The first paragraph of the first chapter of John Lukacs’s Confessions of an Original Sinner (1990) concludes, “A conservative will profess a preference for and a trust in Ronald Reagan; a reactionary will not, and not because Reagan was a Hollywood actor but because he never stopped being one.”

The reactionary in me agrees with Lukacs.  In fact, I preferred Reagan when he was openly pursuing the actor’s trade, especially in Kings Row, which, from age 10 to 14, I tried to watch every time it was the Friday or Saturday late movie on one or another Twin Cities TV channel.  (The only other movies I treated similarly were They Died With Their Boots On, with Errol Flynn as Custer, and The Sea Wolf, with Edward G. Robinson as a cruel schooner captain who admires Milton’s Satan.)

In remembrance of the man said to have been the best U.S. president of my lifetime, I decided to watch Reagan in Kings Row on February 6, his 100th birthday, this time after finally fulfilling a resolution I made, back when the film enthralled me, to read the best-seller it dramatizes.  Kings Row (1940) was the most successful of the seven novels of music teacher, academic administrator, and serious lay student of psychology Henry Bellamann.  (An eighth, Parris Mitchell of Kings Row, was completed and brought to publication by Bellamann’s widow.)  It focuses on the fictional town of its title (pretty obviously, however imaginatively, modeled on the author’s hometown, Fulton, Missouri) during the period of 1890 to 1910.  All but one of its principals is a child of the town’s upper crust.  The most fully limned of them is Parris Mitchell, an orphan raised by his highly cultivated grandmother, who brings him up conversing in German and French as well as English, and who fosters his desire to be an accomplished—indeed, a brilliant amateur—pianist.  After two tragic adolescent amours—the second and longer with the lovely, sequestered daughter of one of the adults most important to him—his grandmother’s death, and the sale of his boyhood home, he will become a Vienna-trained psychiatrist and return to take a staff position at the state mental asylum in Kings Row.  He will return to find his best friend, fellow orphan Drake McHugh, devastated materially by an embezzling banker (who is never apprehended) and psychologically by the amputation of his legs after an accident.

The tenor of the novel recommends it to the contemporary reactionary.  It is small-scale patriotic.  The state in which Kings Row might be found is deliberately unspecified, and the United States goes almost unmentioned.  The narrative remains in Kings Row during the five years of Parris’s Vienna sojourn.  We know of Parris in Europe only from his letters home.  What is more, he never seriously considers not returning to Kings Row.  It is his place, which shaped not so much his character—his grandmother, his German-immigrant piano teacher, the reclusive physician who tutors him for Vienna, other cultivated elders, and his innate humanity account for that—as his imagination.  He spends hours walking around and outside of town as a boy, absorbing every feature—a habit he resumes upon his return.  He believes Kings Row has been and will remain the setting for his best efforts, personal and professional.

Complementing the book’s patriotism is respect for the past.  Parris is privileged to be related to Kings Row’s wisest elders, either directly—his early widowed, entrepreneurial grandmother—or through familial friendships with the foremost attorney, the editor of the town daily, the piano master, and his ill-starred tutor in medicine, Dr. Tower.  The latter four, all male, speak easily about the past and contemporary declinations in morals and aesthetics from it.  His tutor has a particularly long perspective, and he once volubly laments, in Parris’s hearing, the breakdown of Christian society since the Renaissance shifted intellectual and spiritual focus from God to man.  The old lawyer, Colonel Skef­fington, acerbically notes the rise of selfish opportunism in the new generation (Parris’s) of businessmen and ostensible public servants, and with it the waning of noblesse oblige.  (He takes some consolation from the good manners of Parris and Drake.)

The most decisive element in the novel’s reactionary atmosphere is not just Christianity but Catholicism.  Virtually no one within Parris’s orbit, elder or cohort, ever says a biblical word or evinces a religious sentiment.  Yet the pastor of the town’s only parish, Father Donovan, Irish like his flock, appears as an alter ego of, and model for, Parris.  Another inveterate walker about his domain, he crosses paths with Parris throughout the book, and they often walk together, conversing or, more often, in silence.  The priest sees Parris as an intellectual and temperamental peer, and in the novel his dedication and tolerance for personal loneliness seem from the moment they are educed to prefigure Parris’s dedication and willingness to accept loneliness as a physician practicing where there are few, if any, friends, let alone potential mates, with whom he may share his heart and mind without reservation.  Father Donovan well knows what Parris faces, and in the longest conversation they have in the book, close to its end, he encourages, ever so diplomatically, the psychiatrist to consider faith.  He points out that, although Parris doesn’t believe in God, he does “believe in all of the attributes of God.”  There is hope for Parris.  Of course.

The most prominent Catholic actor in the book is Randy (Miranda) Monaghan.  She is the only principal not of the town elite.  The daughter in a family of Irish railroad workers, she’s seen early on tomboying with Parris and Drake when they are all about 12.  She doesn’t register again until Drake sees Parris off at the train station on the first leg of his journey to Vienna.  She brightens Drake’s mood then, and she sustains him through his loss of fortune, his accident, and the long recovery from the double amputation.  He proposes to her steadily, but she accepts only after the accident and with the express understanding on his part that she doesn’t pity him—she loves him.  She’s no saint, however, as Bellamann imparts by implying that she and Drake have made love all along.  After all, well before they are a serious item, Drake has shown that sublimation is not his way.  Perhaps Randy has a sensuality to match Drake’s; that is even more subtly suggested.  Yet she knows what is right, and that Drake knows it—though, unlike her, without the teaching of the Church to make that knowledge explicit.  And like the Church, she knows that imperfect creatures should not make perfection the enemy of realistically achievable virtue.

Randy is the only Catholic element carried over from novel to film.  Father Donovan, with all that he means to the formation of Parris’s character, is absent.  All but gone, too, are the respect for the past and the patriotism so deeply ingrained in Bellamann’s creation.  All that remains of the former is a bit of Dr. Tower’s lament about the decline of Christendom, and whereas Parris’s patriotism is unswerving in the novel, in the film he announces intentions never to return to Kings Row from Vienna and, later, to forsake the town.  (For this it helps that the film deletes the state asylum, though that means trained psychiatrist Parris improbably ends up delivering babies and making house calls.)  These omissions and abridgements change the thrust of the film more than the pretty thorough suppression of the novel’s most sensational components—Parris’s early sexual experience with a working-class immigrant’s daughter (quite idyllic); the incest inflicted by Dr. Tower on his daughter, Cassie, which explains her emotional evasiveness in her affair with Parris; the possibly homosexual next-best friend of Parris; the execution of a mentally retarded man that Parris labors mightily to prevent against the vicious insistence of Kings Row’s most influential Protestant pastor.  (By the way, all the sex in the novel is understood, never stated or described.)

Thus, a serious popular novel becomes a morally and culturally hazy movie, concerned not with the cultural and spiritual maintenance of community but with the main characters as individuals who triumph over personal calamities.  Oh, Cassie still gets poisoned by her father, Dr. Tower, before he blows his brains out, but because she has inherited from her mother the curse of insanity, not, as in the novel, on account of his madness, which induced him to murder the mother before victimizing the daughter.  Though secondary, Tower is almost the most interesting character in the novel.  Hollywood was right to select Claude Rains, an actor very good at suggesting depth in a role, to play Tower; unfortunately, he has too little screen time in the finished film.

Parris dominates the film more than the novel, and Robert Cummings is appositely cast to embody him; Cummings’ bland handsomeness and propensity to look above or beside the action suits the near-loner Bellamann limned in the novel.  Ann Sheridan as Randy is physically right, but her clipped, rushed delivery becomes mechanical-sounding.  As virtually everyone who remarks on the film says, Reagan’s Drake is the best performance in it, one he later said was the acme of his Hollywood career.  He entitled his 1965 autobiography Where’s the Rest of Me?, after his most famous line of dialogue in the role.  Drake is an open, honest boy and man, who hates pride, condescension, and meanness in others.  Carefree and uncalculating by nature, he can be impulsive and, as far as girls are concerned, definitely hedonistic.  With his off-kilter pompadour, crooked smile, twinkling eyes, and athletic carriage, Reagan suits Drake to a T.  And he is up to Drake’s most dramatic moments—his confrontation with the doctor who will eventually maim him (the amputations were unnecessary) for courting his daughter, his realization of the amputations, and his near-collapse into the self-pity from which Randy saves him.  During his recovery, he has a habit of turning his face away to escape things he doesn’t want to acknowledge; Reagan’s best gesture as Drake comes when, the camera being placed to catch his averted face, he throws his forearms and clenched fists up still to prevent being confronted.  I like to think this was Reagan’s inspiration.

In the film, at the very end, Drake rolls with the ultimate punch given him, when Parris tells him he lost his legs because of a moralistic doctor’s sadism, and comes up beaming the famous Reagan smile, after which Parris is out the door to his new lady friend in a stereotypical scene of lovers running to each other’s arms.  Drake’s miraculous psychological breakthrough isn’t in the novel.  There his recovery is far more problematic, not nearly so complete, and his death precipitates a much more deliberate conclusion.  But in the film, Reagan gets to trigger an upbeat ending—“It’s morning again in Kings Row!”—for a story that as a novel I’ve seen described as too “dark” to have been so popular during America’s run-up to World War II.

Adjusted only by that ending, Drake McHugh became a good continuing role for Reagan—the indomitable, optimistic small-town guy who triumphs over adversity while maintaining his first loyalties.  In the film, Drake’s the one who never considers leaving Kings Row, and in the novel, he makes himself, Randy, and Parris financially comfortable by building affordable housing for the likes of the Monaghans.  Reagan himself left his hometown, Dixon, Illinois, and that was that.  He returned only to publicize a couple of movies and his election campaigns, and the policies his administration pursued devastated Dixon along with the rest of America’s towns and smaller cities by decimating manufacturing.  But in Kings Row, isn’t he great?

Yes, he is, and it remains an engaging, well-made movie, overlit in many scenes, perhaps, as if it were made in a TV studio, but with plenty of engrossing visual compositions and imposing period production design by one of the greatest art directors in movie history, William Cameron Menzies, and a stirring main theme by the archetypal Hollywood composer, Erich Wolfgang Korngold (though Max Steiner gets my vote).  But readers of Kings Row who appreciate what Bellamann has to say about the preservation and destruction of communities may well ask, “Where’s the rest of it?”