The Dark Underbelly Of Americana: ‘Kings Row’ (1942)

by Paul Batters

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“I only know that you have to judge people by what you find them to be and not by what other people say they are” – Madame von Eln (Maria Ouspenskaya) 

Every small town has its’ secrets and stories and Hollywood has found no shortfall in material in telling those stories nor directors wishing to tell them. Usually, Hollywood had depicted small towns as idyllic places, where values and morals to be admired where prevalent and family life created a world of stability and normality. This is certainly true in the Andy Hardy series, the then popular Henry Aldrich series and films such as Meet Me In St Louis (1944) and Our Town (1940), which was incidentally directed by Sam Wood. Capra’s films certainly celebrate the small American town, untainted by the complexities of the big city, as well as ‘the people’ characterised as being the ‘salt of the earth’.

Kings Row (1942) stands tall as a tale of an American Midwestern town at the turn of the 20th century, with all the A Grade production values that were a staple at Warner Bros. Directed by Sam Wood (A Night At The Opera, Goodbye Mr Chips, Pride Of The Yankees), Kings Row is a powerful film, with outstanding performances from its’ principal players and a talented supporting cast. Whilst certainly not a forgotten film, Kings Row is often overshadowed by some of the other big releases from Warner Bros. around the same time such as Now Voyager (1942) and Casablanca (1943). It certainly deserves our attention, as it is one of Warner Bros. finest productions and despite the surface themes of romance, relationship, loss and tragedy, there are far deeper concerns that are addressed in the film. At its’ very core, Kings Row is a story that reveals the uglier and darker undercurrent of the American Midwestern town, tearing down the façade of respectability, polite society and propriety to reveal hypocrisy, perversion, familial dysfunction and corruption.  This essay does not aim to avoid spoilers but to discuss these issues and examine their purveyance in the film. (So readers be warned!)

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From the opening scene, punctuated by Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s excellent score, perhaps one of the finest ever written for the silver screen, the focus is on the town. The audience’s focus is drawn to a sign which declares Kings Row is a ‘good town’, one which is a ‘good town to live in and a good place to raise your children’.  The camera moves across tree-lined streets and picket fences before being drawn to the characters. But the inference is quite clear, as Wheeler Winston Dixon points out, that the film intends to be a stinging indictment of American society…and a dystopian vision of the dark underside of Midwestern small- town life’.  

As the audience is going to discover, to go against the small-minded and morally suffocating rules and expectations of society means a heavy price must be paid.

The story has a two-fold focus in terms of the protagonists; specifically the close friendship of Parris (Robert Cummings) and Drake (Ronald Reagan), though it is Parris  with whom the audience connects with first and foremost.  Parris and Drake share a friendship since they were children and though different in demeanour, they are similar in their strength if character.

Parris is a young and gifted student being raised by his grandmother Madame von Eln (Maria Ouspenskaya) whose values and beliefs she has bestowed upon Parris, as well as her love and kind nature. Unbeknownst to Parris, his grandmother falls ill with cancer but she covers it up, not wanting to cause worry for her grandson. Parris, too, is a kind, thoughtful and passionate young man who begins studying medicine with the brilliant yet reclusive Dr. Alexander Tower (Claude Rains). His childhood friendship with the doctor’s daughter Cassie (Betty Field) will eventually develop into love and they pursue their passions despite the doctor’s warnings and Cassie’s growing anxiety. The two will consummate their love, although naturally this is only suggested in the film but the results will have dire consequences for Cassie.

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However, these ‘star-crossed lovers’ are doomed to a greater tragedy than Parris’ initial concerns for Cassie could anticipate. Cassie fears that she is going mad, as her mother did, and it appears that her insanity is not entirely an unfounded fear. As the audience discovers later in the film, Dr. Tower also suspects that Cassie has gone mad.  What follows is a shocking turn in the tale (which incredibly survived the Breen Office), is the murder-suicide that occurs in the Tower household. Cassie is killed and Dr Tower then turns his murderous hand on himself.

Parris is horrified and wracked with guilt that he earlier dismissed Cassie when she declared her fears to him. He also discovers that the authorities want to speak to him but before he races to the Tower house, Drake stops him and goes instead, claiming he had been seeing Cassie. Drake sacrifices his own reputation in the presence of Dr. Gordon (Charles Coburn) the father of Louise (Nancy Coleman) the girl he has been ‘seen’ with. Yet his faux declaration turns out to be unnecessary as Parris discovers that he is the recipient of something he never expected. Nevertheless, it adds further condemnation of Drake’s moral character (or lack thereof) in the eyes of Dr. Gordon.

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Parris will face greater challenges, with the death of his grandmother who, along with the tragedy of the Towers, spurs him to leave the town and seek something greater. Yet Drake also senses that Parris needs to leave and, sharing the deeper sentiments of Dr Tower, does not want to see his friend stay in Kings Row to become a mediocrity, with his potential drowned by the town’s darkness. Parris does leave for Vienna where he will pursue his career in medicine but specifically the new field of psychology.

Drake, will remain in the town and face his own challenges, not the least of losing his family fortune to an unscrupulous banker. Yet it does result in finding something stable and lasting in Randy (Ann Sheridan). The no-nonsense and tough Irish girl comes from the other side of the tracks and her hard-working family accepts Drake without judgment, indicating that the ‘poorer’ part of town has rejected the hypocrisy and double standards of ‘respected society’. 

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Kings Row spans a period of approximately 20 years, from the childhood of the principal characters into their adulthood. Of course, the tale being told is not only that of the people in the town but of the town itself. The divisions that exist in Kings Row are marked not only in the town’s psyche and fabric but by the very physical differences, classically signified by the train tracks. Drake’s ultimate slide from society is marked not only by his financial fall but also primarily by his moving over the train tracks to be with Randy. Ironically, his ‘punishment’ for doing so, is the horrific accident (and unnecessary operation that follows), which will give Ronald Regan his most famous scene in film history and a heck of a line of dialogue.

When Parris does return home, the expectation from the town is that he will set up a practice in Kings Row but Parris is not so sure. However, he will discover something that may keep him there and may give him the peace and stability that has eluded him.

His reunion with Drake is bittersweet and the love that they share is certainly undiminished by time apart. Yet Drake’s problems runs deeper than his physical trauma and Randy is hopeful that Parris’ return may help. The momentous climax is powerful and emotional, not only placing the cherry on top of Reagan’s performance but also reaching a finality for the key characters in conquering their own obstacles and defeating the very forces of the town, which had sought to crush their individuality.

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Stylistically, Kings Row is a dark melodrama, with Gothic undertones and is beautifully shot by legendary cameraman James Wong Howe, whose perceptive eye finds the inner emotions of the characters, as well as the nature of the town. The wide-eyed panic in Cassie is disturbing and her anxiety and terror reflects an undertow of repression in the town. Terrified of her own thought processes, Cassie tries to reject Parris but her love for him initially prevails only to be de-railed by her own dread and the final act of horror that will befall her. The camera focuses on her face, illuminated in the moonlight like a phantom and the accompanying score not only enhances the tragedy of Cassie’s mental state but also foreshadows the final moment of madness to come. Later, Louise will also face mental illness and instability, also impacted on by a cruel and domineering father. Again, the repressive climate of the town, which discourages individuality and demands subservience to what is considered ‘decent society’, has meant terrible repercussions.  Insanity is a long-running convention of the Gothic genre and in Kings Row it seems to be way too prevalent. But more pointedly, the town of King’s Row seems almost totalitarian in its’ societal laws and expectations. Patriarchy may be the most obvious reason for the power system in place but men also fall prey to the claustrophobia of the town’s façade of propriety; Drake pays a heavy price for his individuality and refusal to bow to the town’s societal norms and Dr Tower faces isolation (even if partially self-inflicted).  Parris will declare Dr Tower as a brilliant man whose intelligence and forward thinking is wasted in King’s Row. What compels him to remain in a hick town with such narrow-minded and stifling repression? It takes great strength of character and true principles set into foundations of integrity to withstand the onslaught.

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Certainly the town of Kings Row understands the art of the cover-up – so much so that even the ‘best’ that the town has to offer, i.e. Parris, has learned how to do it. Parris is more than happy to commit Drake’s former flame Louise to a mental asylum, to protect Drake from Louise revealing the truth behind her now-dead father’s operation on Drake. Parris would know full well the horrors of such a committal yet he is initially happy to humour Louise into a false sense that he will help her. In truth, this is not the act of a honourable doctor and our high opinion of Parris is rattled. But it fits perfectly with the very atmosphere of the town. To protect Parris from scandal when Cassie is murdered, Drake is happy to lie that he was seeing Cassie and ruin his own reputation, which he claims is ruined anyway.

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Perhaps the darkest element of the story deals with the secondary characters and the plot device upon which the film will turn and provide Drake’s character arc. The sadistic Dr. Gordon is later revealed to a self-appointed judge and jury within the town, abusing his position as a doctor and committing unspeakable and abominable operations upon those he considers due punishment for their transgressions. The fact that the good doctor is never questioned suggests the nature of the town protecting him and his activities – and it seems that his practice as a doctor is not exactly unseen by others. Parris, when discovering his grandmother is unwell and being treated by Dr Gordon, questions his mentor Dr Tower about Gordon’s reputation, professionalism and practice. The tone in which Parris asks his questions and the nature by which Dr Tower answers certainly suggests that rumours exist and Dr Gordon is whispered about. But Gordon’s abuse is not merely the act of a wayward or ‘mad’ doctor; it becomes the allegory for the abuse of power and authority by those who have it. Gordon is not only a doctor but in some sense a ‘respected’ leader within the town and its’ high society. His wife will certainly not question him and when his daughter threatens to expose him, he suggests how he will deal with her and seems more than ready to commit her.  The power of patriarchy is more than evident. 

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As a result, Drake’s ability to disempower what Dr Gordon has done to him, with help from Parris and Randy, is a great victory over this long-established patriarchy and becomes a moment of courage as Drake takes ownership of his liberation, breaking the imprisonment of his condition.

It is actually quite a feat that Kings Row was made from Henry Bellamann’s 1940 novel in the first place. Upon its’ release, the novel was a massive success, with studios engaging in an intense battle for filming rights. However, turning Bellamann’s novel into a film that would meet the requirements of the Production Code would be extremely difficult. Not only does the murder-suicide occur but also the original motive behind it is far more sinister and darker than what anticipates the heinous act in the film. As critic Tim Dirks points out, ‘Cassie was afflicted with nymphomania, not insanity. Dr. Tower’s diary revealed that the warped doctor had eliminated his wife and then committed incest with his daughter in order to study its psychological effects. He then killed Cassie when she threatened to leave him and go to Parris’. Parris and Cassie are certainly in love and there are allusions that the two are consummating their love. In the film, Dr. Tower’s motives are designed as almost valorous and noble. Parris interprets the doctor’s act as an attempt to ‘save’ Parris from the same fate as Dr. Tower – marrying an unbalanced woman and finding himself locked for life in a small town with small-minded people. Indeed, Parris even calls Dr. Tower a ‘brilliant man’ for his foresight, as well as his genius as a doctor. Murder-suicide is a heinous act and not one of brilliance or courage, yet there is a twisted logic in Kings Row, which has even reached Parris.

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Arguably, these considerations may not necessarily condemn Parris as a character and the difficulties and complexities of situations that we all encounter in life may have to deal with choosing the lesser of two evils. Nevertheless, it may appear that in Kings Row, such choices become very apparent and if the audience looks carefully, a darker and more sinister reality exists behind the picket fences and claims of being ‘ a good town’.

 Kings Row is a superb film which allows the audience to become consumed in the drama and absorbed by the depth of its’ characters. The quality of production typifies Warner Bros and Hal Wallis, then Head Of Production at Warners, knew how to build a picture and shape it to its’ finest results. The pedigree of Sam Wood as director is well known although by all reports he was less concerned with the visual impact of the film (still beautiful by James Wong Howe’s impeccable standards) and more so with the building of the key characters, particularly Parris.

There is a great courage in the production of this film, as already discussed and the more explicit themes and concerns of the novel are still present in the subtle and nuanced development of the story. Ultimately, Kings Row is far more than a melodrama but a revelation of the darkness of some places, where facades of propriety, community and ‘goodness’ are stripped down to reveal hypocrisy and abuse of power. On a larger scale, Kings Row becomes an allegory for the sinister corruption and hypocrisy that may not only exists in our own towns and cities but within our society as a whole. As an audience we learn that there is a price to pay if we care to challenge it, ignore it or even escape it; and we may well ask if that price is worth paying if it means our integrity and sense of self remains intact.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

Casablanca: 75 Years Old And Still Going Strong – Flaws And All

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by Paul Batters

Annina: Oh, monsieur, you are a man. If someone loved you very much, so that your happiness was the only thing that she wanted in the world, but she did a bad thing to make certain of it, could you forgive her?
Rick: Nobody ever loved me that much.

One of the most enduring films in the Hollywood pantheon of classic films turns 75 this year on November 26th. It is usually on most people’s list of favourite classic films, not least of all because of one Humphrey Bogart and the beautiful Ingrid Bergman star in it. Not to mention a wonderful supporting cast (Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, Conrad Veidt, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Dooley Wilson) and a delightful soundtrack (who doesn’t swoon a little at ‘As Time Goes By’).

It also endures because it’s a love story – one that does not have a fairy tale ending but speaks of the torture and pain of love far more than if it did. Bogie is all style but emanates even greater substance. It is impossible not to look at Bergman’s face and become lost in her gaze. Set during World War Two, the love story is intertwined with political intrigue, Nazis, ‘causes’ and desperate people during desperate times.

Obviously I’m talking the irrepressible Warner Bros. classic, Casablanca.

Initially released on Nov 26th, 1942 at the Hollywood Theatre, Casablanca proved a massive hit, making Bogart a bona fide star after years of secondary roles. It was the middle Of World War Two and the background to the film would have been very familiar to audiences. War was tearing the world apart with no clear end in sight. If the famous “Le Marseillaise” scene still puts a lump in your throat, can you imagine its’ impact back then? And the chemistry between Bogart and Bergman stands tall above the countless on-screen couples who have declared love for each other.

Yet it has also been called the ‘best worst film ever made’. Pauline Kael called it ‘schlocky’ and Umberto Eco called it ‘mediocre’ by cinematic standards. Vincent Sherman stated the story ‘was crap but what a great piece of crap!’.

And if you really look at Casablanca carefully – you will discover a few strange mistakes and holes in the plot. We’re going to look at some of those things that you may or may not have noticed before. Hopefully, it won’t change your love affair with one of Hollywood’s most enduring films!

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  1. The ‘Letters Of Transit’

The letters of transit seem to be what everybody is after in the film. People want them to get out of Casablanca (the town, not the film) and people want them to stop people getting out of Casablanca. It is the plot device that drives the story forward and is indeed one of the most ludicrous devices every employed – and here’s why.

At that particular point in history, Morocco was indirectly under Nazi control, via the proxy of Vichy France (the turncoat puppet government in the south of France). How would any letters signed by De Gaulle hold any weight? De Gaulle was a Free French leader in exile in London. Anything signed by De Gaulle wouldn’t be worth a free trip!

It’s one of the most ridiculous McGuffins ever used in film. And yet somehow they got away with it. And poor old Ugarte (Peter Lorre) pays a heck of price for them.

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  1. Victor Laszlo

The believed dead and now returned husband of Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) is a leader of the Resistance. Not only that, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henried) has escaped from a concentration camp. And of all places to go, he goes to Casablanca – where there are Nazis! They let him walk around, while impeccably dressed, and he even frequents Rick’s Café. Yes they are hoping to catch Laszlo in the act of getting the letters of transit and thus have grounds to arrest him. But what other grounds do these Nazis need? He’s an ‘enemy of the Third Reich’, a leader of the Resistance AND an escapee from the custody of the Gestapo. Grounds for his arrest? As if they need them!

Laszlo’s very open presence is enough of an act of open defiance towards the Nazis. Yet he taunts them openly as well! He openly admits to Colonel Strasser that he knows who the Resistance leaders are across German-occupied territory. And who can forget the famous scene where he encourages the band in Rick’s Café to play “La Marseillaise” over German officers as they sing. Laszlo certainly takes his chances to enrage the Nazis.

It’s also absurd that the Nazis are reluctant to arrest Laszlo to maintain appearances. What appearances? The world is in the thick of the war and the Nazis are not holding back from doing some pretty despicable things. As critic Roger Ebert pointed out, Laszlo would have been arrested on sight.

  1. The Airport

Have a good look at the airport scene. Go on – take a good look.

Did you notice the following?

It’s very foggy, with a rain-slicked tarmac and Bogart is wearing a heavy trench coat and hat. In Morocco? Even in winter it’s pretty warm in North Africa.

  1. Rick’s Café Americain

Rick’s Café is one of the swankiest places, resplendent with lovely décor and quite the casino. And the place is packed! With Rick reaching Morocco a short while after being abandoned by Ilsa in Paris (when the Germans arrive en force), how has he managed to acquire enough capital to set up such a place in such a short time?

  1. Refugees

Casablanca appears packed with a vast array of European refugees – all dressed to the nines, despite losing everything in their home countries and more than happy to drink and gamble at Rick’s, as well as being stereotyped to the hilt. True – many are gambling to make enough money to escape and the sense of desperation is evoked in groups of refugees staring hopefully into the skies as the plane they need to be on leaves. Yet there is still an absurdity to that notion. However, whilst Morocco was a stop over for refugees escaping from Europe, by the time period of the film (December 1941), this was not the case and there were far better methods of getting out of Europe. In fact, by the time depicted in the film, there were very few refugees left in Morocco. Still, it is easy to feel for the young Bulgarian couple which Captain Renault aims to capitalise on and whom Rick ultimately saves.

  1. Nazis – in Casablanca?

Another inaccuracy – though a minor one. There were no uniformed German troops stationed in Morocco during World War Two. But then Casablanca has a good share of historical inaccuracies; Captain Renault (Claude Rains) talks of the Americans ‘blundering into Berlin in 1918’ but of course that never happened.

  1. The Script

If at times the players on screen look confused and bemused, it’s because they were. The original script was changed, re-edited and re-written daily for a variety of reasons – partly to please the Breen Office and even the decision on who would get the girl was made late in the piece.

The Epstein brothers, legendary for their nonchalance, wisecracks and irreverence, incredibly even towards their boss Jack Warner, would make some wonderful additions to the script, peppering it with their famous wit. But many writers worked on the film, usually writing material only needed for that day or the next, which was very typical in the industry. In A.M Sperber and Eric Lax’s Bogart, the story is recounted just how the Epsteins worked:

‘They said “we need another scene” and we sat down and wrote it. And we’d take the pages to the set ourselves.

They were asked ‘You mean you brought it, said “Here” and went back to your office?’

Epstein shrugged: ‘It worked”.

He also added that they got no help from anyone and did all their own work.

Despite the confusion, Bogart made the touches that remain immortal, especially the two famous lines, which he improvised from the original:

 

But all the additions and ad-libs ‘trickled in’ as Sperber and Lax point out, during the weeks of re-writes and constantly changing dialogue. There was an almost daily routine of learning new dialogue and discarding old, leaving tempers tested and often inflamed. Bergman recalled on a number of occasions seeing Bogart and Wallis returning from lunch arguing and Bogart and Curtiz also clashed.

It was also Bogart who won two major points against the director, Michael Curtiz (a feat in itself!) – one, that Rick would not kiss Ilsa one last time before they part and two, that Rick would not shoot Strasser in the back. Such instances certainly helped to make Casablanca a better film than it would have been otherwise.

There are quite a few near-clichés in terms of character and theme as well. The script doesn’t truly allow for character complexity or depth of development. Indeed, the script is filled with characters with familiar tropes– the drunken hero, the enigmatic woman, the loyal friend, the bad guy who comes good in the end and a variety of stereotyped European characteristics. This is true for themes as well – the love triangle, sacrifice, the impact of war and the plight of the desperate.

  1. A Few Other Minor Issues

There are quite a few problems with continuity. See if you can keep track of the times Bogart’s cigarette changes length in a number of scenes. Not to mention the changes in the detail of uniforms that both Strasser and Renault are wearing. And the much-loved piano player Sam (Dooley Wilson) is no piano player. Wilson was actually a drummer and whilst his voice is wonderful, his miming of playing the piano is less so.

Casablanca was not intended to be a masterpiece but was one of many films being made during the days of the studio system. It certainly was an A-film but one of many being made during the period. The fingerprints of some of Warner Bros. best can be found to have touched this film with their indelible mark – the production values of Hal Wallis, music of Max Steiner, the aforementioned gems in the script by the Epstein Brothers, Curtiz’s direction and the nice little touches of humour. I always chuckle when Captain Renault closes Rick’s Cafe because he is shocked to find gambling going on, only to be given his own winnings a second later. And of course it was an attempt at Hollywood escapism during the war with a film set during the war.

For all their expertise and experience, none of them could possibly have guessed that their collaborative effort would result in one of cinema’s most loved films. Yet from all reports, the Warner Bros. creative team knew they ‘had something’ and upon its’ release the film went beyond all initial expectations, breaking gross-taking records and capturing the imagination of audiences – particularly in the face of World War Two.

Both Casablanca’s initial and enduring success is also testimony to the film making process, and that even if a formula is in place, the elements and compounds added to the formula is what counts. The initial roles were never designed specifically for Bogart and Bergman, the now timeless song ‘As Time Goes By’ was going to be edited out and decisions regarding who would sing it was also never assured. As we have seen, despite the countless edits and changes, the magic that makes the movies conjured up a true classic.

What has made it endure is the magic between Bogart and Bergman on screen, the beautiful musical score (with one of cinema’s most famous and heart-reaching songs), the touches (small and large) that added that something special that defines classic film, some fantastic dialogue which gave us some of cinema’s greatest lines, the brilliant and illustrious supporting cast and the very essence of the story that everyone can associate with; the tragedy of love unfounded. Is there anyone that does not hold in his or her heart a tale of having it broken? Or had to let go off a true love? And of course, it is a tale of ultimate love, where sacrifice is made out of true love for someone. Whatever flaws exist in Casablanca, there is something more going on that forever holds us to it.

Like a diamond far overcoming any flaws it may have, perhaps one of cinema’s finest scenes (below) pulls all the magic together. Dooley Wilson’s singing pulls at our heart strings as Bergman’s face conveys all the haunting pain of past love, followed by their seeing each other again. How can one not weep while watching Casablanca?

After 75 years since it first opened, Casablanca has never let go of its’ audience. 

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history