Movie review: Kings Row – assassins in white coats

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden

 

 

“Above all, I must not play God.”
— Revised Hippocratic Oath2

 

Women making artificial limbs.
Artificial limb factory in Rome: six women working at benches, one using a sewing machine, and one stitching the back of a full-length leg, used in reference to Drake’s fate in the film. Photo by Studio Leonardi, 1914. Wellcome Collection. CC BY-NC 4.0.

Kings Row (1942) is a film set in a small American town in the early nineteen-hundreds. It features two doctors who are best avoided as well as a bright young man called Parris sent by his wealthy grandmother to study medicine in Vienna. Played by Robert Cummings, Parris prepares for the entrance exams in Vienna by studying with Dr. Alexander Tower (Claude Rains), a Kings Row physician with a big house, who sees no patients, whose wife never leaves the house, and whose daughter Cassie (Ann Sheridan) Parris has loved since childhood.

Parris goes to Vienna, performs brilliantly as a student, and after graduation is offered a position in psychiatry, a new field that he is much interested in. Ready to accept the faculty position in Vienna, he gets an urgent telegram requiring him to return home. Once back, he learns that Cassie is dead, killed by her father, who then took his own life. Dr. Tower’s wife (now dead, too) had “dementia praecox” (schizophrenia), and Dr. Tower had started to see signs of it in Cassie.

Parris has a best friend, the orphaned Drake McHugh (Ronald Reagan), a rich, “wild” young man in love with Louise Gordon. She is the daughter of the town’s other doctor, Henry Gordon, who would never consider such a match. Drake lost all of his wealth when the town’s bank president absconded and has been recently working as a hand in the rail yard. Parris finds out that following an accident, Dr. Gordon amputated Drake’s legs unnecessarily to “punish” him for his former dissolute lifestyle. The viewer also learns that Gordon often operated without chloroform anesthesia because certain people deserved to suffer. His daughter calls him “a monster” and “a fiend.” Drake realizes that “he” does not “live in his legs,” and resolves to go on living productively.

Parris finds a young Viennese woman and quickly decides to marry her. He stays in Kings Row because Dr. Gordon has died and the town needs a doctor.

In summary, not a very cheery picture of life in Kings Row. The performance by most of the actors was mediocre. However, Ronald Reagan gave his best ever film performance.3 A 1942 review of the film4 states “Mr. Cummings looks and acts like a musical comedy juvenile trying to find his bearings in a heavy Ibsenesque part.” The film, despite such opinions, was nominated for three Academy Awards.5 Dans6 tells us that “the success of this film led to the proposal to pair…[Reagan and Sheridan] as the romantic leads in Casablanca. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed…”

The title of the film in French, Italian, and Flemish-speaking regions was Crime Without Punishment.

 

References

  1. Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Cancer Ward, London: The Bodley Head Ltd, 1968, translator’s note: “This [“assassins in white coats”] was the standard expression applied to the accused in the 1953 ‘Doctors’ Plot,’ Stalin’s last great purge.” p. 51.
  2. Hippocratic Oath-Wikipedia. 1964 Revised Version of Hippocratic Oath.
  3. Kings Row-Wikipedia.
  4. Bosley Crowther. “THE SCREEN [sic]; ‘Kings Row,’ with Ann Sheridan and Claude Rains, a heavy, rambling film, had its first showing here at the Astor,” NYT, Feb 3, 1942.
  5. Robert Cummings-Wikipedia.
  6. Peter Dans. Doctors in the Movies: Boil the Water and just Say Aah, Bloomington. IL: Medi-Ed Press, 2000.

 


 

HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

 

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