Based on the controversial novel by Henry Bellamann it is quiet astonishing that KINGS ROW ever went before the cameras at all! The story revolves around three children growing into adulthood in a small American mid - western town just before the turn of the 20th century and their exposure to all manner of human excesses, frailties and shortcomings. The book is peppered with a plethora of taboo subjects (especially for the forties) such as nymphomania, incest, insanity, sadism, and homosexuality. But brilliant screen writer Casey Robinson ("Now Voyager") managed, by some miracle, to skillfully skirt around these problems, defuse and avoid any elaborations and viewing the finished film it is difficult to decipher any of the character weaknesses Bellamann wrote about.
The cast is reasonably good! Top billed is the lovely Ann Sheridan as the feisty and endearing Randy Monaghan. It is her finest performance and the best film she ever did! Surprisingly the usually wooden Ronald Reagan turns in a more than passable performance as the somewhat carefree ladies man Drake McHugh. And he is most convincing in the startling scene where he awakens to discover both his legs have been amputated and screaming repeatedly "WHERE'S THE REST OF ME?" (a line the actor would use later for the title of his autobiography in 1965). The weakest link in the cast is Robert Cummings (borrowed from Universal) as the leading protagonist Parris Mitchell! His one note performance reduces the character to nothing more than an uninteresting over prim and prissy bore. Cummings retains nothing of the likable personality already established early in the picture by the delightful portrayal of child actor the ill-fated Scotty Beckett as the young Parris. Excellent too is Claude Rains as Dr. Towers and Parris' mentor, Betty Field as his deranged daughter, Charles Coburn as the sadistic doctor, the great Russian actress Maria Ouspenskaya as Parris' grandmother and her good friend Col. Skeffington played by the always likable Harry Davenport ("When she passes ...how much passes with her?....a whole way of life, a way of gentleness... of dignity and honour. These things are going and they may never come back to this world".) A prophetic observation no doubt!
One of the great strengths of KINGS ROW is the outstanding operatic music score composed and conducted by the great Viennese composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Korngold's genius as a motion picture composer was not limited only to scoring action spectaculars like "The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938) and "The Sea Hawk" (1940) for he could, with no difficulty, underscore such character driven dramas as "Between Two Worlds" (1944), "Deception" (1946) and KINGS ROW with equal aplomb! Besides "The Sea Hawk" KINGS ROW is his finest achievement and of his 18 scores was his own personal favourite! His leitmotific approach to scoring could often be quite stunning and never more so than with KINGS ROW . The score is just chock-a-block with exquisite themes! Heard first under the titles is the powerful main theme. Brimming with bravura brass fanfares the music is decidedly heroic! The composer hadn't yet viewed the film when the magnificent piece was first conceived. And thinking the story concerned historical royalty because of its title imbued the theme with a distinctive monarchical flavour. However when he saw the script and learnt the film was set in small-town USA he offered to change it but Hal Wallis liked it so much he persuaded the composer to retain the piece and a blessing it is too. Heard in different guises throughout the picture it is particularly engaging as a scherzo variation near the film's opening as the young Parris Mitchell and Cassandra Towers skip home by the river after school. Other superb cues are the poignant theme for the grandmother, the melancholy music for Cassie's ill attended birthday party, the frolicsome variation of the main theme for the children playing on the rings in Elroy's Icehouse, the ravishing theme for Randy and the Finale music - a reiteration of the main theme - which bursts forth upon us near the end but this time with a mixed chorus intoning a line from W. E. Henley's poem "Invictus" - I AM THE MASTER OF MY FATE - I AM THE CAPTAIN OF MY SOUL. A marvellous soulful and uplifting finish to a marvellous film!
KINGS ROW - a work of cinematic art!
"Now...if you turn your face to that wall!"
An interesting footnote:
It is notable that Korngold's main theme from KINGS ROW was used for both of Ronald Reagan's inaugurations!