“Now, in this modern and complicated world, man breaks down under the strain and bewilderment, disappointment and disillusionment — gets lost, goes crazy, commits suicide.”
The multifaceted storyline — involving numerous romantic longings, family secrets, mental breakdowns, and other squalid details — was (not surprisingly) toned down quite a bit from the original novel, with a resulting screenplay that feels generally sordid yet a tad opaque at times. For instance, while we see how overly protective Dr. Tower (Rains) is of his sheltered daughter (played first by Mary Thomas, then Betty Field), the film doesn’t share with us the fact of their incestuous relationship (as revealed in the novel); instead, we’re left simply with countless “Don’t ask!” retorts by the increasingly disturbed Field, who is mysteriously forced by Rains to stay home from school at an early age. Indeed, Rains’ performance feels the most confusing in the film — he’s portrayed as a willing mentor to Cummings, yet clearly is ruining his daughter’s life, and thus can’t be seen as the type of life-altering “hero” Cummings builds him up to be.
Regardless, Kings Row remains an admirable counterpart to other cinematic depictions of small-town American life at the time, given that it concedes the need for psychiatric intervention at a time when “psychiatry” was an unknown term, and daringly portrays the presence of a “mad” surgeon whose nefarious practices are clearly far from Hippocratic. Meanwhile, both James Wong Howe’s atmospheric cinematography and William Cameron Menzies’ strategically designed sets contribute to the creation of a world which feels both familiar and spooky at the same time. Also of note is Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s soaring score, which was apparently a direct influence on John Williams’ work for Star Wars (1977) years later.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments: