SAM WOOD FOR KINGS ROW (1942)
The competition (Cliff: 4 for 5)
William Wyler for Mrs. Miniver
Michael Curtiz for Yankee Doodle Dandy
John Farrow for Wake Island
Mervyn LeRoy for Random Harvest
Amid the sanguine early-1940s depictions of small-town America, Kings Row was one of the first to glimpse a rotten core. Warner Bros.’ unevenly whitewashed version of Henry Bellamann’s original novel acts as a dark companion to Sam Wood’s previous adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, pointing again and again to the undercurrents of violence and sexuality that fuel its title community. Filmed on the eve of World War II (its release was pushed back for its troubling subject matter), Wood’s subversive directing seems to anticipate the bleakness of noir and the sordid disillusionment of Sirkian melodrama. Such a cinematic sensibility does not yet exist in a coherent form, though, and such moments flit between what is largely a forthright, wholesome outlook on middle America. Despite the upbeat façade, however, the characters and storyteller know that something is rotten.
The clues are there from the beginning of the film, as a carriage drives past a sign that positively glistens with foreboding:
“Kings Row, 1890: A good town—A good clean town—A good town to live in—and a good place to raise your children.”
If this were a Best Picture post instead of Best Director, I would certainly have chosen this image to represent the film over one that shows Wood’s directorial choices more clearly. The last line in particular cries out ominously. In the halcyon childhood scenes that open the film, our young hero Parris gazes up at two upstairs windows: first at Mrs. Towers retreating behind a lace curtain, then at Dr. Gordon retrieving the wash bin and shutting the window. Though Parris doesn’t know it yet, for very different reasons these two adults will cause a generation of misery for the children of Kings Row. While the evil that pervades this community has no easy explanation, it has a clear power source in its parents, as seen from the limited, baffled perspective of the children. Parris himself is sheltered by the kindness (and high reputation) of his French grandmother, but his friends find little refuge from the grown-ups’ absence, weaknesses, and cruelties. None of the others will emerge completely intact.
While watching the film, I was put off by Wood’s seeming need to turn away from the bleakness, to change the subject and attempt to reset the happy tone. At the time, I felt his obvious haste in curtailing a darker moment showed a poor understanding of his material. In retrospect, however, those brief, interrupted glimpse of the darkness are what boldly remain in my memory. Just before Parris opens the door, Cassandra’s ghostlike face materializing behind the forested glass; just before the fade to black, Louise’s head slumping in despair as she retreats from her father. Wood’s film seems to subconsciously register these moments before forcibly dismissing them, but what remains is an all-too-palpable sense of what lurks offscreen. My initial resistance to the film was also stoked by the raft of WB second-stringers in the lead roles, who pale beside the top-notch gallery of character actors who portray the elder generation. In particular, the hysterical but campy presence of Betty Field (recommended by Bette Davis after she was denied the part) undercuts the eerie Boo Radley/Miss Havisham potential of her scenes. Ronald Reagan, at least, was worthy of his strong notices as Drake, even if his drafting into the Army would keep him from ever capitalizing on this breakthrough.
Much of the credit behind the disturbed dreamlike quality of the film belongs to the craftsmen behind it, represented by a lone nomination for James Wong Howe’s multilayered cinematography. Through Howe’s lens, Kings Row is a town strewn with patches of darkness: restive in-between spaces of shadow that make the insistent brightness of the surrounding world’s seem feverish and forced. The irony of the film’s tone extends to Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s majestic original score, initially conceived for what the composer thought was a courtly drama. Somehow excluded from the EIGHTEEN nominees for Best Dramatic or Comedic Score, Korngold’s rich harmonies dispel the early signs of trouble, saving the minor keys for the brutal acts of violence that cannot be overridden. All of the filmmakers on this project are either in on its sinister secret, or grappling with something they can’t quite recognize. Whatever their reason, though, that suppression is what makes the film so fascinating—a last gasp of that optimistic self-regard. Kings Row is a portrait of the classical American ideal just barely holding off the demons.
The veteran filmmaker Sam Wood was generally a purveyor of light comedy and stirring melodrama, stretching way back to the silent era. I’m uncertain whether Wood deserves credit for conjuring the dark energy of this piece of twisted Americana. The Academy must have seen something in this unusual turn, however, handing him a third and final Director nomination for this lightly rewarded film, rather than for his heavily-nominated The Pride of the Yankees the same year (seriously—11 nominations!) or For Whom the Bell Tolls the following year (almost as seriously—9 nominations!).
It was Wood’s bad luck on his last nomination to run up against a strong slate of likewise winless nominees, led by the inevitable William Wyler who took home the prize for his sixth (and fifth consecutive) nominated film. Nobody else stood a chance against the combined forces of Wyler’s amassed goodwill and one of the all-time zeitgeist Best Pictures: Mrs. Miniver, the heroic home-front drama delivered at the height of the Allies’ struggles in early 1943. I happen to think that, despite the script’s smattering of schmaltz, Wyler does a fantastic job of directing and deserves the prize over “thanks for the memories” Mervyn LeRoy and “maybe next year” Michael Curtiz. But wait! John Farrow’s Wake Island must be seen before the final verdict, though—stay tuned!