“Continental Divide”

John Belushi?  Romantic comedy?  That name and that phrase don’t go together.  Unless you take the trouble to watch Continental Divide.

In 1981 Belushi was enjoying his first successes as a movie headliner.  He’d been playing over-the-top, gonzo roles.  Now he was trying something different.  Continental Divide is a film in the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn Opposites Attract style.

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We open with an establishing shot of the lakefront.  Move into downtown, then to the old Sun-Times Building on the river off Wabash.  Now into the newsroom, where we meet columnist Ernie Souchak (Belushi).

Souchak is patterned after Chicago icon Mike Royko, then writing for the Sun-Times.  Royko had been a close friend of the Belushi family for years.  The actor called him “Uncle Mike.”

Everybody in town knows Souchak–even a couple of muggers, who apologize for robbing him.  And this being Chicago, there’s a crooked alderman named Yablonowitz (Val Avery).  Souchak is out to nail Yablonowitz.

Souchak at work

Souchak at work

A beating from the alderman’s thugs puts Souchak in the hospital.  The editor (Allen Goorwitz, aka Garfield) decides to get his star columnist out of harm’s way for awhile.  He sends Souchak to the Rocky Mountains to track down reclusive ornithologist Nell Porter (Blair Brown).

All this action has taken up 15 minutes.  The great middle of the film is about Souchak’s adventures as a fish-out-of-water in the Rockies.  (Okay, it’s a mixed metaphor, but you get the idea.)

At first, Ernie and Nell can’t stand each other–“I’d like to get this chick in a bowling alley,” he mutters at one point.  But we all know what’s going to happen to their relationship.  And the way it’s handled is funny and gentle and believable.

Souchak eventually goes back to Chicago.  He has his showdown with the alderman.  His romance with Nell is also resolved, in a way that looks forward to a possible sequel.

Definitely better than a bowling alley!

Definitely better than a bowling alley!

Continental Divide opened to mixed reviews.  The box office was reasonably strong, and that sequel became a possibility.  But six months after the premiere, Belushi was dead from a drug overdose.

As an actor, Belushi is no Spencer Tracy.  Yet he’s surprisingly good.  Problem is, he’s up against his own persona–he’s not delivering what we expect from Belushi.  If Richard Dreyfus had been cast as Souchak and had given the same caliber performance, the film would have been better received, and more fondly remembered.

The Chicago location filming is limited to downtown.  As always, it’s interesting to see what the city looked like at a particular moment in the past, and to think about how much it has changed.  I do suspect that most of the Rocky Mountain scenery still looks the same.

Watching Continental Divide years after its release, one critic said the movie gave him one more reason to wish John Belushi had taken better care of himself.  I feel the same way.

–30–

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2 Responses to ““Continental Divide””


  1. 1 D October 24, 2014 at 11:10 am

    Why no sequel , cliff hangers are the worst movies cause you want more and never get it. Leaving you with the obvious they don’t live together. Love waits but not forever. It surely wains .. either one gives in or the other stays selfish. Would be nice to know if the relationship between Portor & Souchak becomes a functional and real relationship where 2 people live together becoming selfless which is what marriage is all about,


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