Kings Row (1942)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Kings Row</strong> (1942)

(On Cable TV, February 2019) If anyone wants to illustrate the ways in which the Hays Code stunted the emotional development of American movies for thirty years, a comparative study of racy novels adapted to the big screen would make for a nice case study. In the tradition of the later Peyton Place, Kings Row takes an almost sadistic glee in revealing the sordid underbelly of small American towns. This depiction of a turn-of-the-century Midwestern town starts off slowly as it introduces its young main characters, then turns to the good stuff as they age: Going deeper and deeper in twisted melodrama, we end up with murder, suicide, insanity, fraud, destitution, malicious amputation, class warfare, and so on. The original novel was far wilder (what with incest, nymphomania, euthanasia and homosexuality), but the film does stand out by Hays Code standards even in its adulterated adaptation. (It had a rough view of psychiatry, but that’s to be expected from Hollywood films of the time.) Much of the enduring draw of Kings Row is found elsewhere, though—it’s usually cited as Ronald Reagan’s best performance, and one of the last he did before his military service. Reagan’s career was never quite the same after this interruption due to WW2, and Kings Row is enough to make anyone wonder if he would have gone on to a more successful career as an actor had he not left. He does have a strong role here, and carries much of it on sheer likability. Kings Row will work better if you’re in the mood for some rough melodrama—from today’s perspective, it’s far less objectionable as it once was.

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