Kings Row (Warner) is a small, turn-of-the-century town in a Midwest State that might be Kansas or Missouri. It is also the title of Novelist Henry Bellamann's lengthy chronicle of the social rigidities, dignities and horrors of life in such a town. Although the novelist's attempt to see his town steadily and whole has necessarily been limited by screen censorship, Director Sam Wood's cineversion of Kings Row is potent, artful cinema.
Before young Parris Mitchell (Robert Cummings) is old enough to go abroad to study under the new psychologists in Vienna, he has had a thorough apprenticeship for his work. He has loved the neurotic, beautiful Cassandra Tower (Betty Field) only to have her murdered by her father (Claude Rains), his revered teacher, who in turn kills himself. Dr. Tower's papers explain why: Cassandra's mother had gone insane; Cassandra herself had shown the first signs of dementia praecox.
Around this central theme weaves many a sequence illuminating the fight of good and evil in Kings Row. Dr. Henry Gordon (Charles Coburn), surgeon and sadistic moralist, unnecessarily amputates both legs of a likable good-time-Charlie (Ronald Reagan). Denounced by his distraught daughter (Nancy Coleman), he offers her a choice of silence or confinement in the insane asylum. Brave Randy Monaghan (Ann Sheridan), shanty Irish and desirable, marries her legless sweetheart and cables Parris to come home. The young medico returns, full of his new knowledge, to find that the ills of Kings Row are still beyond his scope.
This difficult and ugly story packs a considerable wallopthanks to the shrewd direction of Sam Wood and effective performances by his cast. Its ending, though overdramatic, does not detract from the atmosphere, mood and genuinely compassionate portrayal of life in a U.S. small town of not so long ago.
The rugged, shocking sequences of Kings Row are an actor's field day, and the cast makes the most of them. Slow-burning, sparrow-voiced Betty Field plays Cassandra for keeps. But the surprise of Kings Row is beauteous, lazy Ann Sheridan, who manages her shanty Irish role with credible facility. Somebody (probably Mr. Wood) has very nearly de-oomphed her.
Sam Wood is almost nobody's idea of a Hollywood director. He doesn't shout at people, neither drinks nor smokes, keeps regular hours, looks, dresses and acts like a successful business executive, spends most of his weekends with his family, and has never indulged in even a small tantrum.
These virtues have not earned Director Wood, now 58, an Academy award; neither have his pictures. But if a Hollywood executive were confronted with the dread fact of having to turn out at one try a Grade-A, sure-fire hit, he would almost inevitably turn to the tall, dignified, soft-spoken man who has been quietly making excellent pictures* for the last 26 years.
Sam Wood was a 28-year-old Hollywood real-estate man when the movies moved into his town in 1911. They looked good to him; so he invested his fourth fortune in them. Once in, he recalls, "it was obvious to me that any picture was at the mercy of the director. So I decided to become a director."