Kings Row and The Amazing Spider-Man
Yesterday, I alluded to Sam Wood’s Kings Row, and this got me thinking about a pet suspicion of mine–namely that Stan Lee & Steve Ditko had the great 1942 melodrama on their minds while they were constructing the web-head’s little world and cast of characters…
One of the reasons that I felt let down by Tom Spurgeon & Jordan Raphael’s Stan Lee: And the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book was that, as far as I can recall, they completely neglected to look at the influence that films of the studio age might (must?) have had on Stan the Man. I mean, maybe it’s unfair of me to want this (and maybe there just wasn’t any evidence they could point to)–but I do. I’ve read lots of stuff, over the years, about how strongly Citizen Kane affected various artists (Errol Flynn movies too), but if, as everyone seems to agree, one of Marvel’s biggest contributions to the super-hero comic book was the introduction of “soap opera elements” into the adventure narrative, doesn’t it make sense to explore Lee’s debt to the great melodramas of his youth and early adulthood?
At some point in their discussion of the creation of Spider-Man, S & R describe Peter Parker’s world as (I’m paraphrasing, I don’t have the book with me, unfortunately) a bleak place, which the adolescent Peter has very little power to affect, and which is devoid of any viable adult role-models. I remember gripping the page a little more tightly, hoping to see them make the leap to Kings Row, but it didn’t happen!
A lot of you may never have heard of this film, or know it only as the site of Ronald Reagan’s greatest performance and his prophetic utterance of the line: “Where’s the rest of me?” (in the movie he’s referring to his legs–amputated unneccessarily; but a critic of Reagan’s latter-day politics might well pose the same question in reference to the social conscience young “Dutch” possessed in the thirties and forties). So, I’ll just provide a little summary of the film’s plot:
Basically, it’s the story of Parris Mitchell, a sensitive, practically friendless orphan who lives with his infirm grand-mother in a small-to-middling midwestern town called Kings Row. Parris (played by Robert Cummings, who never gets any respect) is shy to the point of maladjustment, but destined for greatness. His one desire is to become a doctor and relieve human suffering–a commodity which is very much in evidence in Kings Row, where almost everyone is embedded in horrifyingly naked power-relations (either as oppressor or oppressed). The three stars of the film: Cummings, Reagan as Drake McHugh, and Ann Sheridan as Randy Monaghan, are exceptions to this rule, and their relative freedom makes them seem like super-heroes–especially Parris, who is so talented that he earns a scholarship to study psychology in Vienna (at the turn-of-the-century). But–“with all his power”–Parris really can’t do anything to cure his grandmother’s illness (and he laments this fact in true Spider-Man style–“Anna! I can’t save her!”), or prevent the established doctors in town from carving up the populace or killing their psychotic daughters… To tell you more would spoil things–just go rent it!
Anyway, whenever I see the early scenes of the film, between Cummings and kindly, over-protective Maria Ouspenskaya as “Grand-Mere”, I just can’t help thinking of Peter and Aunt May. There are scenes–such as the one in which he is studying late and she dodders in to remind him to get his sleep–that prefigure panels from the early Spider-Man so exactly it’s almost creepy…
Which is not to say that there aren’t huge differences between the two works–for one thing, the Lee-Ditko spideys treat their subject ironically, while Kings Row goes at it head-on with no emotional holds barred (and succeeds too–thanks in large part to an overwhelming Erich Wolfgang Korngold score which, if you give it even half a chance, is pretty much guaranteed to preempt sneers, not to mention thought!!)
Good night friends!