Claude Rains, Ronald Reagan, Robert Cummings, Betty Field, and Ann Sheridan in Kings Row (1942)


(director: Sam Wood; screenwriters: Casey Robinson/from the novel by Henry Bellamann; cinematographer: James Wong Howe; editor: Ralph Dawson; music: Erich Wolfgang Korngold; cast: Ann Sheridan (Randy Monoghan), Robert Cummings (Parris Mitchell), Ronald Reagan (Drake McHugh), Claude Rains (Dr. Alexander Tower), Betty Field (Cassandra Tower), Charles Coburn (Dr. Henry Gordon), Judith Anderson (Mrs. Harriet Gordon), Nancy Coleman (Louise Gordon), Maria Ouspenskaya (Madame von Eln), Kaaren Verne (Elise Sandor), Scotty Beckett (Parris Mitchell, as a boy), Douglas Croft (Drake McHugh, as a boy), Mary Thomas (Cassandra Tower, as a girl), Joan Duvalle (Louise Gordon, as a girl), Ann Todd (Randy Monaghan, as a girl), Ilka Gruning (Anna, servant); Runtime: 127; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Hal B. Wallis; Warner Bros.; 1942)

“The film that made the future President Reagan a movie star.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The film that made the future President Reagan a movie star, as he gives his finest performance ever. It’s a bleak portrayal of a supposedly idyllic American small town at the turn of the last century, exposing its warts and dark secrets as it follows the intersecting destinies of several of the characters. Kings Row pays homage to the Victorian Era that offers a glimpse at what one lawyer sadly says is a passing of “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.” It’s based on the best-seller novel by Henry Bellamann and written by Casey Robinson. Sam Wood (“The Devil and Miss Jones”/ “Saratoga Trunk”/”The Pride of the Yankees”) directs probably his best film.

It’s set in the fictitious Midwestern town of Kings Row, in 1890, whose roadside sign proclaims ‘A good clean town. A good town to live in. A good place to raise your children.’ It opens with sensitive adolescent Parris Mitchell, a wealthy orphan raised by his cultured and kindly grandmother, Madame von Eln (Maria Ouspenskaya), who is attracted to his lonely classmate Cassandra, but her strange but brilliant psychiatrist father, Dr. Tower (Claude Rains), removes her from school to be home taught and keeps her isolated. Parris’s only male friend is the rakish Drake McHugh. They both play with the feisty working-class tomboy Randy and the uppity sheltered Louise, whose father is the rigid Dr. Henry Gordon (Charles Coburn) and her mom (Judith Anderson) is the stern puritanical backer of her hubby.

Some ten years later, upon his regal grandmother’s suggestion, Parris (Robert Cummings) studies medicine with Dr. Tower before going to a Vienna medical school. Parris then begins a secretive relationship with Cassie (Betty Field), meeting in Drake’s house. Drake asks Louise (Nancy Coleman) to marry him despite the disapproval of her moralistic father. But Louise doesn’t have the nerve to go against her parents’ wishes. Meanwhile, Parris’ wise grandmother soon dies of cancer.

The film gets very intense and overwrought at this point. The unstable Cassie wants to join Parris in Vienna, where he opts to become a pioneering psychiatrist. But he’s shocked to learn that Dr.Tower poisons Cassie and shoots himself, surprisingly leaving his entire estate to Parris. Tower’s notebook reveals that he killed Cassie because she was insane like her mother and wished to prevent Parris from ruining his life by marrying her.

With Parris studying in Vienna, Drake romances Randy Monaghan (Ann Sheridan) and becomes a home builder of affordable worker homes. But when his trust fund is stolen by a crooked bank officer, Drake is forced to work for the railroad. Accidentally crushed by a boxcar, Drake is treated by Dr. Gordon. Because of Gordon’s hatred of Drake, he amputates his legs needlessly. The film’s most memorable line has a legless Drake waking up from the surgery and wondering ‘Where’s the rest of me?’ This line later became the title of his autobiography.

When Parris learns Randy and Drake married and of his friend’s misfortune, he offers them money to start over. Parris takes a break from his studies to visit Kings Row, and when he learns of Dr. Gordon’s death he decides to fill his shoes as the local doctor. Parris learns from an embittered and shell-shocked Louise that her father amputated Drake’s legs because he believed it was his duty to punish the wicked. Parris soon finds a way to tell Drake this, who takes the news with a sense of relief that he can now get on with his life. Then Parris begins a romance with Elise Sandor (Kaaren Verne), whose family is living in his former residence.

The perverse and turgid melodrama is uneven, but has some impressive moments. It adroitly got by Breen’s Production Code censorship by writer Robinson removing the novel’s suggestions of incest, homosexuality and euthanasia in the film adaptation.