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Posts Tagged ‘Sinclair Lewis’

“During the 1920s, at the height of his fame and literary power, Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) was more than a bestselling author. He was a troublemaker, a disturber of the peace whose novels were hotly discussed as social criticism more than literature.”
                                    
Morris Dickstein 

Writers are curious folks. They explore the side roads of life physically, mentally and spiritually. Maybe no more than other people at the start, but after they’ve turned over a rock they tend to ponder what they find longer than most and then write down what they see. And what they write often makes the rest of us take a second look at what they’ve observed. 

And if the writer has done their job well it makes us curious as what inspired the writer in the first place. Over the years I’ve found myself in little corners of the country trying to get a glimpse what may have inspired people who have inspired me; Hemingway’s house in Key West, Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s house in rural Cross Creek, Florida and Walden Pond where Thoreau lived for a spell.

Apparently John Steinbeck did the same thing. He writes in Travels with Charley about going to Sauk Centre, Minnesota which is now the proud birthplace Nobel-Prize winning novelist Sinclair Lewis. Though they weren’t always proud of their native son who brought an x-ray to the town with his writings and examined the lives they were living. Steinbeck who became friends with Lewis observed how Sauk Centre embraced Lewis after he died;

I had read Main St. when I was in high school, and I remember the violent hatred it aroused in the countryside of his nativity.
     Did he go back?
    Just went through now and again. The only good writer was a dead writer. Then he couldn’t surprise anyone any more, couldn’t hurt anyone any more. And the last time I saw him he seemed to have shriveled even more. He said, “I’m cold. I seem to be always cold. I’m going to Italy.”
     And he did, and he died there, and I don’t know whether or not it’s true but I’ve heard he died alone. And now he’s good for the town. Brings in some tourists. He’s a good writer now.

Main Street was made into a movie in 1923 and in total there have been more than 30 of Lewis’ stories that have become movies or TV programs. The most lasting of his stories made into movies seems to be Elmer Gantry. (The book was published in 1927 and caused quite a stir and was even banned in certain parts of the country.) But the 1960 film about a phony preacher would be a cliche if written today. 

Certainly fallen Catholic and Protestant leaders haven’t helped their cause in the last 20 years, but when’s the last time there was a positive portrayal of a minister, pastor, or priest in a major Hollywood movie? Maybe On the Waterfront in 1954? 

Related post: Screenwriting Quote of the Day #18 (Sinclair Lewis)

 

Scott W. Smith 

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On this day in 1859 the local paper where I live was established. As The Courier turns 150 today I want to look at its most famous reporter, Sinclair Lewis. Yes, the novelist, playwright, short story writer Sinclair Lewis worked for a brief time in Waterloo, Iowa before going on to publish over 20 books and in 1930 becoming the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Lewis was born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. He attended Yale but did not graduate and traveled around doing various job and along the way lived in a writers colony in California and a Utopia community New Jersey. He had his first book published in 1912 and found his first big success with the 1920 publication of Main Street. The book would eventually sell millions of copies and made Lewis a wealthy man.

He followed his success writing Babbitt, Arrowsmith and Elmer Gantry among others. More than two dozen of his novels and stories were made into movies and TV shows including Elmer Gantry which starred Burt Lancaster as a phony preacher. The movie won three Oscar awards. And it was also controversial subject matter for the day especially in light of the Hays Code being in effect which said what content was morally acceptable for films.  

One of the restrictions was “The ridicule of religion was forbidden, and ministers of religion were not to be represented as comic characters or villains.” My guess is Elmer Gantry got around this by being a phony preacher or maybe the code wasn’t enforced in its later years. Regardless, Lewis was not one to shy away from expressing his views of the hypocrisy he saw.

The seeds of Elmer Gantry may have come from right here from Waterloo, Iowa where he wrote an editorial about a fraudulent evangelist. Then again since his book came out history has shown that that subject matter has proven to be rather ubiquitous even to the point of cliche.

Every year the headlines tell of not just fraudulent evangelists but of fallen ministers, priests, pastors and ministers who have often been respected leaders. Steve Brown, an author, radio host and ordained pastor may touch on part of the problem; “The church is the only place that gives a pastor a microphone, a spotlight, and puts him in front of thousands of people and tells him to be humble.”

But that’s not our quote of the day. It comes from the Lewis who never seemed to eager to back down from using his words to make a point.; “Every compulsion is put upon writers to become safe, polite, obedient, and sterile.”

May you be bold in your writing.

And while you’re at it, beware of the cult of personality. 

 

Scott W. Smith

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“Small town people are more real, more down to earth.”
                                                             Groundhog Day 
                                                             Phil (Bill Murray) 

 

“A growing number of Americans are seeking a larger life in a smaller place. Many are finding it.” 
                                                                                      Life 2.0
                                                                                      Richard Karlgaard 

You hear a lot about Main St. these days and I thought I’d explore what that means from a screenwriting & filmmaking  perspective. A couple days ago my travels took me to northern Illinois and to the town of Woodstock which happens to be where much of the movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray was filmed.

The above photo is the corner where Ned confronts Bill Murray’s character again and again and where Murray steps off the curb into the puddle of water. The town, which is about an hour north east of Chicago, has improved much over the last 15 years and continues to embrace the fact that Groundhog Day was filmed there.

 

That’s right, Woodstock doubled for Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Director Harold Ramis thought the town square there worked better as a location than the real deal. I wonder how many people go out of their way to go to Punxutawney and are disappointed that it doesn’t look like the town in the movie? That’s showbiz.

In fact, the town even has a life-imitating-art groundhog day celebration and a nice map you can follow to see the various filming locations of the Danny Rubin and Ramos screenplay. The bar scene where Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell drink to world peace is now the Courtyard Grill and has a signed script on the wall by where they sat.

 

Certainly, if you’re in the area it’s worth it to stop to see where one of the great comedy films (#34 on the AFI Greatest American Comedy list) was filmed. If you’re there at the beginning of February you can even take part in the groundhog days celebration. 

From my home where I am typing this I can see Main St. here in Cedar Falls, Iowa. It’s just a block to the west and is quite a lively Main St. USA. Shops, a playhouse, art galleries, several bars and restaurants (a new one opening next month will feature a respected Chicago chef) and even a comedy club. It’s also worth a stop if you are ever driving the Avenue of the Saints between St. Louis and St. Paul.

There’s something endearing about Main Streets in general. Of course, sometimes they aren’t even called Main St., but they are the historic main road through the heart of smaller towns. It’s not hard for me to think back at some of my favorite main drags (Telluride, Colorado, Winter Park, Florida., Franklin, Tennessee,, Holland, Michigan, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Seal Beach, California, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania  and Galena, Illinois).

Places that for the most part that have been around for 100 years. Places with history and character. Perhaps in a response to sprawling suburbs there has been an architectural movement to design areas that look a little like small towns complete with a Main St. (Some even have a small movie theaters.)

I first became aware of this while a student at the University of Miami in the ’80s when two Miami architects (Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk) began to design the beach community of Seaside, Florida. (Seaside is so idyllic, it is where they filmed The Truman Show.) The success of Seaside has been well documented.

On the Seaside website you’ll find the history and the philosophy of what they set out to create after doing extensive research:
“Most of the buildings were studied in the context of small towns, and gradually the idea evolved that the small town was the appropriate model to use in thinking about laying out streets and squares and locating the various elements of the community. 

Seaside is a great place and today you can go throughout the country and find other areas that were designed in its wake; Celebration, FL,  Baldwin Park, FL, Harmony, FL, Prospect New Town in Boulder County, Colorado, and Kentlands in Gaitherburg, Maryland. 

That is not to say that this new urbanist master planned communities idea doesn’t have its critics. The most common charge is they say the towns are more like film sets or some kind of fantasyland — sentimental and far removed from reality.  Some felt it a little strange when Thomas Kinkade (The Painter of Light) got into the act outside the San Francisco Bay area by inspiring a development called The Village at Hiddenbrook that feature homes that would be at home in one of his glowing paintings. Where are the Rod Serling/Twight Zone inspired writers on that one?

But for many (including Walt Disney, and perhaps Kinkade) small towns represent the ideal. (Community, honesty, fullness of life, etc.) The way life ought to be, or the way it was.  Many movies and TV programs tap into this mystique: It’s a Wonderful Life, American Graffiti, The Last Picture Show, My Dog Skip, The Andy Griffith Show, Cars, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Truman Show, Northern Exposure, Places in the Heart, and Hoosiers.

(And some books, films and songs are critiques and satires of small town living such as Pleasantville, Harper Valley PTA, and Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street.

Either way Main St. (and all that it represents) is a part of Americanna and will continue to be probably forever and is fertile ground for you to explore in your screenwriting, and perhaps even in your life. As Don Henley (who was raised in the small town of Linden, Texas) sings in The End of the Innocence:
Who know how long this will last
Now we’ve come so far so fast
But somewhere back there in the dust,
that same small town in each of us

On a closing note, I remember when I lived in L.A. there was a popular radio host named Dr. Toni Grant who used to encourage her callers/listeners to write the script of their life. I always thought that was an interesting concept and worth exploring as you take a few more trips around the sun. 

Come to think of it, isn’t that what Bill Murray’s character did in Groundhog Day? He rewrote the script of his life and became a better person — and got the girl to boot. It is a wonderful life…

 

Photos and text 2008 copyright Scott W. Smith

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