Entry from June 18, 2014

This summer I am once again presenting on behalf of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Hudson Institute in Washington a series of six movies. The general theme this year is Middle America and the Movies. The films are being shown at the Hudson Institute, 1015 15th Street N.W., Suite 600, and you can go to the Hudson website for details or to register to attend. The series continued on Tuesday, June 17th with a screening of King’s Row of 1942, written by Casey Robinson from a novel by Henry Bellamann and directed by Sam Wood. It stars Ann Sheridan, Robert Cummings, Ronald Reagan, Betty Field, Charles Coburn and Claude Rains. Before showing the film, I spoke for a few minutes about it as follows.

The tenth anniversary of the death of Ronald Reagan a week ago last Thursday provides a memorial occasion for us to watch a movie that he himself believed, along with most critics, to be his best screen role. It made him a star, and it gave him the title of his autobiography, published in 1965, Where’s the Rest of Me? The movie, King’s Row, though it is set in the 1890s, is also strikingly, almost spookily, Reaganesque itself, even apart from his performance in it, since it possesses what were to become his trademark qualities and the hallmarks of his presidency — namely, a highly patriotic if rather sentimental love of country and a sunny optimism about progress and the American future. In fact, it may be one of the most purely American movies ever made — partly because of its ultimately sympathetic portrait of Middle America, which it saw as breaking free of some of the dubious ties that still bound it to Europe, and partly also because of its confidence in America’s own confidence and can-do spirit. And we owe it all to the Hays Code.

We tend to forget, now, the thirty year history of censorship in the American movie industry which, oddly enough, almost exactly coincided with the creative flowering of Hollywood’s Golden Age. I think we need to recognize the extent to which the community standards that censorship was introduced to assert and to protect were not simply a clog on artistic creativity but often a spur to it as well. That great product of the American movie industry of the 1940s and 1950s, the film noir, for example, would never have been invented by the overwhelmingly left-wing screenwriters of Hollywood, had they not been prevented by the censor, at least to some extent, from following their natural bent into boring propaganda. Instead they invented the paradigmatic figure of the little man who aspires to a better life, usually through crime, but who is ultimately crushed by "the system." Audiences who were supposed to be appreciative of the triumph of law and order instead found themselves more in sympathy with the criminals.

I think that King’s Row, which was based on a book that was propaganda of a different kind, also managed to turn to account its battle with the censor. The novel, by Henry Bellamann, was a thinly disguised portrait of Bellamann’s hometown of Fulton, Missouri, and portrayed it as the scene of all kinds of things that could not be portrayed in the movies of the period: extramarital and inter-racial sex, homosexuality, nymphomania, incest, sexual perversion and sadism masquerading as medical care, all of it covered up by a hypocritically religious and class-based moral respectability. When Warner Brothers proposed to make a movie out of the novel in the following year, Joseph Breen of the Hays Office, at first forbade any movie based on it at all. He later relented so far, at least, as to say that one might be made if Warners took out all references to incest, nymphomania, homosexuality, mercy killing and nude bathing.

Only the last of these survives in the finished film — and, since the nude bathers are about ten years old, our interest in them is not a prurient one but as a symbol of that holy grail of liberal pathos, American innocence. Of course, that Edenic innocence was about to be lost, as it always is, if not quite so luridly or spectacularly as it is in the novel. But the toning down of Bellamann’s original was not such a bad thing, thought Hal Wallis, who produced the film for Warners. He wrote that "in the end, I felt it was all to the good," when the fourth draft of Casey Robinson’s screenplay was finally approved by Breen. "Too much grimness might have wrecked its chances at the box office," he thought. Nowadays, of course, that kind of "grimness" appears to be just what the producers are looking for, even if it doesn’t often produce great box office.

Maybe some of you with good memories for bits of cultural effluvia can recall when you first saw one of those greeting cards with a message that went something like this: "You’re sick, you’re twisted, you’re perverted: you’re my kind of person." I’m guessing that it was in the mid-1980s, during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, though it could easily have been a decade earlier. It was certainly in the mid-80s when Fulton officially forgave its native son, by then 40 years in his grave, for his unflattering portrait of it a half-century earlier. It was around the same time that David Lynch’s Blue Velvet came out — another movie that, like King’s Row, begins with a shot of a picket fence as a symbol of middle class respectability. And it, too, concerns itself with what it sees as the pullulating crimes and perversions lying just beneath the surface of respectable, small-town America. But what in the 1940s had been more scandalous than fascinating was, by the 1980s, more fascinating than scandalous. At some point during the previous 40 years, the killers and perverts and sadists had ceased to be monsters or pathetic emotional cripples and had become, instead, our kind of people.

So I think we have to make a bit of an effort to put ourselves back into the earlier frame of mind if we are fully to enjoy the movie of King’s Row. Directed by Sam Wood, it cut out in addition to a lot of the scandalous stuff, a lot of Bellamann’s plot and characters and, of course, all of his lavish scene-setting descriptions, which he had included, in a not very good imitation of D.H. Lawrence, to accompany its ubiquitous sexual yearnings. These passages are likely to interfere, perhaps fatally, with any attempt to read the novel today — as are, to my mind anyway, its relentless hammering on the evils of small town small-mindedness and sexual prudery. Not all of that has disappeared from the movie, but it has been so far muted that the worst of the sardonic effect of the words introducing us to the town of King’s Row in both book and movie — "A good, clean town. A good town to live in, and a good place to raise your children" — almost disappears, becoming instead only a mild irony.

In the pared-down, movie version of Bellamann’s story, the hero, Parris Mitchell, is played as an adult by Robert Cummings — as he was known before he came to star, fifteen years later, in TV’s "Bob Cummings Show," also known as "Love that Bob." Cummings’s job in King’s Row consists mainly of looking handsome, if a bit wooden, until his handsome face registers shock and horror as he learns of all the shocking and horrible goings on in King’s Row. But his character is pretty clearly Henry Bellamann’s idealized self. He is the orphaned son of a German mother and an Irish father who lives with his Grandmother, played by the inimitable Maria Ouspenskaya, in a big house on the land of the plant nurseries she has inherited from her husband. With "Grandmère," Parris speaks French and German, and he learns the piano from a German Herr Professor, played by Ludwig Stössel. He obviously belongs among the little town’s aristocracy, and he also studies medicine with Dr Alexander Tower, played by Claude Rains, with a view to completing his medical education in Vienna.

The nude bathing near the beginning of the film (though not in the novel) takes place between the childish versions of Parris and the doctor’s daughter, Cassandra Tower, played as an adult by Betty Field. Soon afterwards, Cassandra’s father takes her out of school and shuts her up in the house, from which neither she nor her mysterious mother henceforth dares to emerge. Once again, as we noticed last week, the image of a woman, peering out of a spooky old Victorian mansion from behind a lace curtain comes to stand for sexual and emotional repression and unavailability — the kind of thing that lots of people besides Henry Bellamann in the 1930s were thinking was the cause of all sorts of evils, both personal and social. Yet Dr Tower is meant to seem sympathetic and becomes very fond of Parris, regarding him almost as a son. He also introduces him to and makes him want to study the brand new medical science of psychiatry. "The caverns of the human mind are full of strange shadows," as Parris later sagely observes, and he learns this from Dr Tower in more than one way.

Parris’s best friend — indeed, it seems his only friend in King’s Row — is Drake McHugh, played by Reagan. Drake, too, is an orphan, living with his Aunt Mamie, but he is not, like Parris a serious, studious type. Rather, he is a happy-go-lucky sort known to the town for being a bit "wild" because he takes the Ross girls, Poppy and Jinny for buggy rides in the country. Poppy and Jinny are seen only briefly, but they are obviously meant to be seen as "no better than they should be" — to use an expression that is now almost incomprehensible. But Drake is in love with Louise Gordon (Nancy Coleman), the daughter of another doctor, played by Charles Coburn, and he plans to marry her when he turns twenty-one and inherits the money his parents left him. Dr Gordon, mindful of Drake’s reputation for wildness, forbids the match and shuts his daughter up in the house, warning her that if she protests he will put her in an insane asylum. We are also aware that Dr Gordon seems to perform rather a lot of operations without anaesthetic because, as he says, his patients’ hearts can’t stand it.

Meanwhile, Parris falls in love with Cassie Tower, in spite of rarely getting to see her, and contemplates giving up his Viennese education in order to run away with her. I’ll leave the rest to surprise you, if you haven’t seen the movie before, but I need to mention one more character, named Randy Monaghan, played by Ann Sheridan, who is meant to be a girl from the wrong side of the tracks — quite literally, since she is what they used to call shanty Irish and lives down by the depot with her father and brother, who are railroad workers. She and they introduce the element of class into the story that, as we didn’t quite take enough notice last week, Barbara Stanwyck’s mother and stepfather do in Remember the Night. Drake, whose prospective inheritance puts him firmly into the middle, if not the upper middle classes, takes an interest in her, too, though on their buggy rides together he is to find that she is rather a different kettle of fish from Poppy and Jinny Ross. Louise Gordon, watching from her window as Drake and Randy drive by, is obviously distraught with jealousy, but her splendidly awful Victorian mother, played by Judith Anderson, just takes Drake’s driving around with "that little nobody from downtown" (as she puts it) as a confirmation of her poor opinion of his morals.

Even without my telling you any more of what happens in the movie, you will see that it is a good old-fashioned melodrama, though melodrama is now so old-fashioned that some of my fellow critics, who nearly always use the word as a mere pejorative, seem not to know what it means. The melo part of it, anyway, is the same as the melo in "melody" and refers to a certain musical or operatic quality in the expression of exaggerated emotion. In fact, melodramma was the original Italian name for opera. So be warned: the movie contains a few scenes of a fully operatic passion which you may find it difficult to take seriously — I think at least partly because the seriousness of sex itself has been downgraded since the days when it was all bound up with morality, religion and social status and therefore regarded as a life-changing experience, like the death or maiming of a loved one, both of which also feature prominently here. Remember this if you are tempted to laugh in the scene of Cassie and Parris’s first sexual embrace, which takes place in the dark with thunder and lightning and swelling music.

The music here as elsewhere in this melodrama comes in the form of a brilliant score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a Viennese refugee from Hitler and a composer of considerable reputation apart from the movies who was said to have been pronounced a prodigy and genius by no less a person than Gustav Mahler when he played for him as a child. The music begins over the Main Title with a trumpet and brass fanfare — later imitated by John Williams in his score for Star Wars — because Korngold, who hadn’t seen the script at that point, assumed that a movie called King’s Row must have something to do with European royalty. Yet even this mistake, I think, is turned to some account. Korngold’s lush romanticism provides a kind of counterpoint to the darkness and pain of the melodrama, and a promise of better things to come, not only for the characters but for America and the world, which is redeemed by the ending. Even the trumpets seem to herald the triumph of the human spirit over appalling adversity and a past that would otherwise drag it down.

At one point in the movie when Parris thinks his return to King’s Row has been a failure, he proposes to "Get on a train, then get on a boat" and return to Vienna, where he can take up the post that has been offered him studying under an Americanized version of Sigmund Freud. I can’t help thinking that the train part of the journey, fitting in with a lot more talk of trains in the movie, is meant to remind us of the presence in Middle America of the town with the very un-American name of King’s Row. "Some little hamlet in North America, I believe," as the movie’s version of Dr Freud puts it. But he, too, is part of a movie that could only have been made in America, not least because there is no shadow of the First World War hanging over it. Set during the 1890s and the first decade of the 20th century, and partly in Vienna, it gives no hint, no hint of a hint, of what any European film could hardly have avoided: a sense of the looming world-wide conflagration lying just ahead.

In Europe they were fighting again when the picture was made, while America was still officially neutral — though Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war happened between the time the movie was finished and the time it was released early in 1942. But Europe appears here as the source of science and culture and not a place of horror and conflict. The sense of continuity between America and old Europe, pre-war Europe, is also reinforced by Dr Tower’s introduction of the new science of the mind. "In the 13th century," he says, meaning the European 13th century, "man was happier and more comfortable in his world than he is now. I'm speaking of psychic man and his relationship with his whole universe."

Parris says: "I get it, sir. Everything was so simple then."

"That was it, Parris," Dr. Tower continues. "That was it. But in this modern complicated world, man breaks down under the strain, the bewilderment, disappointment, and disillusionment. He gets lost, goes crazy, commits suicide. I don’t know what’s going to happen to this world in the next hundred years or so, but I can guarantee you life isn’t going to get any simpler. Worry and doubt bring on a bellyache. Mankind’s building up the biggest psychic bellyache in history."

Of course, Parris doesn’t know yet the consequences for himself of the psychic crisis the doctor is describing here with a bit of historical psychologizing that was very much in the cultural air of the period. Another version of it can be found in T.S. Eliot’s idea of the "dissociation of sensibility" characteristic, he thought, of modernity. The idea is more elaborate and the theory somewhat more worked out in the novel, but there the darkness of the secrets hidden away in what Parris calls the caverns of the mind casts too much of its shadow over the doctor’s belief in the power of science and medicine to effect improvements in the deteriorated human condition. Here, as there, he is doubtful about this belief, but the fact that he is spared in the movie the worst of the evils he both suffers and commits in the novel contributes to the generally more optimistic tone of the former.

Dr Tower also makes an oblique mention of the contribution of religion to the psychic train-wreck he has in mind. This, too, had to come out of the movie, thanks to the censor — though we may note that Reagan’s Drake McHugh is permitted to reply to Harriet Gordon’s invocation of his "God-fearing" Aunt Mamie by saying, "Oh, can it!" But the vagueness in which the origins of the movie’s moral miasma are allowed to remain leaves it free to be more optimistic than Bellamann is, and its faith in science and science’s power to solve problems and reduce human suffering is almost as great as its faith in America. Indeed, the two kinds of belief become intertwined and almost indistinguishable by the end. The class-consciousness of the movie’s bad people goes together with their psycho-sexual problems and both are similarly associated with that broken down psychological framework of Old Europe that a combination of science and Americanism could be expected ultimately to put to rights.

We are left with the feeling that it may take a while, but eventually science will get around to solving all our human problems, to the benefit not only of America but all mankind. Looked back on from the vantage point of seventy-plus years later, this belief seems naive and touchingly innocent, but it is still oddly powerful — I think partly because it sees Americanness not as something new in the world but more as a return to an older, better world, the world of 13th century Europe, perhaps, before it got spoiled. And that, too, is part of the legacy of Victorian Romanticism. We can sense something of this nostalgia within the movie’s own nostalgia in Col. Skeffington’s words to Dr. Gordon as they contemplate the dying Madame von Eln: "When she passes, how much passes with her!" says Skeffington: "a whole way of life, a way of gentleness and honor and dignity. These things are going, Henry, and they may never come back to this world."

The new world, it seems, still feels in some way the need for validation from the old, and its confidence thus becomes confidence in a return to something older and better that has been lost but may be resurrected on America’s hopeful shores. It is in this context that the movie celebrates the chance for a new start it gives its younger characters, and that is the most American thing about it. "Happy New Century" writes Drake in the snow on New Year’s Day, 1900, expressing that turn-of-the-century hopefulness for the future that Americans of 1940-1941 were also trying to recapture in last week’s movie and, as we shall see, in next week’s too. You may even find, as we turn now to watch King’s Row, that the melodrama does this better than either of the other two.

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