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Kings Row

Kings Row
Movie poster
Directed by Sam Wood
Produced by Hal B. Wallis
Screenplay by Casey Robinson
Based on Kings Row (1940 novel) 
by Henry Bellamann
Starring Ann Sheridan
Robert Cummings
Ronald Reagan
Betty Field
Charles Coburn
Claude Rains
Judith Anderson
Maria Ouspenskaya
Music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Cinematography James Wong Howe
Edited by Ralph Dawson
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
February 2, 1942
Running time
127 minutes
Language English
Budget $1,081,698[1][2]
Box office $5.093 million[1]

Kings Row is a 1942 film starring Ann Sheridan, Robert Cummings, and Ronald Reagan that tells a story of young people growing up in a small American town at the turn of the twentieth century, beset by social pressure, dark secrets, and the challenges and tragedies one must face as a result of these hard facts. The picture was directed by Sam Wood.

The film, which was Ronald Reagan's most notable role during his early acting career at Warner Brothers,[3] was adapted by Casey Robinson from a best-selling 1940 novel of the same name by Henry Bellamann.[4][5] The movie also features Betty Field, Charles Coburn, and Claude Rains. The musical score was composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and the cinematographer was James Wong Howe.

In the film, Reagan's character, Drake McHugh, has both legs amputated by a sadistic surgeon, played by Coburn. When he comes to, following the operation, he gasps in shock, disbelief, and horror, "Where's the REST of me???" Reagan used that line as the title of his 1965 autobiography. Reagan and most film critics considered Kings Row his best movie.[3] Reagan called the film a "slightly sordid but moving yarn" that "made me a star."[6]


  • Plot summary 1
  • Cast 2
  • Cast notes 3
  • Production notes 4
  • Kings Row and the Hays Code 5
  • Themes 6
  • Musical score 7
  • Critical reaction 8
  • Awards 9
  • Television series 10
  • See also 11
  • References 12
  • External links 13

Plot summary

The film commences in 1890 in the small town of Kings Row, focusing on five children. They are Parris Mitchell, who lives with his grandmother; Cassandra Tower, daughter of Dr. Alexander Tower; the wealthy orphan Drake McHugh; Louise Gordon, daughter of the sadistic town physician Dr. Henry Gordon, who has been known to perform operations without anesthetic; and the tomboy Randy Monaghan, whose father is a railroad worker.[7]

Drake McHugh (Ronald Reagan) with two lady friends in Kings Row.

Parris is attracted to Cassandra, whom the other children avoid because her family is "strange": her mother is confined to the house and never seen. Dr. Tower takes Cassie out of school and Parris does not see her again until years later, when he begins his medical studies under Dr. Tower's tutelage.[7]

Parris' best friend, Drake, intends to marry Louise despite the disapproval of her father. Louise, however, refuses to defy her parents and will not marry him. Parris and Cassie begin a secret romance, seeing each other at Drake's house. At about this time, Parris' grandmother becomes ill from terminal cancer and dies as he is about to go to Vienna for medical school. Parris, who decides to study psychiatry, proposes marriage to Cassie. She initially resists, running away, but later begs him to take her with him to Vienna. She then runs away again, back home.[7]

The next day, Parris learns that Dr. Tower has poisoned Cassie and shot himself and has left his estate to him. He learns from Dr. Tower's notebook that he killed Cassie because he believed he saw early signs that she might go insane like her mother, and he wanted to prevent Parris from ruining his life by marrying her, just as Tower's life had been ruined by marrying Cassie's mother.[7]

Dedicated young doctor Parris Mitchell (Robert Cummings) is secretly in love with his mentor's daughter.

While Parris is in Vienna, Drake's trust fund is stolen by a dishonest bank official. He is forced to work for the railroad, and his legs are injured in a boxcar accident. Dr. Gordon amputates both of his legs. Drake, who had been courting Randy before the accident, marries her but is now embittered by the loss of his legs and refuses to leave his bed. Nonetheless they commence a business, begun with Parris' financial help, building houses for working families. When Parris suggests they move into one of the homes they've built, away from the railroad tracks and sounds of the trains that plague Drake, he becomes hysterical and makes Randy swear to never make him leave the room.[7]

Parris returns to Kings Row and decides to remain there, when he learns that Dr. Gordon has died, leaving the town with no doctor. Louise reveals that her father amputated Drake's legs, unnecessarily, because he hated Drake and thought it was his duty to punish wickedness. Parris at first wishes to withhold the truth from Drake, fearing it will destroy his fragile recovery. He considers confining Louise to a mental institution, even though she is not insane, to prevent the truth from being revealed to Drake and other victims of her father. But instead, persuaded by his new friend Elise (Kaaren Verne) to treat Drake like any other patient rather than his best friend, he tells Drake what happened. Drake reacts with defiance and summons a renewed will to live instead of the deep clinical depression Parris had feared. Parris is now free to marry Elise, having helped his old friend return to a productive life.[7]


Cast notes

Twentieth-Century Fox originally sought to buy Bellamann's novel as a vehicle for Henry Fonda.[8] Philip Reed, Rex Downing, and Tyrone Power were considered for the role of Parris.[8] Producer Hal B. Wallis borrowed Robert Cummings from Universal Studios when Twentieth-Century Fox refused to lend Power.

Ida Lupino, Olivia de Havilland and Ginger Rogers were initially considered for the role of Cassandra. Director Sam Wood pushed hard to cast Lupino, saying that she "has a natural something that Cassie should have." Wood believed that de Havilland, who turned down the role, was too mature for the part. Lupino also turned it down, despite Wallis' emphatic arguments, saying that it was "beneath her as an artist."[9]

Bette Davis wanted the part, but the studio was against it because it was believed that she would dominate the movie, and Davis later suggested Betty Field. Among the other actresses considered for Cassandra were Katharine Hepburn, Adele Longmire, Marsha Hunt, Laraine Day, Susan Peters, Joan Leslie, Gene Tierney and Priscilla Lane.[6][8][9]

James Stephenson was originally cast as Dr. Tower but died, and was replaced by Claude Rains.

Before Eddie Albert, Robert Preston, and Franchot Tone.[6][8] Although Reagan became a star as a result of his performance, he was unable to capitalize on his success because he was drafted into the U.S. Army to serve in World War II. He never regained the star status that he had achieved from his performance in the film.[6]

Production notes

Wolfgang Reinhardt turned down an assignment to produce the film, saying, "As far as plot is concerned, the material in Kings Row is for the most part either censurable or too gruesome and depressing to be used. The hero finding out that his girl has been carrying on incestuous relations with her father...a host of moronic or otherwise mentally diseased characters...people dying from cancer, suicides-these are the principal elements of the story."[8]

The pivotal scene in which Drake McHugh wakes up to find his legs amputated posed an acting challenge for Reagan, who was supposed to say "Where's the rest of me?" in a convincing fashion. In City of Nets, Otto Friedrich noted that the movie had a formidable array of acting talent, and that the scene in which he saw that his legs were gone was his "one great opportunity." Reagan recalled in his memoir that he had "neither the experience nor talent to fake it," so he carried out exhaustive research, talking to disabled people and doctors, and practicing the line every chance he got.[6]

On the night before the scene was shot he had little sleep, so he looked suitably worn out, and Sam Wood shot the scene without rehearsal. He called out for Randy, which was not in the script, but Ann Sheridan was there and responded. The scene was effective and there was no need for another take.[6]

Kings Row and the Hays Code

Parris (Robert Cummings) and Cassandra (Betty Field); their illicit romance disturbed the Hays Office.

A film adaptation of Bellamann's controversial novel, modeled on his home town of Fulton, Missouri, presented significant problems for movie industry censors, who sought to bring the film into conformity with the Hays Code. Screenwriter Casey Robinson believed the project was hopeless because of the Hays Code. Producer Hal B. Wallis said that Robinson felt "I was crazy to have bought so downbeat a property." Wallis urged him to reconsider, and it occurred to Robinson that he could turn this into the story of "an idealistic young doctor challenged by the realities of a cruel and horrifying world."[6]

Joseph Breen, director of the Production Code Authority, which administered the Hays Code, wrote the producers that "To attempt to translate such a story to the screen, even though it be re-written to conform to the provisions of the Production Code is, in our judgment, a very questionable undertaking from the standpoint of the good and welfare of this industry."[3]

Breen objected to "illicit sexual relationships" between characters in the movie "without sufficient compensating moral values", and also objected to "the general suggestion of loose sex...which carries throughout the entire script." Breen also voiced concern about the characterization of Cassandra, who is a victim of incest with her father in the novel, as well as the mercy killing of the grandmother by Parris also depicted in the novel, and "the sadistic characterization of Dr. Gordon."[8]

The creepy Dr. Tower (Claude Rains) commits incest with his daughter Cassandra in the novel. Censors forbade that in the film.

Breen said that any screenplay, no matter how well done, would likely bring condemnation of the film industry "from decent people everywhere" because of "the fact that it stems from so thoroughly questionable a novel. He said that the script was being referred to his superior, Will Hays, "for a decision as to the acceptability of any production based upon the novel, Kings Row."[9]

Robinson, Wallis and associate producer David Lewis[9] met with Breen to resolve these issues, with Wallis saying that the film would "illustrate how a doctor could relieve the internal destruction of a stricken community." Breen said that his office would approve the film if all references to incest, nymphomania, euthanasia and homosexuality, which had been suggested in the novel, be removed. All references to nude bathing were to be eliminated and "the suggestion of a sex affair between Randy and Drake will be eliminated entirely." It was agreed that Dr. Tower would know about the affair between Cassandra and Parris, and "that this had something to do with his killing of the girl."[9]

After several drafts were rejected, Robinson was able to satisfy Breen.[3][6]


Bellaman, a professor at Vassar College, was a disciple of Honoré de Balzac, and his novel was in the tradition of Winesburg, Ohio and was a forerunner of the popular 1950s novel Peyton Place.[6]

The film begins with a billboard promoting Kings Row as "A Good Town. A Good Clean Town. A Good Town to Live In and a Good Place to Raise Your Children." In his book City of Nets, author Otto Friedrich says that beneath the tranquil small town exterior was a "roiling inferno of fraud, corruption, treachery, hypocrisy, class warfare, and ill-suppressed sex of all varieties: adultery, sadism, homosexuality, incest."[6]

The film is a eulogy for American small town life in the Victorian era. At one point a character laments at seeing Parris' grandmother getting older: "A whole way of life. A way of gentleness and honor and dignity. These things are going... and they may never come back to this world."[3]

Musical score

The film's musical score, by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, was so popular with the public that the Warner Brothers Music Department drafted a form-letter response to queries concerning recordings or sheet music. At the time, film scores for movie dramas were not published or recorded for commercial distribution.[9]

A soundtrack was not commercially available until 1979, when Charles Gerhardt, made an early digital recording. Subsequently, the original soundtrack, with the composer conducting, has been released from an optical recording.

Kings Row is considered one of Korngold's most notable compositions. The original orchestral score was requested by the White House for the inauguration of President Reagan. Prolific film composer John Williams drew inspiration from this film's soundtrack for his famous Star Wars opening theme.

Prior to release of the film, the Los Angeles Daily News reported that Bellaman "heads west to help Erich Wolfgang Korngold on the scoring" of the film, and that Bellaman used to be on the faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. This led Korngold to write a sarcastic letter to the head of studio publicity at Warner Brothers, saying, "seriously, should I really stop working and wait for the arrival of Mr. Bellaman? ... However, if he shouldn't arrive in time to help me, I shall certainly be ready to 'head east'—perhaps I could help him in writing his new book!"[9]

Critical reaction

photograph of two men
Dr. Gordon (Charles Coburn) confronts Drake McHugh (Ronald Reagan), whose legs he later needlessly amputates. The film's "gloom" dismayed critic Bosley Crowther.

New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther panned Kings Row, which he described as being as "gloomy and ponderous" as the novel upon which it was based. "Just why the Warners attempted a picture of this sort in these times, and just why the corps of high-priced artists which they employed for it did such a bungling job," Crowther wrote, "are questions which they are probably mulling more anxiously than any one else." Crowther said that the film "turgidly unfolds on the screen," and is "one of the bulkiest blunders to come out of Hollywood in some time." The performances, particularly Cummings', were, he said, "totally lacking in conviction." The film, he said, "just shows a lot of people feeling bad."[10]

Later reviewers have viewed the movie favorably, however, and the film received a 100% rating from Rotten Tomatoes, a film-review aggregator.[11]

Time Out Film Guide described the film as "one of the great melodramas" and "as compulsive and perverse as any election, a veritable Mount Rushmore of emotional and physical cripples, including a surgeon with a penchant for unnecessary amputations, a girl who 'made friends on one side of the tracks and made love on the other'."[12]



The film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White (James Wong Howe), Best Director and Best Picture.

Television series

The film was adapted into a 1955 television series, with Jack Kelly (who later portrayed Bart Maverick in Maverick) in Cummings' role and Robert Horton (who subsequently played scout Flint McCullough in Wagon Train) performing Reagan's part. The show appeared as one of three rotating series on the earliest William T. Orr production, Warner Bros. Presents. The other two series were Casablanca, another TV version of a renowned movie (featuring Charles McGraw in Humphrey Bogart's role), and Cheyenne, starring Clint Walker, a Western later produced by Roy Huggins that went on to its own time slot for several years until it started rotating with Bronco, another Warner Bros. Western. At the conclusion of each episode of Warner Bros. Presents, host Gig Young would interview a different actor from a new Warner Bros. movie about the studio's latest theatrical release. Kings Row ran for seven episodes.

See also


  1. ^ a b H. Mark Glancy, "MGM Film Grosses, 1924–1948: The Eddie Mannix Ledger," Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television , 12, no. 2 (1992), pp. 127–43
  2. ^ Ed. Rudy Behlmer Inside Warner Bros (1935–1951), 1985 p 208
  3. ^ a b c d e Wood, Brett. "Kings Row". TCM website. Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved March 24, 2009. 
  4. ^ Variety film review; December 24, 1941, page 8.
  5. ^ Harrison's Reports film review; December 27, 1941, page 208.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Friedrich, Otto (1997). City of nets: a portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s. University of California Press (reprint). pp. 86–89.  
  7. ^ a b c d e f "Full Synopsis for Kings Row (1942)". TCM website. Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved March 24, 2009. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f "Notes for Kings Row (1942)". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved March 24, 2009. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f g  
  10. ^  
  11. ^ "Kings Row". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved March 24, 2009. 
  12. ^ "Kings Row (1942)". Time Out Film Guide. Retrieved March 24, 2009. 
  13. ^ "Kings Row: Review". TV Guide. Retrieved March 24, 2009. 

External links

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