Ronald Reagan Appears as Drake McHugh in "King's Row"

Kings Row is a 1942 drama film, directed by Sam Wood, that tells a story of young people growing up in a small American town at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, beset by social pressure, dark secrets, and the challenges and tragedies one must face as a result of these hard facts.

The film, which was Ronald Reagan's most notable role during his early acting career at Warner Brothers[1], was adapted by Casey Robinson from a best-selling 1940 novel of the same name by Henry Bellamann. It also starred Ann Sheridan, Robert Cummings, Betty Field, Charles Coburn, and Claude Rains. The musical score was composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and the cinematographer was James Wong Howe.

In the film, Reagan's character, Drake McHugh, has both legs amputated by a sadistic surgeon, played by Coburn. When he wakes from anesthesia, he says, "Where's the rest of me?" Reagan used that line as the title of his 1965 autobiography. Reagan and most film critics considered Kings Row his best movie.[1] Reagan called the film a "slightly sordid but moving yarn" that "made me a star."

Plot summary

The film commences in 1890 in the small town of Kings Row, focusing on five children. They are Parris Mitchell (Robert Cummings), who lives with his French grandmother (Maria Ouspenskaya); Cassandra Tower (Betty Field), daughter of Dr. Alexander Tower (Claude Rains); the wealthy orphan Drake McHugh (Ronald Reagan); Louise Gordon (Nancy Coleman), daughter of the sadistic town physician Dr. Henry Gordon (Charles Coburn), who performs operations without anesthetic; and the tomboy Randy Monaghan (Ann Sheridan), whose father (Ernest Cossart) is a railroad worker.

Parris is attracted to Cassandra, whom the other children avoid because her family is "strange": her mother is confined to the house and never seen. Dr. Tower takes Cassie out of school and Parris does not see her again until years later, when he begins his medical studies under Dr. Tower's tutelage.

Parris' best friend, Drake, intends to marry Louise despite the disapproval of her father. Louise, however, refuses to defy her parents and will not marry him. Parris and Cassie begin a secret romance, seeing each another at Drake's house. At about this time, Parris' grandmother becomes ill from terminal cancer and dies as he is about to go to Vienna for medical school. Parris, who decides to study psychiatry, proposes marriage to Cassie. She initially resists, running away, but later begs him to take her with him to Vienna. She then runs away again, back home.

The next day, Parris learns that Dr. Tower has poisoned Cassie and shot himself and has left his estate to him. He learns from Dr. Tower's notebook that he killed Cassie because she was insane like her mother, to prevent Parris from ruining his life by marrying her, just as Tower's life had been ruined by marrying her mother.

While Parris is in Vienna, Drake's trust fund is stolen by a dishonest bank official. He is forced to work for the railroad and is accidentally crushed by a boxcar. The sadistic Dr. Gordon, who hates Drake, who he thinks is immoral, amputates both of his legs needlessly. Drake, who had been courting Randy before the accident, marries her and is now embittered and refuses to leave his bed. They commence a business, begun with Parris' financial help, building houses for working families.

Parris returns to Kings Row and decides to remain there, when he learns that Dr. Gordon has died, leaving the town with no doctor. Louise reveals that her father amputated Drake's legs because he thought it was his duty to punish wickedness. Parris at first wishes to withhold the truth from Drake and considers confining Louise to a mental institution, even though she is not insane, to prevent the truth from being revealed to Drake and other victims of her father. But instead, persuaded by his new friend, Elise (Kaaren Verne), he tells Drake what happened. Drake reacts with defiance and summons a renewed will to live instead of the deep clinical depression Parris had feared. Parris is now free to marry Elise, having helped his old friend return to a productive life.

Cast notes

Ida Lupino, Olivia de Havilland and Ginger Rogers were initially considered for the role of Cassandra. Director Sam Wood pushed hard to cast Lupino, saying that she "has a natural something that Cassie should have." Wood believed that de Havilland, who turned down the role, was too mature for the part. Lupino also turned it down, despite Wallis' emphatic arguments, saying that it was "beneath her as an artist."

Bette Davis wanted the part, but the studio was against it because it was believed that she would dominate the movie, and Davis later suggested Betty Field. Among the other actresses considered for Cassandra were Katharine Hepburn, Adele Longmire, Marsha Hunt, Laraine Day, Susan Peters, Joan Leslie, Gene Tierney and Priscilla Lane.

James Stephenson was originally cast as Dr. Tower but died, and was replaced by Claude Rains. John Garfield was considered for the role of Drake McHugh, and Philip Reed, Rex Downing, and Tyrone Power were considered for the role of Parris.

Producer Hal B. Wallis borrowed Robert Cummings from Universal Studios when Twentieth-Century Fox refused to lend Power. Dennis Morgan, Eddie Albert Robert Preston and Franchot Tone were also considered for the Drake role.

Although Reagan became a star as a result of his performance, he was unable to capitalize on his success because he was drafted into the U.S. Army to serve in World War II. He never regained the star status that he had achieved from his performance in the film.

Production notes

Wolfgang Reinhardt turned down an assignment to produce the film, saying, "As far as plot is concerned, the material in Kings Row is for the most part either censurable or too gruesome and depressing to be used. The hero finding out that his girl has been carrying on incestuous relations with her father...a host of moronic or otherwise mentally diseased characters...people dying from cancer, suicides-these are the principal elements of the story."

The pivotal scene in which Drake McHugh wakes up to find his legs amputated posed an acting challenge for Reagan, who was supposed to say "Where's the rest of me?" in a convincing fashion. In City of Nets, Otto Friedrich noted that the movie had a formidable array of acting talent, and that the scene in which he saw that his legs were gone was his "one great opportunity." Reagan recalled in his memoir that he had "neither the experience nor talent to fake it," so he carried out exhaustive research, talking to disabled people and doctors, and practicing the line every chance he got.

On the night before the scene was shot he had little sleep, so he looked suitably worn out, and Sam Wood shot the scene without rehearsal. He called out for Randy, which was not in the script, but Ann Sheridan was there and responded. The scene was effective and there was no need for another take.

Kings Row and the Hays Code

A film adaptation of Bellamann's controversial novel, modeled on his home town of Fulton, Missouri, presented significant problems for movie industry censors, who sought to bring the film into conformity with the Hays Code. Screenwriter Casey Robinson believed the project was hopeless because of the Hays Code. Producer Hal B. Wallis said that Robinson felt "I was crazy to have bought so downbeat a property." Wallis urged him to reconsider, and it occurred to Robinson that he could turn this into the story of "an idealistic young doctor challenged by the realities of a cruel and horrifying world."

Joseph I. Breen, director of the Production Code Authority, which administered the Hays Code, wrote the producers that "To attempt to translate such a story to the screen, even though it be re-written to conform to the provisions of the Production Code is, in our judgment, a very questionable undertaking from the standpoint of the good and welfare of this industry."

Breen objected to "illicit sexual relationships" between characters in the movie "without sufficient compensating moral values", and also objected to "the general suggestion of loose sex...which carries throughout the entire script." Breen also voiced concern about the characterization of Cassandra, who is a victim of incest with her father in the novel, as well as the mercy killing of the grandmother by Parris also depicted in the novel, and "the sadistic characterization of Dr. Gordon."

Breen said that any screenplay, no matter how well done, would likely bring condemnation of the film industry "from decent people everywhere" because of "the fact that it stems from so thoroughly questionable a novel. He said that the script was being referred to his superior, Will Hays, "for a decision as to the acceptability of any production based upon the novel, Kings Row."

Robinson, Wallis and associate producer David Lewis met with Breen to resolve these issues, with Wallis saying that the film would "illustrate how a doctor could relieve the internal destruction of a stricken community." Breen said that his office would approve the film if all references to incest, nymphomania, euthenasia and homosexuality, which had been suggested in the novel, be removed. All references to nude bathing were to be eliminated and "the suggestion of a sex affair between Randy and Drake will be eliminated entirely." It was agreed that Dr. Tower would know about the affair between Casssandra and Parris, and "that this had something to do with his killing of the girl."

After several drafts were rejected, Robinson was able to satisfy Breen.


Bellaman, a professor at Vassar College, was a disciple of Honoré de Balzac, and his novel was in the tradition of Winesburg, Ohio and was a forerunner of the popular 1950s novel Peyton Place.

The film begins with a billboard promoting Kings Row as "A Good Town. A Good Clean Town. A Good Town to Live In and a Good Place to Raise Your Children." In his book City of Nets, author Otto Friedrich says that beneath the tranquil small town exterior was a "roiling inferno of fraud, corruption, treachery, hypocrisy, class warfare, and ill-suppressed sex of all varieties: adultery, sadism, homosexuality, incest."

The film is a eulogy for American small town life in the Victorian era. At one point a character laments: "A whole way of life. A way of gentleness and honor and dignity. These things are going... and they may never come back to this world."


The film's soundtrack, by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, was so popular with the public that the Warner Brothers Music Department received numerous queries asking for a recording or sheet music. Warner Brothers to draft a form letter in response to the unusual amount of interest. At the time, film scores for movie dramas were not published or recorded for commercial distribution.

The film has since been recorded numerous times, and is considered one of Korngold's most notable musical scores.

Prior to release of the film, the Los Angeles Daily News reported that Bellaman "heads west to help Erich Wolfgang Korngold on the scoring" of the film, and that Bellaman used to be on the faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. This led Korngold to write a sarcastic letter to the head of studio publicity at Warner Brothers, saying, "seriously, should I really stop working and wait for the arrival of Mr. Bellaman? . . . However, if he shouldn't arrive in time to help me, I shall certainly be ready to 'head east'—perhaps I could help him in writing his new book!"

Critical reaction

Dr. Gordon (Charles Coburn) confronts Drake McHugh (Ronald Reagan), whose legs he later needlessly amputates. The film's "gloom" dismayed critic Bosley Crowther.

New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther panned Kings Row, which he described as being as "gloomy and ponderous" as the novel upon which it was based. "Just why the Warners attempted a picture of this sort in these times, and just why the corps of high-priced artists which they employed for it did such a bungling job," Crowther wrote, "are questions which they are probably mulling more anxiously than any one else." Crowther said that the film "turgidly unfolds on the screen," and is "one of the bulkiest blunders to come out of Hollywood in some time." The performances, particularly Cummings', were, he said, "totally lacking in conviction." The film, he said, "just shows a lot of people feeling bad."

Modern reviewers have viewed the movie favorably, however, and the film received a 100% rating from Rotten Tomatoes, a film-review aggregator.

Time Out Film Guide described the film as "one of the great melodramas" and "as compulsive and perverse as any election, a veritable Mount Rushmore of emotional and physical cripples, including a surgeon with a penchant for unnecessary amputations, a girl who 'made friends on one side of the tracks and made love on the other'."

TV Guide said that Kings Row was "one of the most memorable melodramas of its day," in that it portrayed "a small town not with the poignancy and little joys of Thorton Wilder's Our Town, but rather in grim, often tragic tones." The magazine described the film as "one of director Wood's finest films, and praised Robinson's screenplay, "even if he cut out a death from cancer, deleted a mercy killing, and toned down the narrative's homosexual angle." It described Korngold's score as "haunting" and the sets "quite stunning." James Wong Howe's "gorgeous cinematography, meanwhile, maintains in deep focus many layers of drama, as befits this brooding tapestry."


The film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White (James Wong Howe), Best Director and Best Picture.

Television series

The film was adapted into a 1955 television series, with Jack Kelly (who later portrayed Bart Maverick in Maverick) in Cummings' role and Robert Horton (who subsequently played scout Flint McCullough in Wagon Train) performing Reagan's part. The show appeared as one of three rotating series on the earliest William T. Orr production, Warner Bros. Presents. The other two series were Casablanca, another TV version of a renowned movie (featuring Charles McGraw in Humphrey Bogart's role), and Cheyenne, a Western created by Roy Huggins that went on to its own time slot for several years until it started rotating with Bronco, another Warner Bros. Western. At the conclusion of each episode of Warner Bros. Presents, host Gig Young would interview a different actor from a new Warner Bros. movie about the studio's latest theatrical release. Kings Row ran for seven episodes.

Growing up together in the late nineteenth century in the small town of Kings Row are Parris Mitchell, who lives with his French grandmother; Cassandra Tower, the misunderstood daughter of Dr. Alexander Tower; wealthy orphan Drake McHugh; Louise Gordon, the daughter of sadistic Dr. Henry Gordon, who performs operations without anesthetic; and Randy Monaghan, whose father is a railroad worker.