Psychiatry Films from AMHF: “Kings Row” (1942)

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"Where's the rest of me?"

“Where’s the rest of me?” Ronald Reagan implores, having had legs amputated. Former President Reagan even used this famous line as the title of a 1960s memoir. Goethe essentially asks the same question in his 1773-74 Goetz von Berlichingen; or, the Man with the Iron Hand. Are we our legs? Our arms? Our faces? Even our cerebral cortex? What price to learn?

Other themes in the novelistic source for Kings Row—on small-town and domestic violence, incest, sadism, homosexuality—could not be dealt with by Hollywood, under the Hays Office, for years. Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place would blow the lid off many hypocritical values and taboo subjects; the dirty secrets of sleepy American towns. Nowadays, almost anything goes.

Kings Row is film number eleven in the twenty-one AMHF is “analyzing” as part of a series launched in late 2011.

The plot, as adapted from Wikipedia:

In Kings Row are five children. These are Parris Mitchell (Robert Cummings), who lives with his grandmother (Maria Ouspenskaya); Cassandra Tower (Betty Field), daughter of Dr. Alexander Tower (Claude Rains); the wealthy orphan Drake McHugh (Reagan); Louise Gordon (Nancy Coleman), daughter of the sadistic town physician Dr. Henry Gordon (Charles Coburn); and 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 considered weird since her mother is confined. Dr. Tower takes Cassie out of school and Parris does not see her again until years later, when he begins medical studies under Dr. Tower’s tutelage.

Parris’s 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. So, Parris and Cassie begin a secret romance.

Parris decides to study psychiatry and 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, shot himself, and left his estate to him. He learns from Tower’s notebook that he killed Cassie because he believed he saw early signs that she might go insane like her mother, and he wanted to prevent Parris from ruining his life by marrying her.

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. Dr. Gordon amputates both of his legs.

Drake, who had been courting Randy before the accident, marries her but is now embittered by the loss of his legs and refuses to leave his bed. Nonetheless they commence a business, begun with Parris’s financial help, constructing homes for working families. When Parris suggests they move into one of those that they built, away from the railroad tracks and sounds of the trains, he becomes hysterical and makes Randy swear never to make him leave the room.

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, unnecessarily, because he hated Drake and thought it was his duty to punish wickedness.

Parris at first wishes to withhold the truth, fearing it will destroy Drake’s fragile recovery. He considers confining Louise to a mental institution, even though she is not insane, to prevent the truth from being revealed. Persuaded instead by his new friend Elise (Kaaren Verne) to treat Drake like any other patient, he tells Drake what happened. Drake reacts with defiance and summons a renewed will to live instead of wallowing in the clinical depression Parris had feared.

Going it alone is one of the key themes explored in a placing of traditional American small-town values within the context of psychological trauma. This is seen in the character of Drake.

But there are instances of isolation, the flip side of “going it alone” and what Emerson calls, in his quintessentially American essay, the virtue of “Self Reliance.” This is seen, again, in the Drake character but also in Cassandra’s family and what they experience early in the film—being “too weird for the town.”

Parris Mitchell is another predictable Hollywood stereotype of the M.D.-psychiatrist. He must go (where else?) to Vienna to study. Cassie is killed for showing early signs of insanity. There is the threat of institutionalization of Louise, the ultimate punishment in 1940s America, as seen, for example, in The Snake Pit. What were we becoming after winning two world wars?

As society largely changed and evolved, becoming increasingly self-aware and reflective (some might say dead-ending in self-indulgence or self-absorption—narcissism—without a requisite enlightenment of self-reliance) following the hand-to-mouth existence (for many) of the Great Depression and the nightmares of the Holocaust—the Final Solution—the Shoah—what theologian Arthur Cohen terms the Tremendum—and the world at war, re-flowing amid the implications and tenets of High Modernism, new, difficult questions would arise. What comprises the individual? Indeed, what am I? a cold and disembodied entity—unable emotionally to face my fellow-citizens; too neurotically unmotivated to pick myself up by the bootstraps? “The Unknown Citizen” by W. H. Auden would describe such a victim of cruel circumstances and even conformity.

In some ways, in a different context, Invasion of the Body Snatchers asks similar questions, also within a small-town context. Who am I? Is some part of me lost amid the modern world?…”Where’s the rest of me?”

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