Who doesn’t like Burt Lancaster? The man had class, gravity, pipes and a billboard smile that never quite made it to his eyes, which made him all the more interesting. “Elmer Gantry” was on the other night, and I’m ashamed to say I never read the book. Then again, maybe I’m not, since Sinclair Lewis seems a bit of a scold, and a smug prim scowly one at that. I read “Main Street,” as was required of a good Minnesotan, and couldn’t quite share the horror of the protagonist. I admit that it would be stultifying to be a sensitive soul becalmed in Sauk Center with no one around with whom you could discuss Art and the Exciting New Ideas afoot in the world, but  I just remember feeling as though I was sucking cold lead pudding through a narrow straw.

Same with "Babbitt" – I actually felt for the guy, since it was apparent the author didn’t. I had inferred the point of "Elmer Gantry" without reading the book: God-bothering toothless rubes will confuse sexual excitation with religious inspiration, and consequently follow an appliance salesman into Hell. Or ideas to that effect. "Carnivale" did it better.

I have no love for the Revival-indicting teleplay idiom, partly because the tent-show brimstone merchants haven't been howling from the outskirts of Dust Bowl hamlets for some time now, and partly because the movies and TV shows settled into a comfortable, self-congratulatory groove. The attendees of a tent show were always the same: old furrow-faced farmers, desiccated spinsters, crazed farmhands, batty old sparkle-eyed crones for whom Jaysus is the Fabio of Palestine, both drop-dead gorgeous and come-to-life purty. Okay, noted. Simple people are simple. I have no idea if it’s an accurate representation of the audience, and suspect not; these films are pitched at folk who like to flatter themselves with their distance from people who get noisy about religion. The book was dedicated to Mencken, and I can see why; hell, I'd rather stand at the back of the tent with H. L. and crack wise than sit in the front and have some enthusiastic widder lady grab my wrist and squeeze tight when she heard the story of Zacharias the Meddinite Who Converted The Thieves for the umptillionth time. On the other hand, there'd come a time when H.L. would mutter something that cut below the skin of this particular event, and I wouldn't want to be in his camp, either. The movie seemed to recognize this; the obligatory Rational Man, a reporter, is one of those Hollywood specialties from the great era of crusading liberal films: The Decent Agnostic whose humane and measured remarks reveal a spiritual core that puts the brayin' & prayin' eyerollers to shame. Why, he's on the fence, and he's more of a Christian than any of them. (I meant "Crusading Liberal Films" in a literal sense; the movie was an attempt to wrest religion from the hands of extremists, even though it was set 30 years ago. It was noble and high-minded. It was also fighting a battle 30 years past as if the battle still raged. And its was terribly conflicted; the last scenes, which posit Gantry as an unlikely voice for God's truth, were loud with the rustling of script pages employed to cover everyone's arse.)

But the music’s probably accurate, and the music alone is enough to put me in the camp of the obligatory cynical reporter regarding the event from the distance his intellect provides. Give me that old-time religion! It’s good enough for me! Old Rugged Cross! Cleft of Ages, Rocked for Me! It does nothing for me, I’m afraid.

Anyway: the movie’s good enough for me and others, and contains the mother of the Partridge Family as a hooker, among other interesting characters. Lancaster is a great Gantry, but unfortunately it’s the sort of role he seemed born to play. It makes you question every other time he mustered the same brand of intense sincerity. It’s peculiar to see an actor who spends the entire movie obviously acting, intending us to see the artifice, aware that ever after the shadow of Gantry falls over his performances.

I was surprised to find the story moved to Zenith, Lewis’ fictional Midwest city. John O’Hara had his Gibbsville; Lewis had Zenith. (I always thought of Zenith as Duluth, for some reason.) “Babbitt” takes place in Zenith. And Babbitt, in one of those proto-crossovers, shows up in the movie. A brief tour of the Internet commentary seems to indicate this was an invention of the screenwriter. If so, that’s the sort of inspired Hollywood contrivance we don’t see anymore, literary in-jokes being rare these days. (“A Clockwork Orange” did slip Anthony Burgess’ name into the a newspaper story, revealing that it was the antihero’s last name.) But it allowed for some casting that struck me as dead-bang perfect.

Babbitt was a shallow man, desperately cheerful, full of boosterism and pep and vim, a gladhander, an Elk, a Rotarian, a churchman, a pillar of the community, a hypocrite, a middle-aged Midwesterner who tarried little over self-reflection, hated the Bolshies and the atheists, had a dirty joke for some, a pious bromide for others, and a smile for everyone.

Here’s who they cast. It’s that guy from all those Twilight Zones. Perfect.

Busy day. Gnat had no classes or camps or playdates. We kicked around the house in the morning; I submitted a couple of columns, then we went on errands. I’ll save those exciting details for later. Now I have to get back to work, this being Bolus-wad time for columns, so that’s it.

Oh, that and a gigantic Fargo update. This week we finish with Broadway and explore NP avenue. Some fine old pictures here – and remember, this site isn’t pitched at Fargoans. It’s intended to be a study of a small American town, and as the weeks go by you’ll see what I’m doing here. It’s history, autobiography, urban studies, all that self-indulgent BS the web allows. The update begins here,  and yes, that’s where it left off last week. You’ll see why.

Thanks for the visit! See you tomorrow. 




c. j lileks. email may be sent to first name at last name dot com.