Adult Movies

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Kings Row

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 14, 2015

You might be surprised how frank and detailed and dark this 1942 production is. The fact that it was adapted from a celebrated novel, or at least a very popular one, would have helped. Also, operatic melodramas sometimes seemed to get some extra consideration, or indulgence, from the censors. Now, having suggested how surprisingly frank Kings Row is, you’ll see it and still find it quite mild. Yes the pendulum has swung quite astoundingly, disastrously in the other direction, but this really is another example of how the watchdogs really did effectively infantilize American commercial cinema, for year and years and years. What were they protecting us from? Or who did they think they were? Some of us are still grappling with the implications, aren’t we?

I would like you all to try to get a hold of this film’s celebrated score, composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. He’s a very important film artist, but for now I just want to listen to cue for the opening titles, and see if it sounds a little bit familiar. Don’t you think?

Special commendation goes to the cinematography by the remarkable James Wong Howe. (I would also like you all to read up on his exemplary, wide-ranging career, with more than its share of extra difficulty attached to it.) If classical, pussyfooting Hollywood was often insulting to grown-up sensibilities, its consistently high technical accomplishments really do go far toward balancing the accounts. Such craft, from so many, for so long! All maddening, contradictory things considered, the whole huge collective is something of a miracle, as is its almost immeasurable output.

You’ve been misinformed, perhaps. Ronald Reagan is very charming in this picture, until a shocking plot turn requires him to find another gear. He does so, very capably. It occurs to you that people can only work with what they’re given, and that we too often accept inadequate accounts of richer realities.

Kings Row—that’s right, no possessive or apostrophe—is much admired, but I’m not sure that it’s so much celebrated. Director Sam Wood is not part of any auteurist pantheon. That is right, but films like his, as mentioned, help us to remember and recognize the collective nature of these productions. Especially impressive is the cast, and how it reflects Hollywood’s remarkably rich stables of talent. Anne Sheridan’s luminosity, Robert Cummings’ happy wholesomeness, in the midst of all the outlandish goings-on, the gothic overcast of the Claude Rains/Betty Field relationship, and the performances that drive it home: it’s always been true for audiences, but critical analysts and academics need to remember how central the star and co-stare are, in most every circumstance. (Also, get a load of Charles Coburn!)

It’s not auteurist, and it’s not aggressively ideological either. But Kings Row still does very well with the tracking of its characters’ moral hypocrisies, with the delineation of an uptown/downtown class structure, as well as a very interesting contrast provided by its attitude to Europe, Vienna, psychoanalysis, and such. Mark Twain’s attitude to Europe tends to prevail in American pictures during this long period, though it’s sometimes attended by Henry James’ or Sinclair Lewis’s mixed feelings. Here, fervour, and very interesting it is too. I might have mentioned this before, but maybe it goes better at the end. There’s lots of blood and thunder in this one. That being true, I’ll finally refer and pay tribute to a gleamingly beautiful prologue in which childhood is portrayed as a beautiful garden (albeit with snakes in the vicinity!). In other or with all these words, a good one!