Scanned, copy-edited, spell-checked and tagged by Ted Blake, The University of Virginia, 11/10/95.
A small-town melodrama which mounts a devastating critique of its subject, Kings Row was remarkably ahead of its time. It was not until the '50s that the small-town melodrama, through the films of such major directors as King Vidor (Ruby Gentry, 1952), Douglas Sirk (All I Desire,All That Heaven Allows, 1955) and Vincente Minnelli (Some Came Running, 1959; Home from the Hill, 1960) developed an equivalent critical perspective, and in some respects Kings Row still seems a more subversive work than any of these. But, although many critics have indicated a liking for the film, none, to the best of my knowledge, has set out to demonstrate in detail its exceptional qualities. On the fiftieth anniversary of its first review in The Motion Picture Herald (December 1941), this is a long overdue attempt to give the film its due.
After the rigorous enforcement of the Production Code in 1934, Hollywood films which sought to criticise in any fundamental sense 'the American way of life' became officially impossible to make. They could be critical of certain aspects of society-as in the social problem film-but they could not subvert the great American institutions: marriage, the family, capitalism, the state, the law etc. And, although the small town was not exactly an institution, it was in an important sense a hallowed image of America, embodying certain myths and ideals. And so, again, whilst criticism could be made of certain features of the small town-both Fury (Fritz Lang, 1936) and They Won't Forget (Mervyn LeRoy, 1937) contain savage indictments of small-town mob violence-a film which proceeded to depict the society as deeply corrupted over a long period of time was almost inconceivable. Kings Row is such a film.
When Casey Robinson, the film's script-writer, first read Harry Bellaman's 1941 novel, he considered it unfilmable. The major problem is that it contains father-daughter incest. However, he saw a solution in 'translating the incest into an inherited tendency towards insanity. After the script was finished, he and Hal Wallis, the producer, still had to convince the Production Code official-Geoffrey Shurlock, subsequently Head of the Code Office, replacing Joseph Breen-that the novel had been suitably laundered and that all 'wrong-doers' were now suitably punished or penitent. Robinson recalls that the arguments went on all day before agreement was reached. How certain incidents and lines got through that process is however still a mystery: think of Cassie's extraordinary outburst: ' I hate it-I hate everything-I'd hate God if I could, but there's nothing you can reach!'
Only when the script was finished was Sam Wood brought in as director. And, as lames Wong Howe has pointed out, all the shots in the film were storv-boarded in advance by William Cameron Menzies in his capacity as production designer, a function he performed for Wood on a number of films of the time, beginning with Our Town (1940). With Menzies looking after the visual design of the movie and Wong Howe, a master cinematographer, looking after the ligating, Wood was essentially responsible for directing the actors: And he made an excellent job of it: Ronald Reagan gives what is surely the performance of his Hollywood career. Finally, Erich Wolfgang Korngold composed an outstanding musical score for the film, a major contribution to its success. Without doubt, Kings Row is an example of Hollywood teamwork at its very best; a remarkable synthesis of inspired contributions.
As a small-town melodrama, Kings Row deals with a whole spectrum of themes, motifs and dramatic situations of the sub-genre. The films power and intensity have been generally acknowledged, but it is its thematic density which is most extraordinary. Because of this density, it is convenient to analyse the movie under a series of sub headings.
The film begins 1890. In the thirteen minute prologue, during which the five central characters of the younger generation are still school children, many of the later concerns and developments are anticipated. Firstly, the Prologue is a model of narrative exposition. Virtually all the main characters are thigh would 'take the switch' to her if he knew about the introduced, together with a number of vital structural oppositions: the social contrast between Dr. Tower and Dr. Gordon (shown in the attendance at the parties of each of their daughters, Cassie and Louise); the class distinctions between suburbia (Parris Mitchell and Cassie), uptown (Drake McHugh and Louise), and downtown (Randy Monaghan and Willie Mackintosh), with Cassie and Randy, who never meet in the film, at two extremes. That Parris and Drake (Willie Mackintosh is dropped as a character after the prologue) move freely through different zones of the town whilst the girls are far more restricted introduces a motif that will be developed significantly developed later in the film. For example, Randy has to wait for Drake to return to her part of the town as in the prologue, he is in effect coming from Louise) before their relationship as adults begins. Above all, the prologue contains highly significant preechoes of later events. Dr. Gordon's operation without anaesthetic on the legs of Mr. Mackintosh anticipates his amputation of Drake's legs. Not only does Parris and Cassie's illicit bathing later, he kills her when he finds out about her sexual relationship with Parris. In fact, he kills her when he discovers that she's pregnant. although this is only revealed through veiled hints.) Similarly, Mrs. Tower's being shut away upstairs in the house anticipates Cassie's future, which is already foreshadowed at the end of the prologue, when Cassie waits at the stile to tell Parris that her father has just told her that she will no longer be attending school. Indeed, the setting and ending of this scene-which we later learn was Parris and Cassie's final meeting as children-will be repeated in their penultimate scene together as adults, when Cassie flees from Parris and, in close up, he calls in vain after her. There are also more subtle pre-echoes. The difference in tone of the two main heterosexual relationships is already present in the contrast between the secretiveness of Parris and Cassie's illicit bathing as against the fun of Drake and Randy's swinging on the rings in Elroy's Ice House. (Parris is with Drake in the ice house, but he isn't comfortable swinging on the rings. Randy points out that his pants are too tight and suggests that he takes them off. He declines-'Nothing on under them'-which clearly suggests that he has been decidedly forward in taking them off to go swimming with Cassie.) In addition, throughout the prologue, an opposition is established between the children outdoors and the adults indoors. Only Parris is shown indoors and, when he first arrives home, the film visualises the opposition: with the camera inside the house, he is shown moving round the outside, greeting Madame von Eln, his grandmother (in French!) from a succession of windows. Both children's parties are held out of doors. Implicitly, the houses are the domain of the adults, and the children are repeatedly shown as having significant problems with the power they wield in them. This is crystallised in a motif which echoes through the film: the children making or attempting to make uninvited and/or wild incursions into the house-almost always, in defiance of adult authority. The motif occurs twice in the prologue. Dr. Tower firmly blocking Parris's attempt to go Upstairs and said goodbye to Mrs. Tower, and Willie Mackintosh hysterically throwing himself against the locked door of his own home when he hears his father screaming in pain at Dr. Gordon's operation'. Before discussing the motif, however, it is necessary to establish the significance of the film's representation of the two doctors.
The two blocked incursions relate to another significant linkage established in the prologue: the adults who provoke the incursions, Mrs. Tower and Dr. Gordon, are first glimpsed at upstairs windows. This connects the two doctors as agents of repression' within the town: Mrs. Tower has been shut away upstairs by Dr. Tower: Dr. Gordon closes the window preparatory to his sadistic operation: we learn later that the lack of anaesthetic caused Mr. Mackintosh to die of shock. The contrast between the doctors socially thus becomes much less significant than the similarities between them morally. Each is ultimately revealed as a monsters, and in each case this is expressed through the doctor's relationship with his daughter. Dr. Gordon is unambiguosly a monster. As Louise says to Parris 'He thought it was his duty to punish wickedness'. Apart from Mr. Mackintosh, about whom we know only that he lives, like the Monaghans, down by the railroad tracks, Gordon's major victim in the movie is Drake. And there is no question that he amputate Drake's legs (which is as close to castration as one could imagine in a Hollywood movie) as revenge for Drake's earlier relationship with Louise, even though all the evidence points to Drake not having had sex with her. But Drake's stepping in to protect Parris after Dr. Tower has killed Cassie-Drake claims that it was he who was dating Cassie-occurs immediately after Dr. Gordon has discovered that Cassie was pregnant (There's something about the girl'): Gordon thus considers he has evidence of Drake's promiscuity. (Hence the significance of Gordon's malignant look which follows Drake as he walks away from the house.) In the scene when Louise watches Drake and Randy drive by her house, Mrs. Gordon makes reference to her husband's conclusions: 'Your father is a doctor, and if you know what I know... When a Boy runs around with a girl like that...' Louise interrupts her 'I wish it was me!' This Suggests strongly that Louise is still a virgin, and the film's audacity in allowing her to wish it were otherwise is registered in Mrs. Gordon's appalled reaction.
When Drake has his accident and her father is summoned to the depot, Louise follows him down there. We see her when she returns home: she knows what her father has done and why. In a father/daughter confrontation of extraordinary virulence, she accuses him of being a monster and he strikes her to the floor. She then says she'll expose him: 'I know all about you and your operations'. But his power as a doctor is too great. He calls her accusations insane, and says that, if she utters one more word about them, he'll have her committed. Like Cassie before her, Louise, too, is then shut away.
The evil doctor did of course occur in American films prior to Kings Row: in the horror movie. But, as Robin Wood has pointed out, horror throughout the '30s was located firmly outside America, in Europe or on remote islands. Kings Row marks the entry of the evil doctor into the American small town. The point is underlined by the film's horror movie overtones: Dr. Tower's Gothic house, with its shadowy, low key interiors; Dr. Gordon's sadistic operations. There is also a more suggestive reference to the horror movie. Parris does not hear about Louise's accusations against her father until late in the film. When he returns to Kings Row from Vienna, where he has been studying psychiatry. Despite his own earlier misgivings about Gordon-who has since died-Louise's claim is so shattering that he turns to Colonel Skeffington, a lawyer and the towns only non-malevolent picture of patriarchal authority, and asks himself if her accusations could be true. The latter agrees that they could be-'sadistic surgeons are not unknown in medical history'-and adds
'You wouldn't be shocked if you heard of it happening in some remote town in Europe': the Frankenstein connection.
Dr. Tower is a more complex character than Dr. Gordon: he performs the good function of educating Parris as well as the evil one of killing his daughter. But why does he kill Cassie? When Casey Robinson came to adapt the novel, this was his big problem. In the novel, when Parris reads Tower's diary after the two deaths (having killed Cassie. Tower committed suicide), he deduces from it that Tower was having an incestuous relationship with Cassie, that he had killed his wife to get her out of the way and that he killed Cassie when she threatened to leave him to go off with Parris. To account for this, the novel has to make Tower into a madman. Nevertheless, in bringing incest into the story, Bellaman is rather self-consciously incorporating what Leslie Fiedler has called the major underground concern of the American gothic tradition. In other words, just as the movie makes use of the horror genre to suggest a dark underside to the small town, so Bellaman in the novel is utilizing the deepest horror of the American gothic genre-the fear and attraction of incest, exemplified above all in Poe-to feed into his story. In fact, it is brother-sister incest that Fiedler describes in such terms, and Bellaman could not go quite that far. However, such an idea was surely at the back of his mind: the names Parris and Cassandra cannot be 'innocent' and, in the story of Troy, Paris and Cassandra were brother and sister.
Robinson's solution to the problem is extremely neat. He has preserved the same sequence of events as the novel with regard to the Parris-Cassie-Dr. Tower story, but provided a name for schizophrenia. Mrs. Tower had it, Cassie inherited it from her and so Parris's conclusion is that Tower killed Cassie to protect him, Parris, to prevent him from being saddled with the burden of an insane wife. One would be right, I think, in being suspicious of such an interpretation. First, because the events leading up to the deaths are the same as in the novel, it all becomes a question of interpretation. Tower doesn't leave a suicide note as such, he leaves, unlocked, a hither to locked 'diary' which has 'Parris Mitchell' on the cover, a clear signal to Parris to read it. Parris is thus drawing conclusions from Tower's own account, which could indeed have been prepared for him (the long time gap between his killing Cassie and his committing suicide is pointedly mentioned). Second, Robinson has added Cassie's pregnancy which is not in the novel. And so Tower kills her when the fact of her pregnancy is realised: an act which smacks of the revenge of a jealous lover rather more than that of a punitive father. Third, we see no hard evidence that Cassie is suffering from any kind of mental illness. And, even if she did show such signs, these could well have been induced in her confinement. On a modern reading, as Andrew Britton has pointed out to me, any symptoms or schizophrenia Cassie did show could be attributed-within the perspective established by R.D. Laing-to her threatening, claustrophobic family situation. And so, not only are the traces of the incest motive not expunged from the film, but Tower is implicitly indicted on the count of being the likely cause of whatever symptoms Cassie may have shown. Fourth, since Parris in the novel only realises in retrospect that Tower was insane, and since the man's actions and characterisation are essentially the same in the film, such a reading is at least available for the film. His conviction that his wife and Cassie were schizophrenic would then be a reflection of his own insanity. Given the parallels the film develops between the doctors in shutting their daughters away, and given that we know Louise is sane, doubts are clearly thrown on Tower's motives. Finally, whatever reasons Tower may have had killing Cassie makes him into a monster.
Both doctors presume to play God: to decide the fates of other people, even to the extent of who should live and who should die. But the film goes even further: when Parris returns to Kings Row as the new doctor, he almost behaves in the same way. He is summoned by Mrs. Gordon to see Louise: terrified of what Louise threatens to make public about Dr. Cordon, Mrs. Gordon wants Parris to silence her. But, just as she wants to protect the memory of Gordon, so Parris wants to protect Drake: he's convinced that Drake is better off in ignorance about Gordon's sadistic revenge. And so, Parris actually contemplates doing what Dr. Gordon threatened and Mrs. Gordon wants: have Louise committed, even though he, too, knows she isn't ill. The film goes right to the edge of completely subverting its hero, of making him, too, into a monster.
That the two doctors should be the film's villains is remarkable. The doctor in small-town melodramas is traditionally a highly respected member of the bourgeois community, often, indeed, a moral authority to whom the hero or heroine will turn for advice. In the '5Os melodramas mentioned earlier, the doctor-who occurs in almost all of them-is precisely such a figure. In other words, in this respect Kings Row is a decisively more subversive world than its more lauded successors.
The evil dominance of the two doctors is further expressed by their powers to suppress dissent. Sam Winters, the sheriff, was present when Gordon operated on Drake, and we learn afterwards that he was fully aware that the legs weren't broken, but he nevertheless kept silent. Even more damning, ideologically speaking, is the way Colonel Skeffington is implicated. Until Gordon's death, Skeffington is only ever seen in his company, and so we naturally assume that the two men are friends. Thus it hardly seems likely that Skeffington could have remained in total ignorance of Gordon's predilection for sadistic operations. We note that Parris had suspected him some time ago as is shown when he asks Tower if Gordon can be trusted and Skeffington himself is not surprised when Parris asks him about Louise's accusations. But this raises the highly damaging question: what was this figure of patriarchal authority doing all those years whilst his friend went around killing and maiming people?
As is indicated by the two linked moments in the prologue, the doctors exercise a particular control over the upstairs'. The confinement to bedrooms of both Drake and Louise in the later stages of the movie is a direct consequence of Gordon's butchery of Drake, and it is a further measure of Gordon's power that, even after his death, they both remain confined. In Kings Row, the bedroom upstairs are associated with imprisonment, pain, dying, 'castration' and the threat of losing one's mind and, with the exception of Madame von Eln's dying, these associations arise directly from the doctors' activities. In other words, they do not simply suppress sexuality, but turn the bedroom into a site of agony.
In the film's opening shot, Kings Row is introduced through the town sign, which reads 'A good town-A good clean town-A good town to live in-and a good place to raise your children'. Once one has seen the film, the irony of this is obvious. One of the most remarkable features of the film as a small-town melodrama is the almost total absence of religion: five significant characters die, but we see no funerals and, in particular, we see no church or Priest throughout the movie. The only positive reference to religion is Randy's 'Mary, blessed mother of God', repeated three times when Parris returns from Vienna to see Drake. But it is more than matched by Cassie's hysterical outburst against an inaccessible God. Implicitly, Kings Row seems like a town in the grip of the Devil, controlled, until the last few scenes, by two monstrous doctors, whose very ability to 'play God' is a measure not just of their evil, but also of a society which frequently seems helplessly in their power.
In Melodrama and the American Cinema, I suggest a number of theoretical approaches to film melodrama, using as a starting point Robert B. Heilman's theories about theatrical melodrama, in which he distinguishes between the three fundamental dramatic modes of tragedy, melodrama and comedy. Briefly, he distinguishes melodrama from tragedy in terms of 'dividedness': in melodrama the world is divided (into good and evil, weak and strong, oppressed and oppressors), whilst man is 'whole'; in tragedy, man is divided, torn between conflicting values and desires. And so, in melodrama the forces with which the hero must grapple are external-oppression, corruption etc; whereas in tragedy the forces are internal. He then distinguishes melodrama from comedy in terms of 'acceptance': the melodramatic mode is one of protest resistance, challenge etc; whereas the comic mode is one of 'acceptance': accommodation, compromise, 'a coming to terms with "the ways of the world"'. A useful development of Heilman's model may be found in James Smith's monograph on melodrama, in which he divides melodrama into three sub-categories: melodramas of triumph, defeat and protest.
With its polarisation of good and evil, and its constant sense of a world in which the young people have to struggle against oppression etc, Kings Row is a classic example of melodrama on the Heilman model. What Heilman refers to as the 'monopathic' state of characters in melodrama manifests itself above all in the impulsiveness of the young people: the tendency to react 'blindly' to events, lacking a sense of selfawareness. But it is often the case that the finest melodramas can, nevertheless, articulate a 'tragic', perspective through the very blindness of the characters. This occurs in Kings Row in the way that Drake, seeking to protect Parris's reputation, steps in to claim that he was Cassie's boyfriend. Parris is 'blind' in that it never occurs to him that Cassie could have been pregnant: a rather serious failure of perception for a future doctor. Drake is 'blind' in a generous sense, thinking only to protect Parris, and without concern for his own reputation. But, as noted, his claim leads to Dr. Gordon considering that he has hard evidence of Drake's promiscuity, which results in Drake's losing his legs. Neither of the young men grasps the connection; in particular, Parris never realises that it was Drake's generosity on his account that prompted Gordon's revenge.
Nevertheless, despite the grip of the malevolent doctors over the lives of the young people, Kings Row is above all a melodrama of triumph. In fact, it becomes almost visibly so at the end. Having decided to tell Drake the truth, Parris then keeps Drake, Randy and the audience absurdly in suspense by quoting two verses of Henley's Invictus before getting to the point. Drake's reaction to the revelation that the amputation of his legs was unnecessary is much better handled-a mixture of relief, anger, defiance and liberation-but the film cannot stop there and, whilst Korngold goes over the top with the sudden introduction of a choir, Parris is last seen running like mad across a field we've never seen before to embrace Elise, his substitute love.
Here the melodrama becomes so hyperbolic it verges on the parodic. But the film is frequently in danger of this; not only does it have the typically dynamic thrust of a Warners' movie, but its dramatic mode is 'melodramatic', full of extremes of emotion. Many scenes risk seeming risible: Drake's 'Where's the rest of me?' is a particularly notorious example. Although I still feel that the scene-when Drake wakes to discover that his legs have been amputated-conveys a genuine sense of terror, it is very difficult to block out the extra-cinematic associations: Reagan even used the line as the title of his 1965 autobiography.
As a melodrama of triumph, Kings Row dramatises the struggle of the young people to conquer obstacles, to break free from oppression, to live out their lives passionately and intensely. But when, as with Cassie and Louise, the restrictions prove too strong, their anger and frustration is translated into some extraordinary outbursts and scenes of hysteria. Here, too, the film registers 'melodramatic excess'. Louise's two scenes of confrontation with her parents have already been mentioned: Cassie's last scenes with Parris are even more extreme. In the scene by the pond, she finds herself unable to tell him what she intended and abruptly substitutes the news that his grandmother is dying; then, when Parris starts to cry, she becomes more and more distraught, and ends with her frenzied outburst of hatred against everything. Their last scene together occurs in Drake's house, where Parris is staving after the death of his grandmother. Cassie arrives at the door in an extremely agitated state and begs Parris to take her with him to Europe. She is unable to explain why she has changed her mind-earlier, when he had proposed that they marry on his return from Europe, she had recoiled from the thought-and, when he hesitates she flees from the house as abruptly as she arrived.
The melodramatic heightening here and elsewhere in the film may be related to Peter Brooks' theories. Brooks argues that the heightened rhetoric of melodrama breaks through the 'reality principle' to express basic desire and primal state of being. It is like the dream world in its directness, its plentitude of expression, its untrammelled emotional utterances. In Louise's case, she is confronting a father who is monstrous, and the power of the confrontation is an expression of the horror of her predicament. But Cassie's case is more complicated; here the reasons for her hysteria are never made clear. Nevertheless we can make sense of it as a reflection of her impossible wish to express the inexpressible: the inner torment of her condition. We can explore this further by considering what would seem to lie behind her hysteria in these last scenes.
In both scenes it seems reasonable to assume that she is torn between her love for Parris, and hence her wish not to hurt him, and her terror of her father. With this in mind, I would interpret her hysteria in the first scene as arising from her inability to tell Parris about her 'secret', which could be either her father's diagnosis of schizophrenia or something more sinister. That she is aware of a blockage between herself and Parris is registered early in the farewell at the sale, when she recoils from his proposal. And so, her outburst by the pond seems like an example of displacement: it is her father she really wants to hate, but -unlike Louise-she cannot, and so she displaces her hatred outwards. Her distress in the final scene-and her desperate wish to escape Kings Row with Parris-would then logically stem from her discovery that she's pregnant, which her father, in his omniscient way (as in his knowing about Madame von Eln's cancer), also knows about. Hence Cassie is terrified of what he might do, a terror which is perfectly justified since he kills her late that night.
Cassie's hysterical entrance into Drake's house is also one of the instances of the motif, introduced in the prologue, of the young people making wild/ uninvited/ unexpected incursions into houses. Further to the two instances in the prologue, examples are (3) Drake and Parris with Louise at the Gordons, resulting in a confrontation with her parents as soon as the latter arrive home, (4) Parris surprising Cassie her fathers study during a storm, (5) Parris throwing stones at Drake's window later that night to ask if he can stay the night, (6) Cassie's hysterical incursion into Drake's house to see Parris, (7) Drake turning up at the Towers' after the murder and suicide and claiming that he was Cassie's boyfriend, (8) Drake bursting into the Monaghans' to speak to Randy's father about taking Randy 'buggy-riding', (9) Louise bursting into the Monaghans' in an attempt to reach Drake and tell him that the amputation of his legs was unnecessary and (10) Parris bursting into Drake's bedroom at the end to spout poetry and, eventually, deliver Louise's message.
The separate incursions can be analyzed in different ways. Three of them (Nos. 3, 4 & 8) concern one of the young men appropriating, or attempting to appropriate, a daughter from her father. But, whereas Drake confronts the father-first Dr. Gordon; then Mr. Monaghan-Parris does not, although his usurping of paternal authority is shown clearly enough in the location of the ensuing passionate love scene in Tower's study. Nevertheless, in No. 7 Drake is in effect confronting patriarchal authority-the full complement of Colonel Skeffington, Dr. Gordon and Sam Winters-on behalf of Parry, a substitution which has devastating consequences. The hysterical incursions of Cassie (No. 6) and Louise (No. 9) may also be connected. Each young woman is driven by a fear/hatred of her father, but she cannot speak about this: Cassie because she's too frightened, and Louise because she's prevented from doing so.
In general, the 'dramatic incursions' represent attempts by the young people to break through the bunkers erected by the older generation: social and psychological. Randy's exclusion from the motif suggests that she is the most settled and least troubled of the younger generation. However, she is involved in a separate thread here, a thread which connects with the remaining adult incursions, both of which concern Parris entering Drake's bedroom (Nos. 5 and 10). In order to discuss this, it is necessary to look at the film's gay subtext.
Drake's (many) relationships with the young women of the town are all either trivial (the Ross sisters) or frustrated (Louise) until Parris leaves Kings Row: then, immediately he begins to date Randy who, moreover, is coded as a tomboy. The homoerotic implications of this are undeniable, and they occur in a number of other details: Parris going from his first sexual experience with Cassie to 'bunk with' Drake (these two scenes-which begin with incursion nos. 4 & 5-are also linked in the way Parris signals his presence to the person in the house via a window); the phrasing of his letter from Vienna to Drake, in which he wishes for 'the sight of your face, the sound of your laugh'; the way that, once the full realization of the loss of his legs hits Drake, it is Parris he cries for. And their reunion is extraordinarily like a lovers' reunion, even to the extent of Randy leaving the room (and blessing Mary!) Furthermore, on a psychoanalytical reading, the film, surely saying that involvement with women results in castration, the psychic damage of which can only be healed through snake understanding rather than female sympathy.
Randy's place in this is, accordingly, problematic. Although she does not make a dramatic incursion into a house, she is nevertheless involved in each the three highly dramatic entrances into Drake's bedroom in her own house. In the first, she is summoned to confirm the horror of the castration: 'Where is the rest of me?' The second is Drake and Parris' reunion, in which she brings Parris into the bedroom, but then is displaced from the room by the intensity of the scene between the two men. Drake is so ashamed of his physical state that he averts his eyes, but Parris nevertheless continues to insist on his love, pressing his cheek next to his friend's. The third entrance is doubly significant. It is also the final instance of a dramatic incursion into a house and, as Parris arrives in the bedroom, Randy tries to stop him, thereby acting in the place of the doctors (Tower, Gordon, Parris himself, who stops Louise) who had hitherto blocked access to the bedroom in crucial earlier instances. But, if it looks as if Parris and Randy are struggling over Drake, it is in fact a struggle over what is best for Drake, and Randy submits to Parris's greater authority. Parris announces that he has not come as Drake's friend, but as his doctor. And, in telling Drake that the amputation of his legs was Gordon's revenge for Drake's dating Louise, Parris brings into the open the import of the psychoanalytical subtext. However, in a great moment of Oedipal defiance, Drake refuses to be broken by his castration: 'Where did Gordon think I lived-in my legs?' The ending thus liberates him: with Drake no longer ashamed of his body, he and Randy will be able to go without shame into the outside world. Moreover, by insisting here that he is acting as Drake's doctor, Parris also re-articulates his own relationship with Drake: Randy and Drake are brought together, rather than separated. Although one feels strongly that the intensity of the relationship between the two men is in no sense diminished-Parris's joy at Drake's 'resurrection' is clearly that of a friend-it is now able to co-exist with Drake and Randy's marriage.
In its insistence on intense love between men, the film is remarkably progressive. Steve Neale has suggested that, in melodrama, 'the narrative process is inaugurated by the eruption of (hetero)sexual desire into an already established social order'. But in Kings Row, heterosexual desire erupts only to be virulently repressed, whereas the love between Drake and Parris seems unbounded, and produces two of the film's great moments of ecstasy: the reunion and Drake's tremendous burst of liberation at the end. However, Drake is not the only recipient of Parris's amazing capacity for love: consider the way he lifts up his grandmother like a lover, carries her across the bedroom and declares that he's crazy about her. This emotionalisation of the hero is extremely unusual in a Hollywood movie, even a melodrama. Intelligent, cultured (piano-playing), sensitive (cries); Parris represents the sort of effete Europeanised male who is traditionally displaced by the tough, no nonsense, potent American male. Here, too, the film goes against expectations, as is discussed below.
In particular, Parris's capacity for loving means that the film can provide him with a substitute love, Elise, to whom he is able to attach the same sort of feeling as he had for Cassie. Nevertheless, the way in which Elise is 'conjured up' like the ghost of Cassie is so outrageous that it could possibly be unique in the Hollywood cinema. Parris has just spoken to Colonel Skeffington about his fear of meeting ghosts'; then, as he returns to the stile, he suddenly sees a young woman dressed (like Cassie) in a flowing white dress, down by the pond. For a moment, he thinks she is Cassie. The sense of her as a projection of his desire is overwhelming; a sense reinforced by the way that she and her father come from Vienna and now live in Parris's old house. To Colonel Skeffington, Parris was unable to describe Kings Row as 'home'-it became 'the place I grew up in'. Now, as he re-enters his old house, he says 'It's like coming home'.
A further instance of the film's ideological audacity lies in its attitude to social class and national background. The latter enters into the equation because of the film's highly unusual stress on the European connection: first, in Parris's background, then in Elise's. The variables may be laid out as a grid:
What is most remarkable about the film's representations here is who falls on which side of the film's good/bad moral spectrum: the middle-class American parents (the Towers and the Gordons) are 'bad', whilst the working-class American parent (Mr. Monaghan) and the parents of parent-figures with a European connection (Parris's grandmother and Elise's father) are 'good'. Thus the film is surprisingly subversive: the American middle-class fathers are sadists and murderers, whilst all the positive values are invested in the working class and in European immigrants who have kept their old-world sensibilities and culture. The equation implicit in Colonel Skeffington's reference to what has been known to happen in some remote town in Europe is completely reversed.
The European-predominantly Austrian-connection is particularly stressed: not only do Ellise and her father come form Vienna but she, like Parris, is musical; thus Europe supplies both art (music) and science (psychoanalysis). (Their shared music teacher is also Germanic.) The casting of Maria Ouspenskaya as Madame von Ellmeans that the character's nationality is somewhat indeterminate, but I think-as in the novel-she's supposed to be French (her husband was German). But there is no question that the film approves of her powerful cultural influence over Parris. At the end of the scene in which it is first established that she is dying, Colonel Skeffington, addressing Dr. Gordon delivers a powerful tribute to her: 'he she passes, how much passes with her whole way of life; a way of gentleness and honor and dignity-these things are going, Henry, and they may never comeback to this world'.
When Parris, as the new doctor of the town, has to make his moral decision about what to do about Louise and Drake. So the conflicting influences are starkly there: On the one hand, he can follow Dr. Gordon along the path of repression and perpetuate the past tyranny: Louise will be committed; Drake will remain in ignorance. On the other, he can act with 'honor and dignity' and face rather than repress the problem. As he says to Ellise, whenever he had a problem that was too big for him, he would consult his grandmother. And so, in making him see what he must do, Elise is acting in place of Madame von Eln as the voice of (European) reason.
The question of class comes into focus in the relationship between Drake and Randy. Theirs is a common situation of small-town melodramas: he's from uptown; she's from downtown (the other side of the tracks). When, nine years after they swung on the rings as children, Drake and Randy re-meet, she says to him: 'You never did come back to Elroy's Ice House'. And although this is partly to remind the audience who Randy is (although top-billed, Ann Sheridan does not appear until this scene, over an hour into the movie), there is also the social point: what Randy means is that Drake never returned to her part of town to see her again. They start going out together immediately, but Drake continues to see her at first as a girl from across the railfroad tracks, someone to take buggy-riding and have a good time with. (Earlier we saw him doing the same with the Ross sisters.) Louise, by contrast, was the sort of respectable middle-class girl a boy of his background married.
Drake needs to be educated away from his class-bound perspective, a process which the film shows as not a little traumatic. Thanks to a thieving bank president (more small town corruption), Drake loses all his money and, to avoid becoming a tramp, he goes to Randy's father to ask for a job on the railroad. And, although it could be argued that having to work is good for Drake, he himself does not seem very happy with his lowly status. When Randy tells him he's up for promotion, he replies 'Twenty or thirty years like that and I'll be somewhere. Here the film is registering ideological tensions: Drake needs to prove himself as a worker to be fully accepted into Randy's world; Drake is too ambitious to sustain such a role. Significantly, his accident eliminates the problem. After Gordon has butchered Drake, the film's priorities necessarily change: Drake's rehabilitation becomes the over-riding concern. Randy's insistence that they should marry, Parris's advice from Vienna-now backed up with a scientific understanding of Drake's problems-all become part of the project to help Drake recover his psychological health. In particular, Parris advises Randy to find a way to start Drake working again; a plan which she executes with finesse. She reactivates an old interest of Drake's in a real estate project and, although he's now financing a 'homes for the Workers' protect rather than his original 'homes for the rich' one, it is significant that he is no longer a worker, he's a capitalist.
A further feature of the film's indictment of the middle class at the expense of the working is that Gordon's two victims, Mr. Mackintosh and Drake, are both living down by the railroad tracks, i.e. in the film's terms, both are working-class. That Gordon should only take his revenge on Drake after the latter has lost all his money and become a worker seems significant here: as if another thread to the revenge were Drake's lowly class position.
Given the malignancy of the two doctors, it is essential that both die-Parris's moral vacillation over what to do about Drake and Louise represents the last moment at which the old, corrupted middle class order holds sway over the generation: once Elise has made Parris realise he must do, the trajectory of the movie is towards an exhilarating liberation from the past; the throwing aside of years of vicious repression. It is perhaps only to be expected that the melodrama should become excessive here: the sense of triumph is so strong.
Kings Row contains a number of themes which became commonplace in the '50s small-town melodramas: the destructive pressures of social class, in particular the gossip and censure of middle-class moralism; small-town sadism and corruption; the oppression of the younger generation by the older, here specifically articulated through a father daughter relationship in which the father represses the daughter's sexuality; the family as a breeding-ground of neurosis. But in a number of these respects the film goes far beyond any of the 50s works. Its championing of European cultural influence at the expense of American is also quite exceptional: I can think of no other Hollywood film which adopts an equivalent perspective. The film is also highly sophisticated in its articulation of motifs, in particular the use of different sites within houses to suggest a malevolent power structure and the young people's Passionate attempts to combat this.
ln discussing the film, I have said little about imagery. In fact, the film is typical of Menzies' works, full of rather static and self-conscious deep focus compositions: the work of a talented art designer rather than a film director. Nevertheless, there would seem to be a pattern to some of this imagery, e.g. Menzies Penchant for foregrounding such objects as coffee pots and kettles tends to occur in contexts where the underlying subject of the scene is death, and the associations accumulate steadily throughout the film. In the first example, which is the best scene between Parris and Dr. Tower, the sublet they cannot talk about is Madame von Eln's imminent death, and the mise-en-scene shifts to foreground the coffee pot as Tower shifts to change the subject. When Parris does finally realise that his grandmother is dying, a metal bowl and jug on a table in the bathroom are framed in the left foreground and the deep focus composition extends through the open door of the bathroom across Madame von Eln's bedroom to the door opposite, through which first Parris and then Anna, the maid, enter. (This shot seems to be self consciously modelled on the famous deep focus shot in Citizen Kane, when Kane bursts into Susan's bedroom after she has attempted suicide and the glass which contained the sleeping draught is framed in the left foreground.) In the scene before Drake's accident, a coffee pot is again foregrounded, and it then 'stands in for' Drake in the subsequent scene of the accident, being pinched by the train's wheel much as Todd, Tandy's brother will later describe Drake as having been pinched. By the time of the final use of the motif, when Parris asks Col. Skeffington his opinion on Louis's accusations, the association has become explicit. For the line, 'Son, men have often killed other men who were after their daughters', the film cuts to a foregrounded kettle, with Skeffington and Parris behind. And this shot seems like a conscious reference back to the use of the coffee pot in the first of these scenes: Parris's response, half to himself, is 'Murder' and one feels strongly that it is Tower he is thinking of, not Gordon.
These examples may seem a little 'heavy-handed', but they indicate the thought Menzies gave to imagery: Gone with the Wind, (1939), which he also designed, has much the same sort of self-consciousness of effect. Kings Tow was made entirely in the studio, which meant that every aspect of its design could be carefully controlled. James Wong Howe mentions further that menzies would even specify which lens he wanted used, and that the sets were designed precisely to his story-boarded shots: 'if you varied you angle by an inch, you'd shoot over the top'.
The contributions of Menzies, Wong Howe and Wood were undoubtedly highly productive, but the person with the greatest influence over the film's underlying project was undoubtedly Casey Robinson. Although the source of much of the film's subversivness lies in Bellaman's novel, it was Robinson who found ways of preserving that subversivness in the finished film. Hall Wallis was a strong producer, but he was not particularly committed to films which adopted a critical stance towards America, as his subsequent project, the nauseatingly patriotic Yankee Doodle Dandy (Michael Curtiz, 1942), makes clear. As for Sam Wood, he would later be involved in organising the motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. Indeed, one feels that, if he had grasped just how profoundly anti-American Kings Row really was, he would have ben appalled. Robinson, by contrast, was a brilliant scriptwriter, whose works-especially his films for Bette Davis-consistently display a highly radical edge: see also Andrew Britton's article on Now, Voyager. And he certainly did know what he was doing. Interviewed in paid tribute to his work, he referred to 'the American small town, which I destroyed in Kings Row'.