Filmsite Movie Review
Kings Row (1942)
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Background

Kings Row (1942) is a thought-provoking, emotional, melodramatic, 'Peyton Place'-like film with a turn-of-the-century, small-town setting that reveals evil, sadism, cruelty, and depravity. Directed by Sam Wood and with James Wong Howe's cinematography and Erich Wolfgang Korngold's magnificently rich score, the tragic Warner Bros. film presents a compelling, penetrating and difficult story with eloquence and power. Wood had previously directed two Marx Brothers films, Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), Our Town (1940), Kitty Foyle (1940), Raffles (1940), and The Devil and Miss Jones (1941).

Its screenplay by Casey Robinson was based upon Henry Bellamann's widely-read, scandalous 1940 novel of small-town life at the turn of the century. The film's main characters were originally five childhood friends, including an idealistic young doctor Parris Mitchell (Robert Cummings), a pretty tomboyish working class girl Randy Monaghan (Ann Sheridan), the neurotic sheltered daughter Cassie (Betty Field) of the town's Dr. Alexander Tower (Claude Rains), the daughter Louise Gordon (Nancy Coleman) of a sadistic, morally-righteous doctor (Charles Coburn), and playboy Drake McHugh (Ronald Reagan in his best film role), with the unforgettable scene of his realization that his legs have been amputated -- and his exclamation: "Where's the rest of me?" This would later become the title of 40th President Ronald Reagan's auto-biography first published in 1965 (but updated in 1981).

The film's tagline commented on the nature of the town: "The town they talk of in whispers." The Hays Code of 1934 required that much of the questionable, unfilmable content of the novel be modified - eliminating or seriously muting subjects such as illicit premarital sex, homosexuality, a sadistic and vengeful surgeon, and father-daughter incest leading to a murder-suicide. The wartime film was nominated for three Academy Awards with no wins (all lost to William Wyler's Mrs. Miniver (1942)): Best Picture, Best Director, and Best B/W Cinematography.

The Story

The prologue of the film opens in 1890 in a small Midwestern town [Fulton, Missouri in the novel], with the town's sign ironically reading:

A GOOD TOWN, A Good Clean Town, A GOOD TOWN TO LIVE IN, and a good place to RAISE YOUR CHILDREN.

The childhoods of the five leading characters is introduced:

The film then jumps ahead ten years, as Parris Mitchell studies medicine under the tutelage of his tutor - the stern, secretive, and reclusive local physician Dr. Alexander Tower (Claude Rains).

Dr. Tower explains to his student Parris what psychic disorders are:

Hysteria is a kind of psychic belly-ache, brought on by worry. The victim runs this way and that way to get out from under. He invents escapes. He invents disguises. You've seen the most effective disguise of all. When everything is too bad, he invents a disguise so effective he doesn't know himself. Then, we say the man is crazy.

The young man experiences a tragic and violent love affair with his childhood sweetheart, Tower's emotionally-disturbed, tremulous, agitated and doomed daughter Cassie, who allegedly suffers from dementia praecox inherited from her mother. Dr. Tower murders Cassie because of her insanity, but really because she has become pregnant, and because of her sexual relationship with Parris. Then, the doctor kills himself in an act of suicide. [In the novel, Cassie was afflicted with nymphomania, not insanity. Dr. Tower's diary revealed that the warped doctor had eliminated his wife and then committed incest with his daughter in order to study its psychological effects. He then killed Cassie when she threatened to leave him and go to Parris.]

Parris' best friend in town is Drake McHugh, who has married the free-spirited Randy Monaghan. After Parris returns from studying in Vienna and sets up his practice in the town of Kings Row, old friends and enemies from his past confront him.

The sanctimonious Dr. Henry Gordon (Charles Coburn), the town's sadistic and vicious surgeon who often performs needless operations to dutifully "punish wickedness," has spitefully amputated both of Drake's legs (to seek revenge for Drake's earlier relationship with his daughter Louise), following an accident in the railroad yards. Louise confronts her father with her strong opinions about his monstrous butchery, and is banished to her upstairs room - and threatened with incarceration in a mental institution:

Louise: You monster, you fiend! (She is slapped to the ground) I'll let the world know what you are if it's the only thing I'll ever do. Tomorrow, tomorrow I'll tell everyone. I know what you are. I know all about you and your operations.
Dr. Gordon: You are going to bed at once.
Louise: I will not, I'm going to tell...I will tell, I will tell, I will tell! I'll tell them.
Dr. Gordon: This is enough of your willful tantrum. If you persist, there is one thing I shall have to do.
Louise: What?
Dr. Gordon: If you utter one more word of the kind of nonsense I've heard from you, I shall commit you to an asylum.

The best-remembered part of the film is the pained realization by Drake that his legs have been amputated (his body literally 'castrated'). He cries out for Randy as he looks down:

Where's the rest of me?

Drake calls for Parris as he sinks back onto his bed.

In one of the closing scenes, Parris - after rapidly returning from Vienna to be with his friend, hugs his friend in a joyous reunion, although Drake averts his eyes in shame. To comfort him, Parris places his right cheek next to his friend's face. He attempts to save his boyhood friend from depression and suicide. In the intensity of the moment, Randy leaves the room and invokes the Virgin Mary three times:

Mary, blessed Mother of God.

As a pioneering psychiatrist, Parris attempts to help Randy persuade Drake that he still has a reason to live, even though Gordon's surgery was deliberately cruel and "unnecessary". (An eyewitness confirms Louise's account: "I looked good at them legs, and the bones in neither one of 'em was broke up one bit.") Rather than conceal the news from Drake and act malevolently by sending Louise to an asylum to cover up her assertions, Parris decides to tell Drake the truth as his doctor. Beautiful, 19 year-old girlfriend Elise Sandor (Kaaren Verne), a new resident of the town from Vienna who resembles Cassie, convinces Parris that he must tell Drake everything:

He is your best friend. Perhaps you protect him too much.

In the final scene, Parris boldly reveals the truth about Drake's amputated legs and Gordon's butchery, after reciting half of 19th-century English poet William E. Henley's sixteen-line Invictus (meaning unconquerable or undefeated in Latin) - a poem about self-determination. Remarkably, after being told the horrifying news, the crippled Drake refuses to be broken:

Parris: Stick your chin out, Drake.
Drake: Why?
Parris: You're gonna get the worst wallop you ever had.
Drake: Yeah? Who's gonna do it?
Parris: I am.
Drake: Start swingin'.
Parris: It's something about you and Louise Gordon and her father.
Randy: Parris!
Parris: She was here today, Louise was. She wanted to tell you and I wouldn't let her...I've sent Louise out to tell anyone she pleases. But saying it to you I saved for myself.
Randy: (begging) I won't let you Parris, please...
Parris: I'm not your friend now, you're not mine. I'm your doctor. You're my patient. It's as if I've taken you in the operating room and I have the scalpel in my hand which may make you - or destroy you.
Drake: What's this all about, kid?
Parris: My grandmother used to say, some people grow up and some people just grow older. I guess it's time we found out about us, you and me, whether I'm a doctor, whether you're a man. You know the kind of man I mean, Drake. There's a piece of poetry, Invictus. I don't think I remember all the words.

'Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody - but unbowed.'

I don't know if you can take it, Drake.
Drake: Give it to me.
Parris: Dr. Gordon cut off your legs. I don't know if it was necessary. He was that kind of butcher, who thought he had a special ordination to punish transgressors. With you he had a double incentive because of Louise. Heaven knows what else. The caverns of the human mind are full of strange shadows, but none of that matters. The point is he wanted to destroy you, oh, not literally. He wanted to destroy the Drake McHugh you were. He wanted to see you turn into a life-long cripple, mentally as well as physically. That's all there is, Drake. Now, if you'd turn your face to that wall.
Drake: (after a long pause, he chuckles) That's a hot one, isn't it? Where did Gordon think I lived, in my legs? Did he think those things were Drake McHugh? Spout that poetry again, Parris. I never was any good at poetry.

Courageously liberated and resurrected, Drake tightly hugs Randy, as he triumphantly grins and laughs:

What was it you wanted, honey? To build a house? We'll move into it in broad daylight. And we'll invite the folks in, too. For Pete's sake, let's give a party. I feel swell.

As an eloquent chorus of Invictus is sung in the background, Parris watches them, and then backs out of the room, quickly goes down the stairs, exits the front door and hurries down the walk through the gate. He runs from the Monaghan house to the Von Eln place. He runs across a long expanse of lawn to embrace Elise in his arms. The film's tremendous, climactic ending never fails to deliver.