Henry Bellamann

Genres - Drama, Romance

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Henry Bellamann was a successful and highly influential American novelist of the first half of the 20th century, although only a single one of his books was ever brought to the screen; that novel, Kings Row, and its resulting film version proved more than enough to immortalize the author in the Hollywood firmament.

Born in Fulton, MO, in 1882, Bellamann's first love was music, and he started out professionally as a music teacher. From 1907 until 1924, he held various teaching and newspaper editorial positions in South Carolina. He subsequently became a teacher and administrator at the Juilliard School and Vassar College. His other pet subject was psychology, which he studied seriously enough to justify becoming a member of the New York Academy of Science. When he did turn to writing, it was as a poet in such volumes as A Music Teacher's Notebook (1920), Cups of Illusion (1923), and The Upward Pass (1928), through which he made a modest impression on the intelligentsia of the period. He began writing fiction in the mid-'20s with the farm novel Petenera's Daughter, dealing with families of Pennsylvania Dutch loving in Missouri -- Bellamann scholar Leslie Campbell Rampey found the beginnings of themes that the author would later explore more fully in Kings Row in this early work. His second novel, Crescendo (1928), which even the author himself apparently never liked, was an attempt at a topical setting and subject set in New York City and dealt with an artist's illicit affair with a flapper. The publication of his third book coincided with the author's decision to turn to writing full-time -- The Richest Woman in Town (1932) made for an interesting social drama in a rural setting, and it seemed to show, in its subject, Bellamann's serious attempt at finding themes that mass audiences could embrace; his next books, The Gray Man Walks (1936), a mystery set on an island off the coast of South Carolina, would seem to have elements that should have attracted at least some interest from Hollywood (in the title alone -- lots of books got optioned that way in those days). But it was his fifth, Kings Row, that finally established Bellamann nationally and got the studios interested. Published in 1940, it was set in small-town America and heralded a depth and breadth of story -- much of it dark, and darkly motivated -- that left its readers spellbound. Many modern scholars regard it as the precursor to the '50s potboiler Peyton Place, and today it seems a starkly eerie work, dark and pessimistic for much of its length for the country to have embraced on the eve of war, with the world seemingly going up in flames. For those who haven't read the book, but only seen the simplified, sanitized movie, the cast of characters and range of issues encompassed include homosexuality and various degrees of sexual and moral deviance that are only alluded to in the film; it was all a long way from an idealized turn-of-the-century midwest, and its appeal may well have signalled a new maturity for American readers. And this time Hollywood beckoned and the rights were sold to Warner Bros., where top director Sam Wood was assigned along with some of the top players of the day, including Claude Rains, Ann Sheridan, Charles Coburn, Robert Cummings, and Ronald Reagan, and brilliant composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold. For Reagan, the movie and the role of Drake McHugh became one of the two best known parts of his entire career (along with George Gip in Knute Rockne, All American), and it elevated him to what would have been star status had he not entered military service. The movie was a huge hit and only spurred sales of the book stretching out for years.

The public eagerly awaited Bellamann's fifth book, Floods of Spring (1942), which brought him back to the farm novel but reflected the new complexity of his writing, incorporating a central psychological theme into its story of Pennsylvania Dutch transplanted to Missouri. His last book, Victoria Grandolet, was a gothic romance about a New England woman marrying into a Louisiana family and encountering the dark environs of their old mansion. He had begun work on a sequel to his most successful novel, Parris Mitchell of Kings Row, when he died of a heart attack in New York in June of 1946. Bellamann's widow subquently completed the novel which was published in 1948 to generally unfavorable reviews. In the decades since, partly thanks to Reagan's political ascent and his association with the movie (he took the title of his autobiography, Where's the Rest of Me, from his most famous line in the movie), Bellamann's name has been kept alive almost exclusively because of Kings Row -- in recent years, scholars such as the late Leslie Campbell Rampey have endeavored to elicit a fuller appreciation for Bellamann as an author and stylist.