drake. This is something Randy knows but upon Parris’ advice has kept hidden from Drake.

Parris debates whether to commit Louise and thereby prevent Drake from learning this awful truth. In discussing the situation with Elise she advises him to forget that Drake is his friend and treat him like any other patient. Parris decides then and there to go and confront Drake with the truth. When he does so Drake reacts quite positively and it becomes a turning point in his recuperation – in fact he laughs; all will be well.

Where's the Rest of Me!

Drake awakens to find his legs missing!

Drake awakens to find his legs missing!

Analysis

This is a complex story which takes place in a seemingly idyllic little town somewhere in the Midwest. The town holds dark secrets, though, which reveal themselves as the plot progresses. What is instrumental in holding the audience is the constant wondering about the various mysteries slowly emerging as the plot unfolds.

The movie tackles difficult topics such as class distinction, mental illness and the nascent study of psychiatry. It tackles the effects upon a town wrought by a sadistic surgeon. But it also portrays the indomitable human spirit and the bond of love and friendship.

The movie attempts to show us that not all that seems idyllic really is. That such a nice town could harbor darkness is not a unique theme. In 15 years Hollywood will again smash our sense of small town ideals when it gives us Peyton Place and in only 13 years it will do so with Picnic (which also stars Betty Field and which I will review next month) . But in Kings Row there is a sense that good is victorious over evil.

We are shown the strata of the town in the contrast between Randy’s family and the other characters in the cast. Parris and Drake are from wealthy families. Dr. Gordon and his family are wealthy as are Dr. Tower and his family. They are from the professional class. Randy is across the tracks from a working class background. This distinction plays into how the characters interact with each other, most notably in the relationship that develops between Drake and Randy, a relationship that only progresses after Drake loses all his money.

The most prominent and dark underlying theme is that of mental illness. There are really two different cases brought forth in this movie. The first is the Tower family. Dr. Tower sought to isolate his daughter, Cassie, away from society by holding her back from school and curtailing her interaction with Parris. She showed signs of the dementia that doomed her mother. Not knowing how to treat it her father, tragically, choose to end it in a murder/suicide. He did this in desperation because he neither knew, nor could find any other way. To him institutions were a far worse alternative.

The second case was that of the other doctor in town, Dr. Gordon. He had a sadistic approach to medicine and took delight in torturing his patients should he deem them to be sinners. He judged the people of the town by his standards and treated them accordingly. He was known to perform surgery and not use anesthetic. In the situation with Drake he was doubly upset. He didn’t like Drake’s bombastic behavior in general, but closer to his home he didn’t like Drake parading Randy, who let me remind you is from the poor side of the tacks, in front of his house to make his daughter, Louise, jealous.

A third doctor arises midpoint in the movie. It is Parris freshly returned from the study of medicine in Vienna. He has been touched by the miseries from the previous two doctors and his presence will bring healing to those affected.

His treatment releases Louise from the malaise she’s been suffering due to the knowledge of her father’s butcheries. Parris is also able to release Drake’s internal imprisonment due to Dr. Gordon having amputated his legs. Parris must step back from the role of Drake’s friend and for a moment just be Drake’s doctor. All attention is on Drake as Parris delivers the news that the amputations were unnecessary and even more, vengeful. The release frees Drake to go on with his life.

Parris runs into the arms of Elise who has helped him to realize he must be professional with Drake at that moment and not merely a friend.

Drake Steels Himself for Parris' News

Parris tells Drake the amputations were unnecessary

Parris tells Drake the amputations were unnecessary

Tidbits

In November 1985 Ronald Reagan was meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva. As they walked together for a private meeting in a cozy boathouse to discuss nuclear disarmament, “they did not talk about anything of substance, chatting instead about some of the movies Reagan had made in the 1940s. Gorbachev even mentioned that he had recently watched one of Reagan’s best movies, Kings Row, and had liked it very much. (from “Reagan’s Secret War” by Anderson and Anderson 2009 pg. 237).

From IMDB:

Ronald Regan titled his 1965 autobiography after his biggest line in this movie: "Where's the rest of me?" He described this movie as the best in which he appeared.

From IMDB:

The fanfare theme Erich Wolfgang Korngold wrote for the movie was a direct inspiration for John Williams to write the main theme for Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977). This was a request by George Lucas, along with the 20th Century Fox fanfare opening credit

Trailer

Where's the Rest of Me!

The Final Scene