• U.S.

The New Pictures, Feb. 2, 1942

6 minute read

Kings Row (Warner) is a small, turn-of-the-century town in a Midwest State that might be Kansas or Missouri. It is also the title of Novelist Henry Bellamann’s lengthy chronicle of the social rigidities, dignities and horrors of life in such a town. Although the novelist’s attempt to see his town steadily and whole has necessarily been limited by screen censorship, Director Sam Wood’s cineversion of Kings Row is potent, artful cinema.

Before young Parris Mitchell (Robert Cummings) is old enough to go abroad to study under the new psychologists in Vienna, he has had a thorough apprenticeship for his work. He has loved the neurotic, beautiful Cassandra Tower (Betty Field) only to have her murdered by her father (Claude Rains), his revered teacher, who in turn kills himself. Dr. Tower’s papers explain why: Cassandra’s mother had gone insane; Cassandra herself had shown the first signs of dementia praecox.

Around this central theme weaves many a sequence illuminating the fight of good and evil in Kings Row. Dr. Henry Gordon (Charles Coburn), surgeon and sadistic moralist, unnecessarily amputates both legs of a likable good-time-Charlie (Ronald Reagan). Denounced by his distraught daughter (Nancy Coleman), he offers her a choice of silence or confinement in the insane asylum. Brave Randy Monaghan (Ann Sheridan), shanty Irish and desirable, marries her legless sweetheart and cables Parris to come home. The young medico returns, full of his new knowledge, to find that the ills of Kings Row are still beyond his scope.

This difficult and ugly story packs a considerable wallop—thanks to the shrewd direction of Sam Wood and effective performances by his cast. Its ending, though overdramatic, does not detract from the atmosphere, mood and genuinely compassionate portrayal of life in a U.S. small town of not so long ago.

The rugged, shocking sequences of Kings Row are an actor’s field day, and the cast makes the most of them. Slow-burning, sparrow-voiced Betty Field plays Cassandra for keeps. But the surprise of Kings Row is beauteous, lazy Ann Sheridan, who manages her shanty Irish role with credible facility. Somebody (probably Mr. Wood) has very nearly de-oomphed her.

Sam Wood is almost nobody’s idea of a Hollywood director. He doesn’t shout at people, neither drinks nor smokes, keeps regular hours, looks, dresses and acts like a successful business executive, spends most of his weekends with his family, and has never indulged in even a small tantrum.

These virtues have not earned Director Wood, now 58, an Academy award; neither have his pictures. But if a Hollywood executive were confronted with the dread fact of having to turn out at one try a Grade-A, sure-fire hit, he would almost inevitably turn to the tall, dignified, soft-spoken man who has been quietly making excellent pictures* for the last 26 years.

Sam Wood was a 28-year-old Hollywood real-estate man when the movies moved into his town in 1911. They looked good to him; so he invested his fourth fortune in them. Once in, he recalls, “it was obvious to me that any picture was at the mercy of the director. So I decided to become a director.”

After a short course as Cecil B. De Mille’s assistant, Wood spent 15 years making pictures for Paramount, then switched to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He directed the Wallace Reid racing pictures, switched to early Gloria Swansons and Rudolph Valentines. Since Chips he has been freelancing.

Sam Wood’s insistence on having first-rate actors and technicians to work with is one reason for his great success. Another is the fact that he is probably the most thorough director in the business. He works at top speed and shoots clean film; but he can be very finicky about small details. During the making of Kings Row he ordered a horse scene reshot so many times that an assistant finally observed: “This will have to be the last take, Sam; the horse just called the Guild.”

Hellzapoppin (Mayfair Productions; Universal). The firm of John Sigvard Olsen and Harold Ogden Johnson has been manufacturing calculated lunacy for 27 years. In all that time their product has changed no more than a hooked rug.

Three years and four months ago this pair of astute businessmen of vaudeville assembled their lifetime’s wares in a single prize package called Hellzapoppin. It ran 1,404 performances (an all-time Broadway musical-show record), grossed over $4,000,000, sent nearly 5,000,000 customers temporarily insane.

On celluloid, Hellzapoppin loses the frenetic quality it achieved on the stage. Lena still wanders through the set calling for Oscar; the little flowerpot whose owner won’t claim it still grows by stages into a gigantic tree; homicide and suicide are amiably rampant; gags rise and fall by the bushel; some skits succeed, more fail.

But Olsen & Johnson’s ability to exude a kind of ectoplasm which engulfs a theater audience and makes it participate in the show is necessarily cut off when the show is confined to the screen. The stage show, a cross between a fire in a lunatic asylum and the third day at Gettysburg, becomes only a small Balkan war in the movies. Stripped of its unsurpassable insanity, the name for it is ham vaudeville. O & J do not deny it. They call it “gonk.”

Sample gonk: Olsen, in a grotesque mask, takes a seat among the audience and tries to scare some crusty, upper-class dames. They fail to frighten. He removes the mask, turns his face to the lady next to him. She takes one look and shrieks.

Son of Fury (20th Century-Fox) is a cineversion of Novelist Edison Marshall’s swashbuckling adventure tale, Benjamin Blake. It shows intrepid Tyrone Power, back once again in skin-tight breeches and waistcoat, fighting from hell to breakfast to prove that he was not born on the wrong side of the blanket. His fisticuffs with villainous George Sanders, and a South Seas side trip to pick up a pearly fortune, suffice to win back the English baronetcy that is oh-so-rightfully his.

The picture is loaded with old English atmosphere, dolphins, savages, jungle sounds, sepia seascapes, and all the paraphernalia that Hollywood takes along on an expensive romantic adventure. It also has youthful (21) Gene Tierney, fresh from a series of variegated roles (gun moll, hillbilly, outlaw, Arab spy, half-caste), to tempt Tyrone to tarry in Tahiti. He chases her all over the place.

*Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Our Town, Kitty Foyle, The Devil and Miss Jones, A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, etc.

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