Five children in an apparently ideal American small town find their lives changing as the years pass near the turn of the century in 1900. Parris and Drake, both of whom have lost their parents, are best friends; Parris dreams of becoming a doctor, studying under the father of his sweetheart Cassie, while Drake plans on becoming a local businessman when he receives his full inheritance - juggling girlfriends in the meantime. As they become adults, the revelations of local secrets threaten to ruin their hopes and dreams.
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
Judith Anderson ... Mrs. Harriet Gordon
Nancy Coleman ... Louise Gordon
Kaaren Verne ... Elise Sandor
Maria Ouspenskaya ... Madame von Eln
Harry Davenport ... Colonel Skeffington
Ernest Cossart ... Pa Monaghan
Ilka Grüning ... Anna (as Ilka Gruning)
Pat Moriarity ... Tod Monaghan
Minor Watson ... Sam Winters
One of the best remembered films of the 40\'s, \"King\'s Row\" has gotten more attention because of Ronald Reagen\'s \"Where\'s the rest of me?\" line than anything else in the film. Sixty years later, \"King\'s Row\" as a film holds an important place in American history for more reasons than just a famous line barked by a future American president.
The central character is Paris Mitchell (Robert Cummings), the epitome of goodness and virtue. Raised by his loving grandma (Maria Ouspenskaya) in a wealthy home, Paris has been taught to love beyond his social standing, and ends up giving back to society what his grandmother gave to him. The secondary lead is Drake McHugh (Reagen), a spunky young man who is Paris\'s best friend. Paris is sometimes too good to be believed; McHugh is a full-bodied character, supporting in status, who steals interest away from the lead.
Paris and Drake are surrounded by characters of all classes, good and bad, who have major impacts on their lives. Dr. Towers (Claude Rains) is a mysterious doctor (without any patients) who lives as a recluse thanks to the insanity of his wife. Towers\' daughter, Cassie (Betty Field), loves Paris, but Towers does all he can to keep them apart while training Paris to become a doctor. Then, there is surgeon Dr. Gordon (Charles Coburn), seemingly good on the surface, but filled with a dark streak on the inside that would ultimately destroy Drake. His wife (Judith Anderson) supports him, but daughter Louise (Nancy Coleman) is desperately in love with Drake, and would do anything to be with him, even defying her parents.
A childhood chum, Randi Monahan (Ann Sheridan) is the spunky girl from the other side of the tracks who grows up to be a beautiful and kind woman. Drake\'s bankruptcy brings him and Randi together, while Paris goes off to Europe to study psychiatry after a tragic incident at Dr. Towers\' house. During Paris\' absence, Drake has an accident which Dr. Gordon is brought to. That night changes everyone\'s life forever.
Robert Cummings is not a poor actor, but certainly not one of the best out of Hollywood. Handsome Cummings tried to change his image with this film, but was totally outshined by Reagen who proved that with the right preparations, he could be an excellent actor. I am not a Ronald Reagen fan-politically or as an actor, but he is massively impressive here. His other film credits were filled with forgettable performances, but this one I must honesty say he was worthy of an Oscar nomination which he did not receive. Also worthy of a nomination was Ann Sheridan, even though she does not make her appearance until Paris leaves for Europe. Her strength and devotion to Drake give Sheridan the chance to stretch all of her acting muscles, and Sheridan does it impressively. Sheridan, unlike her male co-stars, did have a respectable list of acting credits, and it is a pity that she was never acknowledged during her lifetime for her talents.
As two different style of doctors, Rains and Coburn give two different styles of performances. Rains is quietly sensitive and filled with pain as to the torture he feels concerning his wife and daughter; Coburn, on the other hand, has everything; a wife who loves him, and a seemingly strong daughter. However, once his dark side comes through, Coburn becomes absolutely hissable. Unlike Rains, whom we sympathize with, Coburn never once wins us over. Such a lovable actor in other films, he really had a different type of part here, and chews it up like a dog on a fresh steak bone!
Ouspenskaya always gives me chuckles in the wrong places. The scene where young Paris speaks French to her through the open windows of their home is laughabily over the top. Later, when Ouspenskaya is dying, she expresses such a over-the-top nobility that on several occassions, I found myself saying, \"Would you just die already?\" Wide-eyed Betty Field makes the most of a small part as Cassie Towers; Nancy Coleman\'s Louise Gordon goes from sane to psycho in such a short span that I can\'t help but wish there had been more to fill in what drove her there. Screen villainess Judith Anderson sadly is underused in her few scenes as Mrs. Gordon. I longed for her to have one truly evil scene, yet felt sympathy for her when she confided her fears of Louise\'s insanity to Paris Mitchell. Small appearances by Harry Davenport and Kaaren Verne are charming, yet undeveloped.
In spite of these faults, I find \"King\'s Row\" remains a favorite of mine, thanks to its delightfully charming yet gaudy small town atmosphere (reminding me of Ripley, New York-the small town I grew up in), the marvelous musical score, and the simply breathtaking photography. Strongest of all is Sam Wood\'s direction which makes the film flow smoothly from one sequence to the next. \"King\'s Row\" would have made an excellent daily soap opera, and in fact did appear briefly in the 50\'s as a prime time series.
I\'ve only recently seen this film in its entirety (after decades of watching the clip of Ronnie Reagan\'s best scene in it) and am totally surprised by how fine this film really is; in fact, when it ended, I found myself wanting to burst into applause. But to appreciate it you must put yourself into the time it was made, mid- to late 1941. This picture was meant to be an \"A\" picture (that is, the first picture to be shown on a double bill, or the only film being shown) showcasing the up and coming generation of Warners actors. None of the young players was particularly well-known, except in supporting roles. The older players were all familiar to film, theater and radio audiences. Radio, since radio drama was a major national venue then and all of these older players, in fact, most major stars, had starring roles in radio plays.
This picture would have been shown in its first run in the chain of theaters owned by Warners, mostly large ones, and shown in a large house, holding an audience of a thousand people or more, with a very large screen yards wide and high and a sound system that was louder and definitely more \"high fidelity\" than any member of the audience had at home or had heard anywhere else.
The book on which the film was based had been a scandalous best seller two years before and many if not most had read it (people read books then!) and in fact many in the audience were probably alive when this film takes place, in the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th. Everyone would have been familiar with the style of dialogue and acting, which seems stilted to us, since it originated on the stage, with no microphones; the costumes, customs and speech would have been in living memory for many watching it in its first run, if not theirs, then their parents\'.
As for Korngold\'s superb score, this too was a familiar part of a theatrical experience at the time. Most stage plays had live incidental music accompanying them. All major Broadway plays did. Opera, operetta and vaudeville were all part of the audience\'s experience, all with live music as part of the experience, and no one would have found Korngold\'s score obtrusive, just part of the show and gorgeous to hear. In fact, Korngold\'s score for \"Robin Hood\" in 1938 was premiered live on network radio as a major event, before the picture opened!
As for black and white, these films were truly in \"black and white\" on the big screen. Blacks WERE black and whites were silvery white. We see then on video screens, and so far, even with the best of those, these films look to be in \"gray and grayer\", with not the high contrast they had in the theater. So we dismiss them as flat and lifeless; in the theater, black and white has quite a lot of depth and sparkle.
So in its proper context, this film is really quite astonishingly good. The production design is by the same man who designed the look of \"Gone With the Wind\", so there are the gorgeously composed shots, the depth of field, use of light and shadow and attention to detail in that film. Even the landscapes, matte paintings that so many of them are, most have looked quite beautiful projected large. The acting is all first rate. All the actors, in their late twenties and early thirties, are playing younger than their ages. Cummings has the right wide eyed innocence of an only child reared in relative isolation by his grandmother, Sheridan is beautiful and true, Reagan lively and cocky, and Field, the disturbed adolescent. Reagan is the real surprise here; totally unaffected, he acts effortlessly here on film, building a character, listening to the actors in the scene and reacting in the moment. And his best scenes, \"THAT\" one, and the final scene, are excellent.
And when it ends, with a flourish those audiences would have found entirely familiar and even comforting, I can imagine an audience of a thousand bursting into prolonged applause.
For those who made fun of President Reagan\'s movie career by always citing \"Bedtime for Bonzo\" and laughing may be surprised if they take the time to watch \"Kings Row.\" Even \"Bedtime for Bonzo\" is not as bad as those who have never seen it think it is, because of the ridiculous title. The former sports announcer plays Drake McHugh as well or better than any other Hollywood actor of the period could have. He stands tall among an extremely talented group of actors, including several others who have also been underrated and never received their due by the Hollywood establishment, especially Bob Cummings and Ann Sheridan. There\'s also Judith Anderson of \"Rebecca\" fame; Claude Rains who first made a name for himself in a part were he was invisible through most of the film; Charles Coburn, the grand old man of 40\'s cinema, playing against type in \"Kings Row\" as not such a grand old man; Maria Ouspenskaya in a non-horror role; and Betty Field shines as the tortured soul, Cassie.
Sam Wood\'s magnificent direction plus the acting keep the story from slipping into soap opera melodrama. True heart-rending sentiment rather than sappy sentimentality emerges from the social and economic conflicts that mix with human kindness and cruelty in small-town America at the turn of the last century. Though there is an element of nostalgia for a vanishing America, it never becomes petty or commonplace.