Saturday, January 02, 2010

BABBITT (1934)

George Babbitt (Guy Kibbee) is a thoroughly average middle-class real estate developer in Zenith, which is, as road signs tell us, the fastest growing town in America. We see his daily routine: some mild exercise in the morning, a quick breakfast with the wife (Aline MacMahon) and college-age son (Glen Boles), some sloppy dictation to his secretary (Mary Treen) who always manages to spruce up his words nicely, dinner with friends--the henpecked Paul and his ferociously unlikable wife Zilla--and attendance at a meeting of the local businessmen's club, the Zebras (where we see Babbitt become the butt of a very elaborate prank as prelude to being made ceremonial head of the group). Babbitt loves his unexamined life until a string of events occur which throw him off kilter. First, Paul (Minor Watson), having had enough of his wife's nagging, shoots her during an argument; though she survives, Paul is sentenced to several years in jail, and because Babbitt refuses to abandon his friend, the Zebras give him the boot. Then Babbitt gets involved, despite warnings from his wife and son, in a shady scheme with two big shots to buy up dirt-cheap property based on a tip that a new airport will be built in the area. Finally, he begins an affair with a cheap dame (Claire Dodd); when he lets it slip to her in a weak moment about the real estate deal, she tries to blackmail him. Rather improbably, everything works out fine for Babbitt, mostly thanks to his wife and son who pull off their own scheme to neutralize the shady doings.

I have never read the original novel by Sinclair Lewis, but my understanding is that the character was intended to be a stinging satire on complacent, conforming businessmen--Babbit's very name became a negative label for such a person (Rosalind Russell uses the word with venom twice in AUNTIE MAME). But this adaptation treats the leading character with affection; even though it does seem to cast mild judgment against him, it ends by letting him regain his former standing in town, with his wife (who never knows that the potential blackmailer was her husband's mistress) and son, and even with the Zebras, and we are given to understand that he will have learned nothing much from his experiences. Still, the movie is well worth seeing; Kibbee is surprisingly good in a rare lead role and MacMahon (pictured above with Kibbee) is fine as always. The large supporting cast includes Hattie McDaniel as a singing maid, Minna Gombell as Zilla, the wife from Hell, and Alan Hale and Berton Churchill as Zebras. Minor Watson, who had mostly unmemorable supporting roles in over 100 movies, is a standout here as a guy beaten down by life. For some reason, this Warner Brothers film doesn't crop up too often on Turner Classic--I'd been waiting ten years to see it--so catch it when you can. [TCM]

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