Checking in with the Imaginary Summer Book Club: Kings Row (1942, Sam Wood)

(Click here for information on the 2012 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. As each of the titles for 2012 have a filmed adaptation, this year we will also be looking at each movie version as well. First up, the June selection, Kings Row)

Henry Bellamann’s massive novel follows the lives and scandals of a huge cast of characters in a fictional Missouri town in the 1890s through the turn of the century, focusing on the life-long friendship between sensitive musician/physician Parris Mitchell and charmingly arrogant playboy Drake McHugh. Published in 1940, the novel was considered scandalous at the time, as it featured themes including incest, insanity, premarital sex, and homosexuality. When Warner Brothers bought the film rights in 1942, it was clear that changes would have to be made to meet the constraints of the Production Code:  in many ways what was kept, what was chucked out, and what was added in are the most interesting aspects of the movie.

Heading up the cast is Robert Cummings as the ineffectual Parris; Betty Field is suitably twitchy as the doomed Cassandra (CLASSICAL ALLUSION!); the always-reliable Ann Sheridan as Randy, the tomboy with a heart of gold (as in the novel, she doesn’t show up until halfway through); and Ronald Reagan in a shockingly good performance as Drake. Seriously, saying that Ronald Reagan is the best thing in the movie isn’t even intended as a backhanded compliment: he really is good.

(The trailer gives you a taste of the Erich Wolfgang Korngold score, which isn’t just florid, it is overbearing)

As in the novel, most of the seaminess in the movie is the result of the town’s two medical doctors, both of whom are perversely corrupt. The mysterious Dr. Tower, from whom Parris receives tutoring before attending medical school in Vienna, carries on a long-term sexual relationship with his own daughter, Cassandra, before eventually murdering his entire family and committing suicide. Meanwhile, the publicly respectable Dr. Gordon has made a life-long practice of performing unnecessary surgeries (without anesthesia) in order to cripple or disfigure townspeople who have committed “moral transgressions”. Drake is basically on his radar from the minute he starts showing an interest in the doctor’s daughter, Louise: when Drake is involved in an accident in the rail yard, Dr. Gordon gleefully amputates both of his legs and forces Louise to keep his secret by constantly threatening to commit her to the state mental hospital.

In fact, in the novel, a rather large percentage of the town seems to end up in the state mental hospital, which looms menacingly on the outskirts of town. To keep the movie at just over two hours, many of the supporting characters and subplots are eliminated, and to appease the censors some of the plot points are watered down to the point of inscrutability; in  particular, the nature of the “relationship” between Dr. Tower and his daughter.  Had I not read the book first, I would have no idea as to the cause of the murder-suicide.

However, oddly enough for 1942, the movie plays up the homosexual/homoerotic aspect of the relationship between Parris and Drake, an element that was not present in the novel. Again, Reagan gamely manages these scenes. The same cannot be said for Cummings, as the harder he is called upon to emote, the progressively sillier his performance becomes.

And, of course, the major change from page to screen is in the ending. In the book, Drake marries the ever-faithful Randy and together they find success in the real estate business, while Randy and Parris take the secret of Dr. Gordon having sadistically crippled him to the grave. Well, to Drake’s grave: he dies of bone cancer in the book’s final pages.

In contrast, the movie ends on this note:

“Well, goll durn it, guys! They’re just legs- say, let’s all go out for some frosty strawberry ice cream!”

Additional Changes in Film Adaptation:

For some reason, Drake tells the police that he, not Parris, was having the affair with Cassie after Parris gets word of her murder, but this does not forward or change the plot in any way.

In the book we don’t have to follow along with Parris’s dull adventures in Europe (small favors!); in the movie we get a few scenes of Parris being boring on The Continent.

After Dr. Gordon’s death, his widow seeks Parris’s help in keeping the increasingly unhinged Louise from blabbing about all of those unnecessary, unanesthetized, surgeries the doctor had been performing. In the book Parris helps Louise avoid being committed for a time (ultimately his paralyzing inaction results in her Mother sending her away); in the movie Parris signs the commitment papers to have Louise locked up in order to keep her from spilling the beans to Drake. Parris! You are a terrible friend!

End Notes:

  • I like how in Drake’s introduction scene his plaid hat-band matches the pattern on the Ross Sisters’ dresses. Nice attention to detail, Orry-Kelly.
  • Like the later Peyton Place, it was adapted into a TV series which ran for seven episodes in the 1955-56 season.
  • Bette Davis was originally attached to play Cassandra, but it was decided that she would overwhelm the rest of the movie. Good call.
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2 Responses to Checking in with the Imaginary Summer Book Club: Kings Row (1942, Sam Wood)

  1. All right, you’ve convinced me. I will actually have to take the movie out of the Netflix envelope and watch it this weekend! But only because stupid Netflix only had the first season of The Walking Dead available for me to mock.

    • mondomolly says:

      For everything that was cut out (Jamie, Vera, Benny, Renee, Sam and Lucy and all of the St. Georges are nowhere to be found in the movie), it still manages to remain ploddingly faithful to the novel.

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