Tuesday, July 24, 2018

By Sinclair Lewis

We went to the Vermont Drive-In, one of the four drive-ins we usually frequented back then for a family night at the movies .  As usual, Dad and Mom were in the front seat.  My little sister and I were in the back seat, wearing our pajamas under our street clothes.  We'd be sleepyheads when we got home after midnight from the movies.  Having our PJs underneath our clothes made our getting ready for bed a quick change, like a Gypsy Rose Lee moment in her strip act.  I vividly recall when we went to see ELMER GANTRY.  Burt Lancaster had the lead role and, in a tight close-up, his head filled that entire huge Vermont Drive-In movie screen.  I, of course, was way too young to grasp all the maturity of the film.  But, little Catholic that I was, I did know that it was making a statement on religion.  ELMER GANTRY made a statement on how Christianity can be abused for fame, fear, control, profit and even more personal desires.
The preacher, Elmer Gantry, was a con man.  The film was based on a 1927 novel by Sinclair Lewis.  I've seen it several times as I grew up over the years.  It's still one of my favorite films.
Back in the late 90s, I found a copy of BABBITT at my local library and check it out for summer reading.  It's another novel by Sinclair Lewis.  I couldn't put it down.  The hollowness of pursuing a traditional middle-class life and the ultimate uselessness of conformity were so sharply portrayed by Lewis that BABBITT earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930.

A couple of days ago, a good friend of mine photographed the back cover blurb on the Penguin Classics issue of the Sinclair Lewis novel, IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE.  Here is some of what was written:
"Vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected ... He was an actor of genius."
A vain, outlandish, anti-immigrant, tear-mongering demagogue runs for President of the United States -- and wins.  Sinclair Lewis's chilling 1935 bestseller is the story of Buzz Windrip, who promises poor, angry voters that he will make America proud and prosperous once more, but takes the country down a far darker path.  As the new regime slides into authoritarianism, newspaper editor Doremus Jessop can't believe it will last -- but is he right?  This cautionary tale of liberal complacency in the face of populist tyranny shows it really can happen here.
I miss the Old Hollywood, the Hollywood of my youth, when important books by noted authors were adapted into smart and entertaining socially conscious films that the public went to see.  Come September, when the fluffy, fun summer films conclude their run and make way for the more mature offerings of the fall, I wish there was a good, stinging adaptation of IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE ready to hit movie screens all across the country.

I think I may buy myself a copy of the book for summer reading.  IT CANT HAPPEN HERE ... a 1935 bestseller.

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