Review: Sam Wood’s “Kings Row,” Starring Ann Sheridan and Robert Cummings

Ann Sheridan, Robert Cummings, and Ronald Reagan in
Ann Sheridan, Robert Cummings, and Ronald Reagan in "Kings Row"

“A Good Town,” reads the road sign welcoming visitors to the fictional town of Kings Row. “A Good Clean Town.” The Warner Brothers adaptation of Henry Bellamann’s bestselling novel Kings Row opens with a shot of this sign, and spends the following two hours revealing the ugliness often buried within idyllic communities. Sam Wood’s film is the proto–Blue Velvet or Peyton Place, except the Production Code’s limitations meant screenwriter Casey Robinson could not probe nearly as deep as Bellamann did in the novel. That neutering of the story robs it of much of its intrigue, and the attempt to cram six hundred pages into two hours only worsens the matter.

"A Good Town"

At the encouragement of his mentor, Dr. Tower (Claude Rains), medical student Paris Mitchell (Robert Cummings) decides to focus on psychology—a field just emerging at the end of the nineteenth century. After a number of unpleasant incidents in the town, he packs up and goes to study in Vienna—presumably with Dr. Freud. When he leaves, the story shifts completely to follow his childhood friend, Drake (Ronald Reagan), and his romance with Randy (Ann Sheridan), until a terrible accident changes everything for the couple. That accident leads Mitchell back into the story, and to Kings Row, to help his friends get their lives back together and to decide if he should stay in his hometown or return to Vienna. The back and forth of the plot suggests that the material would be better suited for a miniseries, and indeed, Warner Brothers produced one in the fifties. While that version may have fixed the film’s pacing issues, it obviously could not make any progress in adapting the true ugliness of its source material, given the continued level of censorship in that decade.

In 1940, Hal B. Wallis had producer Wolfgang Reinhardt read the novel as potential material to adapt for Warner Brothers. “As far as plot is concerned, the material in ‘Kings Row’ is for the most part either censurable or too gruesome and depressing to be used,” Reinhardt wrote to Wallis. He cited the “incestuous relations with [the] father” along with “the background of a lunatic asylum, people dying from cancer, suicides,” and concluded that “the making of a screenplay would amount to starting from scratch.”1 Yet the book was a bestseller, and after screenwriter Casey Robinson told Wallis he felt confident in reworking the story to pass the censors, Wallis bought the rights for $35,0002. Robinson’s idea boiled down to three key revisions. First was to downplay just about everything: barely suggesting the sex, never completely proving the evil nature of certain characters, and making the leads morally pure. Second was to target the most controversial aspect of the book, the incest subplot between Dr. Tower and his daughter, Cassandra (Betty Field), who has a romance with Mitchell. Robinson’s callous solution was to change her from a victim of abuse into a nymphomaniac. When the censors turned that down, he changed her to a clinically insane person. And, of course, he gave the film a much happier ending than that of the dark, depressing novel.3

Ann Sheridan, Ronald Reagan, and Robert Cummings in "Kings Row"
Ann Sheridan, Ronald Reagan, and Robert Cummings in “Kings Row”

However, Robert Cummings is the true blight of the picture, rather than Robinson’s screenplay. His casting makes sense on one level; his naive face and boyish presence fit the image of “A Good Clean Town.” However, Alfred Hitchcock rightly pointed out that Cummings “belongs to the light-comedy class of actors,” and “he has an amusing face . . . his features don’t convey anguish.”4 Cummings can’t sell the darkness the film delves into; he can barely sell his early scenes. Wood originally wanted Tyrone Power for the part, but Fox was not willing to loan him out.5 Cummings was shooting It Started with Eve at Universal, but Wood insisted on casting the actor, so he went back and forth between the productions and therein created chaos for the shooting schedule. “Considering the broken manner in which this show has been shot as regarding sets, cast, etc., I only hope it fits together right,” wrote unit manager Frank Mattison. “I have never seen a picture shot in such a hurried manner as this picture has been made.” The film wrapped over budget and twenty-three days over schedule.6

Robert Cummings and Ronald Reagan in "Kings Row"
Robert Cummings and Ronald Reagan in “Kings Row”

Cummings is such a drag on the picture that in comparison, Reagan appears to be the most charming movie star to ever walk the earth. His middle section with Sheridan (also quite strong) is the best part of the film, and he sells Drake’s friendship with Mitchell in a far more affecting way than Cummings does. It was the actor-turned-president’s favorite role—when his wife Jane Wyman divorced him in 1948, she told friends, “I just couldn’t bear to watch that damn Kings Row one more time.”7 The supporting cast is filled out with some great character actors like Rains, Charles Coburn, and Maria Ouspenskaya, but most of them are held back by the material.

Stop paying attention to the characters, however, and you’ll have a much better experience. The film is a lavish Warner Brothers production, with production design by William Cameron Menzies and cinematography by James Wong Howe. “Everything, even the apple orchard, was done in the studio,” Howe said8. Together they create the entire, somewhat surreal town, and give the buildings and sets more character than the leads. Watching their images with Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score is tremendous—shame that the actors have to speak.

A production doomed from the start, Kings Row likely would not be a satisfying film even if adapted today, without the restraints of the Production Code. Bellman’s story was too vast for two hours; perhaps today it could make for a great HBO miniseries, but not a film. Even better, someone other than Cummings would be cast—truly every problem with this adaptation could be easily overcome in the new mediascape. As is, Kings Row has supplementary pleasures like Reagan’s performance or Howe’s cinematography, but they can’t hide the phony nature of a story about small town toxicity too afraid to ever get truly toxic.

Where to Watch

Stream it on Warner Archive

Buy it on DVD

Rent it on iTunes / Amazon

For More on Kings Row

Read the review in The New York Times

Read the review in Variety

Watch the Re-release Trailer

References   [ + ]

1. Wolfgang Reinhardt, letter to Hal B. Wallis, July 3, 1940.
2. Stephen Vaughn, Ronald Reagan in Hollywood (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 64.
3. Tony Thomas, The Films of Ronald Reagan (New York: Citadel Press, 1980), 130.
4. François Truffaut, Hitchcock/Truffaut (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), 104.
5. “Notes,” Turner Classic Movies, accessed March 13, 2017.
6. Rudy Behlmer, Inside Warner Bros. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985), 141.
7. Obituaries: Jane Wyman, The Telegraph, September 11, 2007.
8. John T. Soister and JoAnna Wioskowski, Claude Rains: A Comprehensive Illustrated Reference (New York: McFarland, 2006), 112.