Kings Row successfully navigates around the edges of the movie-style soap opera to bring us a memorable look at how that most hallowed slice of Americana, the clean, pretty, small town, was just as susceptible to madness, corruption and pointless violence as any big city. At least until the last 20 seconds of the movie when the lame and unconvincing happy ending rears its ugly head.
Claude Rains is a doctor who works in the emerging field of psychiatry. He takes Parris Mitchell (Robert Cummings) under his wing and teaches him all about headshrinking.
Claude’s Dr. Tower also has a daughter named Cassie. She’s a prime piece of townie tail and the movie begins with her and Parris as kids in a nice sequence that manages to evoke those carefree times along with the heartbreak that usually accompanies growing up in small towns. (Like no one showing up for your birthday party because your mom is such a freak that your dad has to keep her locked up in the attic!)
Parris also hangs out with rich playboy Drake McHugh. They end up playing with a girl named Randy from literally the wrong side of the tracks. I think I speak for most of us rich playboys when I say that low class girls named Randy are a perk of our profession.
The childhood sequence ends with Cassie tearfully telling Parris that her daddy is taking her out of school and teaching her at home and that she can’t hang out with him anymore. Thus begins the anti-homeschooling plotline.
The movie skips ahead to after high school and we find that Parris has come back to Kings Row. Parris hooks up with his old pal Drake (now played by Ronald Reagan) and Drake has turned into quite a fine young man whose only goal in life is to take girls “buggy riding” as he puts it. Of course he can only get the plump Ross sisters to go because no decent girl would be caught buggy riding with a spoiled rich kid who is just marking time until he can get his hands on his trust fund.
Parris is going to be a doctor and he’s going to study under Dr. Tower. No one has seen little Cassie Tower though since he started homeschooling her when she was just about to hit puberty!
Parris gets to see her briefly when he goes over to Tower’s house, but the doctor makes it clear that he doesn’t want Parris to use the front door anymore since Cassie hangs around it like a dog needing to be let out to take a dump. Periodically, he gets glimpses of her and eventually during a storm, they embrace and make out as the lights blink and the thunder crashes outside.
Later that night, Cassie comes over to see Parris at Drake’s house and she wants to run away with him and he babbles on about how he’ll settle down with her once he finishes medical school in a billion years and she tears off into the night back home. Tragedy naturally ensues the following morning.
Parris goes off to Vienna and the movie shifts focus and we see Randy and Drake falling in love. Everything is swell until Drake finds out that the bank president has ripped off his trust fund and gone off to Mexico. Can’t these guys ever catch a break?
Drake is broke and has to sell his beloved buggy (goodbye Ross sisters!) and also has to sell his house. Soon Drake is a bum and we know this because like in all old movies where good looking guys turn into bums, they grow this three-o’clock shadow, turn their jacket collar up and shuffle along with that tramp gait they all seem to instinctively know. He even gets wasted at the saloon and tossed into the drunk tank!
Eventually he gets a job on the railroad and Randy still likes him even though her lottery ticket just got voided. There’s an accident in the rail yard one day and this allows Reagan to voice the classic “where’s the rest of me” line that turned out to be the highlight of his acting career.
Parris again comes back to Kings Row to help out Drake. Dark secrets surface and things play out in effectively chilling fashion.
Nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Kings Row retains much of its dramatic power, though so many terrible things happen to so many people, it sometimes veers dangerously close to overkill.
The best thing about this movie is Ronald Reagan’s performance. He has a definite screen presence (more so than star Robert Cummings who looked and acted like a smug simp) that engages as soon as he first appears on screen. His scenes with Ann Sheridan (Randy) are particularly strong, whether they are exchanging playful banter, bitter truths, or just trying to get by.
The movie can be overwrought and a tad shrill in places (the dialogue between Parris and Cassie is fairly egregious at times), but the performances of Reagan, Sheridan, and the supporting cast overcome that and when you find out the truth about Drake’s situation, the utter waste of human potential is palpable.
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