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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

KINGS ROW (1940)

Two years after visionary production designer William Cameron Menzies & functional director Sam Wood collaborated on Thornton Wilder’s idealized OUR TOWN/’40 (a far darker locale than your high school likely made of it), they brought its doppelgänger to the screen in KINGS ROW, where Peyton Place meets Grover’s Corners. Moody & insistently Freudian, the story finds neuroses at every turn: inherited insanity; sadism; a mutilating surgeon; corrupt bank managers; barnyard deflowering; wrong-side-of-the-tracks class prejudice; female hysteria; and filmdom’s scariest chin wart! Told largely thru the adolescence & young adulthood of four best friends (Ann Sheridan; Robert Cummings; Betty Field; Ronald Reagan), all very turn-of-the-last-century ‘emo,’ the mix often runs too high to take as seriously as the film would like us to. But, like one of those OTT Eugene O’Neill experimental/modernized Greek tragedies, it’s all so gosh darn compelling you can’t stop watching even when the third act threatens to tip over trying to fit everything in. It’s also magnificent to look at (James Wong Howe & Robert Burks lensing); legendary in its Erich Wolfgang Korngold score (listen to how John Williams nipped the opening fanfare for STAR WARS); and often brilliantly acted. Ann Sheridan is heartbreakingly lovely & empathetic as the working class kid; Ronnie Reagan in his best perf (yes, it's the one where he screams, 'Where's the rest of me!,' though he flunks his brief final epiphany); and if Bob Cummings can’t ring up much more than a look of indigestion in moments of crisis, some old line supporting actors (Charles Coburn; Claude Rains; Henry Davenport; Maria Ouspenskaya) are all plenty memorable with minimal screen time.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/READ ALL ABOUT IT: Even in a more innocent world of close male-bonding, the presentation of Cummings & Reagan is exceptionally charged with fleshly physicality. Does Ronnie really need to mention that they’ll have to share a bunk? (Perhaps the book was clearer about all this.)

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, OUR TOWN; and good luck finding a watchable edition amongst all the cruddy Public Domain offerings.

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