(Welcome to The Movies That Made Star Wars, a series where we explore the films and television properties that inspired George Lucas’s iconic universe. In this edition: King’s Row.)
George Lucas is the sort of filmmaker who takes his influences from everywhere. It doesn’t matter if they seem to fit at first. The way his mind works, any mishmash of things can make sense when they’re put together through the camera lens of his brain. One of the things he wanted to do with the whizz-bang fantasy world of Star Wars was give it music that would make it feel grounded and emotional.
In an interview on the THX remastered VHS releases of the original trilogy, George Lucas related to film critic Leonard Maltin his desire for the score: “I had known Steven Spielberg for a long time up to this point. And we were talking about the film real early on when I was writing the script, and I said ‘I want a classical score. I want the Korngold kind of feel about this thing, it’s an old fashioned kind of movie, and I want that grand soundtrack that they used to have on movies,’ and he said, ‘The guy you’ve got to talk to is John Williams. He did Jaws, I love him, he’s the greatest composer that ever lived. You’ve got to talk to him!’ and so I did.”
One of the most famous scores by Erich Wolfgang Korngold was composed for the 1942 film Kings Row and it would play an indelible part in the history of Star Wars. And as we all know, Lucas took Spielberg’s advice and John Williams was hired, knowing he’d be able to bring that Korngold sound to life.
In this installment of The Movies That Made Star Wars, we’ll talk about Korngold’s music that inspired Star Wars, and, specifically, King’s Row.
Kings Row tells the story of a pair of childhood friends, Parris (Robert Cummings) and Drake (Ronald Reagan) as they navigate the melodrama of a small town at the turn of the 19th century. Their lives take dramatic turns, fortunes are lost and gained, they suffer tragedies and heartbreak, but the film ultimately ends on a supremely uplifting note. The movie speaks to classism and the dark underbelly of picture-perfect small towns. Supporting performers that helped the film earn three Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography – Black-and-White) include Claude Rains as a reclusive doctor, Harry Davenport as the charismatic town lawyer, and Ann Sheridan, a girl born literally on the wrong side of the tracks.
The film follows their trials and tribulations, their love lives and their successes, as they overcome all obstacles. But the town has dark secrets, and the film is as much about those dark secrets as it is the rosy picture of friendship between Parris and Drake.
The film earned every bit of its cinematography nomination. Cinematographer James Wong Howe (who was only allowed to become an American citizen a year after Kings Row’s release thanks to the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act) keeps everything in a lush, deep focus and allows you to draw your own conclusions, much like the themes of the film.
Through the entire picture, the music helps punctuate the emotion, essentially narrating the film along the surface. The score became so popular that Warner Brothers had to create form letters to answer all the mail about it.
One could wonder if David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet sprang from the sort of fare that made Kings Row powerful. Both films explore that notion of the small town that exists on the outside for all to see and the terror, tragedy, and evil that lurks within.
The Temp Track
In that same interview with Leonard Maltin, George Lucas talked about writing Star Wars to certain pieces of music:
“I write to music, so when I’m writing a scene I have the music there, and I’m writing it to the music. And then in a lot of cases we’ll use that same music as a temp track. So there was temp tracks of classical music in the score.”
One of those tracks was the main theme for Kings Row.
This temp track of music tied to the movie was shown to John Williams and he would then go off and score the film. He would add flourishes and create something new – but he would sometimes quote other pieces of music here and there while always making them unmistakably Star Wars. We talked about this when we wrote about Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
From the opening notes of Kings Row, there is no doubting the resemblance to the main theme of Star Wars.
And even if George Lucas hadn’t used Korngold for the temp track, there’s every chance that John Williams might have referenced him anyway. In a 1998 interview with Star Wars Insider, Williams said:
“I’ve been particularly fascinated with the émigrés from Europe in the 1930s — people like Max Steiner and Erich Korngold, but also Vernon Duke and Kurt Weill, who came with [directors] Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch to Hollywood. They brought this tremendous European culture. In a certain sense, my colleagues and I are the artistic grandchildren of these men. We have been the beneficiaries of a rich tradition that grew up here in the early days of sound, in the 1930s and 40s.”
If John Williams is the artistic grandchild of men like Erich Korngold, then the main theme of Star Wars is the artistic grandchild of Kings Row.
Kings Row is a terrific film, even outside of its influence of Star Wars. What is has to say might seem dated at times, but the film is well put-together and well-staged. The melodrama is never overwhelming and always compelling, and the film’s structure is so unique in how it ping pongs between characters that it’s worth further study for that alone.
And, let’s be honest: this movie was probably the best thing Ronald Reagan ever did in his life. He was perfect for the role of Drake in a way never seen in any other movie. It was no wonder this was the picture that made him a star. The score was so iconic and pivotal to Reagan’s life that selections from it were played at his inauguration.
Ultimately, the film is about how a man needs to make a decision to make things better and how he can work toward that even if it’s difficult. If that’s not one of the central themes of Star Wars, I don’t know what is.
Kings Row is available to purchase or rent on most streaming services.
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