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Fulton Has Change of Heart Over 'Kings Row' : Town Takes Pride in Novel That Became Ronald Reagan Movie

December 13, 1987|KAREN BALL | Associated Press

FULTON, Mo. — Local folks once were so ashamed of the similarities between Fulton and "Kings Row," a novel about a snobbish small town and its sadistic doctor, that the town librarian yanked the book off the shelf.

Today, Fulton has discovered new pride in Henry Bellamann's 1940 novel. The city plans to put on public display the two wool suits worn by a star of the 1942 movie based on the book--Ronald Reagan.

Residents of this central Missouri town of 11,000 held a ceremony this fall to unveil the suits, purchased recently for $2,640 from a New York auction house.

Jay Karr has spent years comparing "Kings Row" to Fulton history, trying to separate fact from fiction. He says residents' feelings about the novel have improved dramatically since the book was published.

Karr, an English professor at Westminster College in Fulton who republished the novel in 1981, attributes the new-found warmth to research indicating the author greatly exaggerated the faults of Fulton residents.

Renewed Popularity

The popularity of Bellamann's book wasn't hurt any, either, when the actor who played Drake McHugh went on to become President.

"I don't think there would have been any rebirth of 'Kings Row' if Ron Reagan had not been elected President," says Joe Holt, a Fulton attorney who is well-versed in Callaway County history. "A lot of years have passed too, and that dulls the pain."

When Bellamann, a Fulton native, published his novel, residents were shocked and embarrassed to recognize prominent Fulton figures and landmarks. Uneasiness over the novel persists.

"I never was able to finish the book because I just found it too eerie," says state Rep. Gracia Backer, a Democrat from nearby New Bloomfield. "I could pick out streets and houses and I swear, I can even remember some of the characters."

Bellamann began the book with a disclaimer that "Kings Row" was not about a real place or real people. However, residents figured the author had used his writing skills to take revenge on the town's upper crust who had snubbed him as a youngster.

The novel portrays a small Midwestern town at the turn of the century in which the elite slander and exclude society's lower echelon. Bellamann threw in the villainous character of Dr. Gordon, who performs surgery without anesthesia on patients he considers morally inept.

In the movie, Reagan played the fun-loving McHugh, who has a fancy for Gordon's daughter but is disliked by the doctor. Gordon ultimately thwarts the romance for good and needlessly amputates McHugh's legs. When McHugh awakes, he feels for his lost limbs and cries: "Where's the rest of me?"

Reagan's Best Role

Reagan later used the line for the title of his autobiography. The President explained that the film role convinced him there was more to life than acting. Many critics say Reagan's performance in "Kings Row" was his best.

Fulton residents still argue over just how much truth there was to "Kings Row."

Legend has it there really was a doctor who mistreated patients because of their character flaws, but Karr says it's a myth. Most residents acknowledge that in Fulton, as in most cities, there were class distinctions.

"There usually is a germ of truth in most novels' portrayal of reality," Karr says.

Over the past decade, Karr has conducted dozens of interviews with Fulton residents to try to sort out the facts. His findings are included in an introduction he included in the republication of "Kings Row."

According to Karr, Bellamann took real-life Fulton physician Frank Baker, distorted his character and embellished it to create the evil Dr. Gordon.

"It's a well-known fact that (Baker) liked to mix Christian teaching with medical practice, but there's nothing to indicate he took it upon himself to be the judge and jury," Karr says.

A Partial Truth

Karr's research showed Bellamann actually had a crush on one of Baker's daughters and believed the doctor had prevented him from courting her.

However, Karr says there was evidence that Bellamann, like most Fulton residents, respected Baker's medical abilities. In fact, Bellamann called on Baker to treat his mother when she was dying.

"I don't think Bellamann would have used Baker on his own mother if he thought he was such a heinous character," Karr says.

Karr, who has sold most of the 4,500 copies of the republished novel, believes the town has more pride in the book these days because his research has shown the town wasn't as cold to Bellamann as originally thought.

Although Bellamann may have been rebuffed as a child because he was reportedly illegitimate and from the wrong side of the tracks, town officials invited him back in 1942 for a county event.

"That gave people something to crow about," Karr says. "All along, people had thought the town had snubbed Bellamann all his life. Reagan's celebrity coincided with the revival of 'Kings Row.' Now there's pride that this has been brought out and the air has been cleared."

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