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teaser Babbitt (1934)

Sinclair Lewis's celebrated novel Babbitt, published in 1922, has inspired two screen adaptations, which is impressive for a novel that barely has a plot. The first movie arrived in 1924, directed by Harry Beaumont and starring Willard Louis and Mary Alden as the eponymous protagonist and his wife. The second, directed by William Keighley, premiered ten years later, with Guy Kibbee and Aline MacMahon as the middle-class, middle-aged, middle-everything Midwestern couple. No fewer than four writers are credited with the script, which strays conspicuously from the book on which it's based. This may disappoint Lewis's many admirers, but the flavor of the novel remains intact at least part of the time, and while Kibbee is too distinctive an actor to convey the full blandness of his utterly unremarkable character, it's fun to see him starring in a role more sustained and challenging than most of the character parts that dominated his career.

The first image after Babbitt's credits is a Rotary International sign standing proudly against the sky, and it's an ideal way to introduce the story of a man who treasures his business interests and old-boy friendships as wholeheartedly as other people value their religions or political affiliations. George F. Babbitt is his name, real estate is his game, and the (fictional) city of Zenith, located somewhere in the American grain belt, is his town. Judging from appearances, Babbitt is around fifty years old he's forty-six in the novel and he lives in a comfy house with his wife Myra and their three children, ranging from preteen to young adult.

Apart from hustling real estate at his office, Babbitt's biggest activity is what 1920s lingo called boosterism, now known as public relations or promotion. Although he isn't as young as he used to be, Babbitt is tireless when it comes to boosting his business, boosting himself, and above all boosting Zenith, the city that makes all his accomplishments possible. Occasionally he feels a vague uneasiness about his life; as he realizes at one point in the novel, his contribution to the community boils down to selling "badly built houses" for more than people can really afford to pay. This feeling always passes, but it always comes back again too. Babbitt the booster may be heading for a midlife crisis, although neither the term nor the concept has been invented yet.

It's unlikely that any Hollywood studio would have produced a picture that followed the structure of Lewis's novel, which spends several chapters following Babbitt through an average day, then accompanies him on a series of visits and trips, and finally shows him accepting his humdrum life after briefly rebelling against it by consorting with nonconformists and dabbling in liberal politics. To keep the movie moving, the screenwriters exploit a couple of the book's more dramatic incidents. One involves Babbitt's best friend, a sensitive fellow named Paul Reisling, who hates his business, plays the violin in his spare time, and is harassed day and night by Zilla, his ill-tempered wife. Henpecked into a stupor, Paul eventually pulls out a gun and shoots Zilla, landing in the penitentiary despite Babbitt's good-faith efforts to help him.

The film presents this much as the book does, but it takes far greater liberties with an extramarital fling that Babbitt indulges in, much to his own surprise. The object of his affection is Tanis Judique, an offbeat beauty who meets him during a real-estate transaction. In the novel, Babbitt starts hanging around with Tanis's young and racy friends, wearying his aging bones so much that he's relieved when the relationship inevitably ends. Combining this anticlimactic fling with another of the novel's subplots, involving a shady business deal that Babbitt stumbles into, the movie invents a melodramatic plot twist wherein Tanis blackmails her bumbling boyfriend, threatening to ruin his reputation and career until Mrs. Babbitt saves the day so ingeniously that Tanis is defeated and Babbitt becomes Zenith's hero of the day. This is the least convincing part of the film, but it's fun in a hokey way.

Keighley came to Hollywood from the Broadway stage. He was only a couple of years into his movie-directing career when he made Babbitt, and he hadn't yet done the hardboiled crime pictures "G" Men (1935), Each Dawn I Die (1939) for which he's best remembered. He gives Babbitt a straight-ahead studio style with no idiosyncratic touches, concentrating his energies on clear, no-nonsense storytelling with performances just quirky enough to keep the stereotypical characters interesting. MacMahon gets top billing as Myra Babbitt, reflecting her relative clout with First National and Warner Bros. at the time, and her down-to-earth acting is the film's most reliable center of gravity; during the far-fetched climax you can almost believe she's clever enough to single-handedly turn the tables on everyone in sight. Kibbee plays the title character with more sobriety than he brought to, for instance, his famous portrayal of infatuated Abner Dillon in 42nd Street the previous year. Claire Dodd is perfectly cast as slightly exotic Tanis, and equally solid contributions come from Minor Watson as moody Paul and Minna Gombell as shrewish Zilla, bearing out the genius of the central-casting system in its prime.

Given the impersonality of Keighley's style and the many changes made to Lewis's storyline, the movie's main source of ideas appears to have been the writing team, consisting of Mary C. McCall, Jr., who has primary credit, plus Tom Reed and Niven Busch, who did the adaptation, and Ben Markson, who penned additional dialogue. Looking back on the group approach that dominated scriptwriting during the studio era, Busch said years later that "the collaboration system was something you wanted to get away from, but you had to put up with it. I had at least one collaborator, named Tom Reed, with whom I wrote what was supposed to be the screenplay for Babbitt; he was a delightful guy [with] a fiendish sense of humor." While the humor in Babbitt is anything but fiendish, the film's perky performances and generally good nature (aside from its mean-spirited portrait of Zilla, transplanted directly from the novel) make it reasonably engaging today. For those who want their Sinclair Lewis in somewhat purer form, Richard Brooks's superb 1960 adaptation of Elmer Gantry, with Burt Lancaster and Jean Simmons, is definitely the gold standard.

Director: William Keighley
Screenplay: Mary C. McCall, Jr.; adaptation by Tom Reed & Niven Busch; additional dialogue by Ben Markson; based on novel by Sinclair Lewis
Cinematographer: Arthur L. Todd
Film Editing: Jack Killifer
Art Direction: John Hughes
Cast: Aline MacMahon (Myra Babbitt), Guy Kibbee (George F. Babbitt), Claire Dodd (Tanis Judique), Maxine Doyle (Verona), Glen Boles (Ted), Minor Watson (Paul), Minna Gombell (Zilla), Alan Hale (Charlie), Berton Churchill (Judge Thompson), Russell Hicks (Commissioner Lyle Gurnee), Nan Gray (Eunice Littlefield), Walter Walker (Luke Ethorne), Arthur Aylesworth (Zeke), Addison Richards (district attorney), Harry Tyler (Martin Gunch), Arthur Hoyt (Willis Ivans), Mary Treen (Miss McGoun).
BW-74m. Closed Captioning.

by David Sterritt

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