KINGS ROW (Sam Wood, 1942)

“Where’s the rest of me?!” Ronald Reagan delivered his most celebrated onscreen line playing Drake McHugh, a one-time playboy whose legs are unnecessarily cut off by a surgeon whose daughter Drake jilted, in Kings Row, a Peyton Place-type late nineteenth-century melodrama about the “realities” of small-town American life hidden behind an optimistic, even idyllic façade—sort of like Reagan himself. (Rival off-screen lines of Reagan’s: “There you go again,” “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”) Sam Wood directed from Casey Robinson’s adaptation of Henry Bellamann’s popular 1940 novel. Bellamann himself dissed the film for letting in too much comforting sunshine. It is frightening to consider that the film isn’t dark and dank enough for some people.
     Occasionally hysterical, and saddled with Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s most overwrought score, this is not a good movie; it certainly isn’t a brilliant one, as is, from that same year, Orson Welles’s small-town The Magnificent Ambersons, from Booth Tarkington. But Wood’s film is, for the most part, beautifully acted. Reagan memorably delivers Drake’s post-surgical big line, but better still are Ann Sheridan, as Randy, Drake’s supportive working-class wife, and Charles Coburn, as Dr. Gordon, who performs the double surgery on Drake. Sheridan brings warmth and integrity to her role, and sweeping emotion, while Coburn is unnervingly complex as Gordon, who may not be conscious of why he has done what he has done, which makes his medical judgment truly chilling. (Apparently Dr. Gordon has left a trail of surgically removed limbs behind him.) At year’s end, both Sheridan and Coburn were honored by the National Board of Review for their outstanding acting.
     Judith Anderson is sharp, too, as Gordon’s wife. Regrettably, Robert Cummings is less convincing in the central role of Parris Mitchell—the budding good doctor to Gordon’s bad one.
     Ralph Dawson, who had won three Oscars for editing, is at his nimblest here. Whatever positive impression the movie makes owes far more to Dawson’s contribution than to Wood’s direction.
     Finally, a note about punctuation. In print, the title of this film sometimes appears as King’s Row or as Kings’ Row, neither of which makes any sense. (Nobody named King, nor any royalty, lives in the town depicted.) This mistake would reach its zenith of absurdity with the sometime mispunctuation of another title, here given in its correct form: Howards End.

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