Friday, 2 December 2011

Friday Night Film: King's Row

'Kings Row’ (1942) is a blockbuster melodrama from the golden age of Hollywood. The production team features a host of legendary names: cinematography by James Wong Howe, design by William Cameron Menzies, music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, direction from Sam (‘Wizard of Oz’) Wood. It stars wholesome all American boys Robert Cummings and Ronald Reagan. It was an expensive production based on a best selling book and runs for over two hours. Oh, and it’s one of the sickest, sickliest films ever made.

Who are they trying to kid?

I first got to know the film about 18 or 19 years ago, in the early-ish days of satellite telly when TCM used to show the same film at 10pm every night for a week. I was a film student at the time, so I latched onto this extracurricular opportunity to learn something / sit on my arse and watch more telly and call it research. The cloying, oppressive atmosphere of ‘King’s Row’ absolutely fascinated me, and the more I watched it, the more it drew me in. On the surface, it’s a fairly good humoured drama about the people of a small mid-Western town at the turn of the century. The top crust is wafer thin, however, and from the first shots (a welcome sign that tries much too hard - a group of children taunting a child with learning difficulties) it’s clear that there’s something dark and hard and horrible behind it all.

Even the saccharine bits are weird.

Robert Cummings is lit and made up throughout like Shirley Temple. 

The madness of young love.

Dr. Death.

Where to start? How about the doomed romance between a trainee psychiatrist and a mentally disturbed girl? Or that girl’s suffocating relationship with her father which ends in murder and suicide? And what about the doctor who performs unnecessary surgery in order to punish those he considers immoral (including amputating the rakish Ronald Reagan’s legs, prompting the memorable cri de cour ‘where’s the rest of me?’). Then there’s the euthanasia, and the drugs, the skinny dipping, the fraud, the promiscuity and the social exclusion and, well, there’s a lot going on here, none of it very healthy.


The future President tries homoeroticism - doesn't like it.

The tight grip of the Hays Code (a self-regulating code of ethics in place from 1930 up until the 1960’s) almost squeezed the life out of the film before it ever reached the screen and some of the key ingredients of the novel were excised (homosexuality) or marginalised to the point of abstraction (incest). This actually lends the film an even weirder feel – there are so many undertones and implications swirling around that every scene, every interaction, every shot is imbued with an added meaning, an unsettling, uneasy tone that keeps the viewer off-balance and quietly dreading the next twist and turn.

The American Dream has always been a rich source of material for popular art, and there is a parallel history that focuses on the American Nightmare. ‘Peyton Place; ‘Twin Peaks’, even ‘Desperate Housewives’ are in this tradition, but, no matter how explicit and out there the modern equivalents may be, ‘Kings Row’ retains its ability to disturb and discombobulate, especially if you watch it seven times in a week.

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