For one of my final entries into my Warner Archive Watch-a-Long we travel to the small town of Kings Row for a good, old-fashioned melodrama. I wasn’t sure how I was going to recap this movie, because honestly half the fun of a melodrama is going along with the story and being surprised by all the twists and turns. So, this is going to be a little briefer than my other recaps but hopefully it will preserve the surprises for future viewers.
In the small town of Kings Row several children are growing up. Among them are Parris Mitchell who is being raised by his French grandmother, and Parris’ best friend Drake McHugh. Drake is the orphan son of some very wealthy people but who basically does as he likes while paling around with Parris. Other members of the town are Cassandra Tower, daughter of Doctor Tower (Claude Rains), and Louise Gordon, daughter of Doctor Henry Gordon (Charles Coburn). Both doctors are not what they first appear to be, and both harbor secrets. Doctor Gordon is the more popular and accepted of the two, and so it is that almost no one turns up to Cassandra’s birthday party. Louise has decided to throw her party on the same day and has stolen away all Cassandra’s guests, as most inhabitants of Kings Row would prefer to avoid the Tower home with its secrets and whispers. Parris, having always cared for Cassandra, has gone to the Tower party and is met on his way home by Drake. Drake has attended Louise’s party but admits to Parris that he probably should have gone to Cassandra’s instead. As they walk they stop by another friends home, where they find that his father is to be operated on by Doctor Gordon for treatment of his ulcers. Hideous screams come from the room above and the boys hurry away, while their friend bangs and cries on the front door. Continuing on their walk the two friends begin playing with Randy Monaghan (who will be played by Ann Sheridan), a girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Randy is easy-going and fun to play with, and the three children have a wonderful time. Later that night, while on his way home, Parris runs into Cassandra who tearfully tells him that her father is taking her out of school. She won’t tell Parris any more than this and runs off.
Many years pass and Parris (Robert Cummings) is now a grown man, interested in pursuing medicine. He is still friends with Drake (Ronald Reagan), and still pines for Cassandra (Betty Field). The year is now 1890, and Parris decides to take up studying medicine under the tutelage of Doctor Tower. While in the house, he finally sees Cassandra again for the first time in years. After some difficulties the two begin a secret relationship, with Drake as the only confidant. Drake meanwhile, intends to marry Louise but her parents are staunchly against the union. Drake is persistent and is willing to go against their wishes in order to be with Louise, but Louise is not wiling to go against her parents wishes.
Parris’ grandmother is now older and has fallen ill. It is decided that no one will tell Parris the true magnitude of her diagnosis until he is ready to attend medical school. Doctor Gordon is attending to her and it is soon discovered that her terminal cancer is progressing more rapidly than previously thought. She soon succumbs and in his grief, Parris turns to Doctor Tower for comfort. Through his conversations with the older man, Parris decides to take up the new medical field of psychiatry. Doctor Tower tells Parris that his studies with him are now complete and that he will send on an application for entry into a medical school in Vienna. Cassandra is becoming more and more agitated around Parris but continues to refuse to tell him why she is not allowed out of the house, and why her father kept her out of school. Parris is convinced that Cassandra is being mistreated by her father and resolves to take her away with him. He proposes marriage to Cassandra but she refuses him and runs from the room. Later that night, while Parris and Drake are talking, Cassandra bursts into Drake’s house and wildly begs Parris to take her away with him when he goes to medical school in Vienna. Then just as quickly she turns and runs from the house, leaving a bewildered Paris behind. He hurries after her and sees Doctor Tower sitting on the front porch. Intending to have it out with the man, Parris steps forward but is stopped by Drake who advises waiting until the morning.
The next day dawns and Drake brings Parris some coffee and his breakfast. He wants Parris to drink his coffee before he tells him the terrible news he has just learned. It has to do with Cassandra and her father…
I honestly don’t want to go any further into the story because I don’t want to ruin it. The best part of this film is the way it just sweeps you up into the soap opera drama with twists and turns and shocks galore. This was a tough sell for a movie script during the time of the Hayes code. The book it is based on, written by Henry Bellmann, featured such things as incest, adultery, and suicide. In fact, the head of the Hayes office wrote an open letter about the novel’s unsuitability for filming. The producers agreed to remove much of the offending content and instead make a movie focusing on an idealistic young doctor’s journey and his reactions to the world he sees around him. If this is what was left in, I can’t imagine what was cut out from the book!
While Robert Cummings plays the “hero” of the story, I found myself drawn to the story of Drake and Randy much more. Ronald Reagan called this film the best he was ever in, and I tend to agree with him. The breadth and scope of this story is sweeping, and the challenges faced by the characters are many. As an actor, Ronal Reagan must have enjoyed the chance to play such a wide range of emotions and situations. Ann Sheridan is also great, portraying a real “stand-up gal”. Randy is no wilting daisy and she stands up to meet any challenge head on. It was a refreshing change, even from the other female leads in the film.
KINGS ROW is a soap opera if ever I saw one, but it is a soap opera of quality. Peyton Place has nothing on the people of Kings Row! It also is worthwhile to note that the novel was based on the town of Fulton in Missouri, Bellamann’s hometown. Just think if this is what went on in Fulton, what could be happening behind closed doors in your hometown?