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Monday, April 13, 2020

Close Doors --- Then Talk About It

Would King's Row Shock Like The Book Did?

They Talk About It In Whispers!

More Daringly Than Ever!

Behind Closed Doors!
So 1942 offers King’s Row and The Magnificent Ambersons, two peas in a late nineteenth-century pod. Midwest settings, family traumas, high drama. Sales tags eerily similar, “The Family They Talk About Behind Closed Doors” (Ambersons), “The story of the town they talk about in whispers” (King’s Row). Both were pitched to sensation, but only King’s Row stuck, thanks in part to a hot and recent novel from which it derived. Ambersons was decorum to King’s Row heavy breathing. A war public wanted gears switched high, so where a thing was period set, it better be sexed-up to feed a modern appetite. King’s Row satisfied that and Ambersons did not. Did word-of-mouth call the latter a counterfeit after ads promised “Real-Life Screened More Daringly Than It’s Ever Been Before”? Cash tills told the story, King’s a sensation at five million in rentals worldwide, Ambersons the more-less abject failure with $820K. They were roughly a same in cost, both a million more/less (Ambersons $1.1 million). Ultimate winner would be Ambersons, of course, where prestige is the carrot, and who cares? say scholars, to what 1942 boobacracy preferred. All depends in the end on how you like melodrama poured, still-life subdued as Ambersons, or cracklin’ like a storm that is King’s Row. I’ve room on my marquee for both.

Note an Intermission Policy for Chicago's State-Lake First Run

Has literature lost its capacity to shock? Is there anything left for us to talk about “in whispers”? King’s Row the novel was raw as respectability came, a Peyton Place for the 40’s, and like that next-decade sensation, a lure to screen transfer, except … how could it get by a rigid-as-ever Code? Warners received a terse PCA memo shortly after winning the hot bidded Henry Bellaman property. “Industry policy,” it seemed, may prevent any attempt to film King’s Row. From such stuff are compromises made, had been before with worse prospects. Everyone scoffs at censors, did from a start of movies, but face facts, which were that Breen and associates were a studio-allied barrier against state-local meddle with screen commerce, but sometimes even their limits weren’t limited enough to suit hard-nose that was yokel boards (Ohio and Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye a for-instance). Then there was the Legion Of Decency, who danced not to PCA tune, and would condemn Hollywood output where it suited them (see Kiss Me, Stupid, which was Code-passed, Legion crushed). Priests spoke to apx. twenty-five percent of a US public, and many more listened where it came to picking films for family view. To incite them was to court loss. King’s Row was more book than Warners needed in any event, a first 200 pages useful, the rest surplusage. There was every perversion on record in this small town, Bellaman having exposed “hypocrisy” in each paragraph. Hottest of his potatoes was the incest theme, pivotal to the yarn, impossible for Warners to retain. Transgressors were a Dr. Alexander Tower and daughter Cassandra, ultimately played onscreen by Claude Rains and Betty Field. He kills her, then himself, to atone for sins and guard a promising future for his medical protégé Parris Mitchell (Robert Cummings). King’s Row associate producer David Lewis and writer Casey Robinson had to cleanse fate of father-daughter, letting them die as in the book, but for reasons censorship could abide.

Here’s general rule of survivors who give testimony re classic movies: Where credit is due, two guys at least will claim it. I call this the Bugs Bunny Rule. Remember animator(s) who said they invented him? King’s Row contest was for who cracked the incest nut. Was it David Lewis or Casey Robinson? Latter took the book on a cruise, saw no way to bell the cat, and pitched pages into the drink. Robinson years later told interviewer Joel Greenberg how it all clicked at that very moment, “ … as it hit the water I got the idea that solved the major censorship problem of the book --- to change the subject from incest to an inherited tendency toward insanity.” All this well and good, except for David Lewis telling author James Curtis around a same time that he came up with the incest-insanity switch, and then told Robinson about it. File this under success having many fathers. For all I know, Wallis, Jack L., maybe the guard at the gate, made a same claim. Frankly, I like the inherited insanity gag better. At least that’s something I’ve run into occasionally on journey through life. To general unease re Dr. Tower and offspring as experienced by 1942 first-runners to King’s Row, I consulted again with Conrad Lane, who gave me the following account, of a very adult movie as seen by a boy eleven years old at the time:

My brother and I went to see King’s Row in May, 1942, at the Liberty Theatre in Alexandria, Indiana, me with no idea as to what it was about, but being a fan of Ann Sheridan and Ronald Reagan, this seemed like a good choice. My ticket cost eleven cents. We sat down in the auditorium, expecting a newsreel, shorts ... usual accompany to the feature, however, because of length, there were none. The curtain opened and King’s Row began. A female voice from behind loudly exclaimed, “Shucks, no comedy!” There were many disturbing aspects to King’s Row for this eleven-year-old, not the least of which was Dr. Tower’s relationship with his daughter. I realized something was badly amiss, but could not figure just what. The source novel had been discussed, not so much within my earshot, and I had no awareness of censorable content within its pages. I was unaware of anyone in my small town having read it. In hindsight, I realize that Orestes, Indiana, population 432 at the time, was a somewhat backward community. Being an observant, if not precocious, child, I had ears open to household conversation, especially where sotto voced. My mother and brother (the latter age sixteen … three months later, he enlisted with the Marines) discussed (in “whispers,” like ads said?) the incest theme which was part of King’s Row in print, but removed from the filmic treatment. So that was it!, my eyes opened to what went on between an obviously disturbed father-daughter. Another of youth’s doors unlocked. I had cracked a Code rigidly enforced by Hollywood censors. How much did I understand of incest as a dramatic concept, let alone real-life issue? Maybe more than was typical for a child of the 40’s, for I had heard of incidents around our small town, mostly of brothers and sisters in forbidden embrace. Turns out we were living in a virtual King’s Row and I never knew it.

King’s Row was filled with dream parts for young players, a laboratory to show what Warner contract talent might deliver if given an opportunity. A lot of them would not be seen to such advantage again. Ann Sheridan, Ronald Reagan, Nancy Coleman, each said King’s Row was the best work they ever had, or expected to have. If you’re the Oomph Girl, with a job like this bookended by Navy Blues or Wings For The Eagle, you knew Santa Claus didn’t drop down WB chimneys once a year … more like once a decade. Sheridan told John Kobal and others how she “fought” for King’s Row, lobbied brass, agreed to test. They needed a top name to sell grim content, so she was it. Reagan might have spun his part to major stardom, but war service interrupted, and things weren’t the same when he reported back in 1946. A tricky spot was Betty Field’s (Cassandra Tower). She was brought in from the outside after Bette Davis expressed interest, then withdrew it, Ida Lupino backing off for same reason … King’s Row was an ensemble, and both these were too prominent to absorb into that. A role difficult as Cassandra needed more than run-of-mill Warner actresses could give, but imagine if you can Priscilla Lane, Joan Leslie, or Susan Peters … each were tested. My pick from the three Susan Peters, the others too scrubbed and wholesome. Some of crew, and later critics, saw a weakest link in Robert Cummings as Parris. Ideal pick was Tyrone Power, but Jack Warner knew futility of pursuing Zanuck for the borrow. Word was DFZ wanted two with Errol Flynn for one of Power, plus other concessions. When is there less chance of getting something you want than when you let the other person know how badly you want it? Would Power as starriest-by-far-star have thrown King’s Row off balance?

Sam Wood directed King’s Row. He gets a rap that I attribute to Groucho’s disdain for how he oversaw Opera and Races. There is too his reliance on William Cameron Menzies to give visual distinction to many of features Wood directed. I often hear a smart man defined as one who aligns himself with smarter men, or hires them where/when he can. One who recognizes own limits and lets others compensate for them has limitless potential for success, but that takes put-aside of ego, so too few utilize this anything-but secret weapon. Sam Wood strikes me as one who did. I picture him lounging around the pool and worrying a lot (not) about insider estimate of his talent. Repositories of genius come in all shapes. Wood would arrive on King’s Row set and ask James Wong Howe (director of photography) what we were doing today, then inquire if Bill Menzies’ set was ready. Delegation lifted to highest art. But come time for Wood to confer with cast, which he did so quietly, often to no ears other than ones addressed, and something special would happen, according to high-on-Wood remarks from years-later interview subjects Ann Sheridan, Betty Field, and Nancy Coleman. Performances like those in King’s Row did not come off by chance. Someone perceptive had to have guided them, and that person, by all accounts, was Sam Wood. Is this then, a most critical of director duties? If so, then Wood was a great director.

Lurid X10 for a 1946 Reissue

Then-reviews weren’t generous. We expect settled classics to have been settled from a start, but that was nearly never so. James Agee was sarcastic toward Casablanca, Manny Farber reserved re Citizen Kane. Bosley Crowther ripped into King’s Row, as “gloomy and ponderous,” “turgidly unfolds …,” “one of the bulkiest blunders to come out of Hollywood in some time.” Otis Ferguson’s review was mixed, as in “I liked the picture, but …” (“the faults of King’s Row are length … and that curse and damn it in all pictures, talk, and then some talk, and after that we’ll have some talk”).  Even Variety, with eye toward trade, saw flaws and called them, but stopped short of an outright pan. Contemporary reviews can sometimes undermine love for favorites. Were these critics wiser and not so easily fooled? More discriminating where I am not? King’s Row sweeps me up, carries me away, but can emotion rule over sense? Sure it can, and probably should. I’m not blind to King’s Row flaws, but the best of it goes to where I deepest live, maple syrup of which is Korngold music. Cue rise where Scotty Beckett steps over the fence rail, and then grown-to-man Robert Cummings crosses back, is what transporting impact of movies is all about. King’s Row streams in HD at Amazon and Vudu, often plays that way at TCM.


Blogger John McElwee said...

Dear John:

There was an intermission in KINGS ROW? Do you know whether this was the theatre's idea, or did Warners feature this in the initial engagements?

Fascinating comment from Conrad Lane. He really captured something of what it was like to see an adult-themed (and thematically veiled) movie from a child's perspective.

-- Griff

From John:

This Chicago ad was the only one I have come across that referred to an intermission. Search among trades hasn't revealed any other instances of it. I'd assume the intermission policy was one that the State-Lake Theatre instigated.

12:19 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Conrad Lane's experience shows that good actors can get an idea across without it being verbally expressed. Viewers who were perceptive enough understood the real deal; a smart kid like Lane at the very least knew there was something else going on.

Saw "King's Row" about 40 years ago. The thing I remember best, even more than Reagan's famous "Where's the rest of me?", were the screams emanating from a patient having surgery without anesthesia. That haunted me for years afterwards. Must have really packed a wallop in 1942.

Those ads featuring a Merry Christmas and a promise of a Mickey Mouse with "King's Row" crack me up.

1:51 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Critics are best ignored though I do like to read them. The Catholic Legion of Decency as well as the Code caused Hollywood to lie. I don't see that as something good. I wonder what lies the people who ran those used to justify what they did. TV channels like PURE FLIX do the same. It's third rate thinking from third rate minds. As a person brought up Roman Catholic I saw everything I was told not to. One of my best teachers (also Catholic) put all the books he wanted his kids to read in a bookcase with glass doors which he locked. After hiding the key he told his children he would beat them if he caught them reading those books. He said, "Of course, they read every one." You've persuaded me to take a look at this. Thanks.

2:06 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

All concerned agreed that Tex Avery was the father of Bugs Bunny as under his direction the rabbit that had appeared in a few films before A WILD HARE (1940) gained the personality that made him Bugs.

The problem was that journalists interviewing the directors usually claimed for them the credit for creating Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, etc..

I watched this happen with the artists I brought to Toronto.

3:10 PM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

Another great post, John, and like Reg, you’ve convinced me to take another look, if only for Rains, Field, and Korngold/Howe/Menzies. Saw part of KING’S ROW as a kid, and being period set and a recalled snooze, I’ve avoided a revisit.

But I gotta say, the only duller combo of male leads than Reagan and Cummings that I can imagine would be George Brent and Robert Young.

5:21 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Always thought I heard a faint echo of Korngold's magnificent KINGS ROW in John Williams' SUPERMAN theme. Anyone else? Or is it just me?

5:54 PM  
Blogger Michael Johnson said...

John Williams admitted he lifted from Korngold (in 'homage') when he composed the 'Star Wars' theme.

11:17 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Dave K - It's not just you.

I suppose some movies need to be long. Anything running more than 120 minutes, I consider a long movie. Maybe I've watched too many "B"s.

But many, many long movies do not warrant such a length.

I recently took another look at WYATT EARP. While I overall enjoyed it, THREE HOURS and TEN MINUTES...NO, NO, NO.

Have never read KINGS ROW, so wasn't aware of incest story line. But I love the movie. Maybe, sometimes it's better not to know.

Great article.

7:10 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Mike Cline: I'm with you. Give me a good 70 minute movie, and I'm happy.

1:00 PM  
Blogger Randy A. Riddle said...

Never saw "King's Row", but do recall Jane Wyman once saying that one of the reasons she divorced Ronald Reagan is that she "got tired of seeing that damned 'King's Row'" over and over again.

1:19 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

There was a period when symphony orchestras were turning out CDs of classic film music, much of which had been spottily available in occasional soundtrack albums. Korngold was a favorite and the "King's Row" theme turned up on several releases. Since the the title and the music itself are both rather grand, I sometimes wondered if many listeners sought out the movie expecting a costume epic.

4:52 PM  
Blogger S.M. said...

What happened to the images on your site? They're blank

8:04 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

It's a problem with the provider, Google. They are aware of the problem and are still working on it. Many other Bloggers have been affected by the same issue. Hopefully, it will be resolved by sometime tomorrow.

8:42 PM  

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