It is one of those touchstone American names -- like Willy Loman or Flem Snopes or Robert E. Lee Prewitt. There was a time when it was hard to get through sophomore lit surveys without reading "Studs Lonigan" (or at least the Cliff's Notes). James T. Farrell's story of scrabbling young Irish on the South Side of Chicago in the years after World War I was never so much a literary masterpiece as a hardbitten, socio-naturalistic portrait. It is said that Chicago author/celebrity Studs Tarkel earned his first name from carrying around with him everywhere he went a copy of Farrell's book. Back then, in the empty, early '30s, the book must have had a special resonance.
It still does, and tonight at 9 on Channel 4, in the first of an NBC three-part miniseries, Farrell's "classic" comes to the magic box. Even if you grew up Czechosiovak and nowhere near the South Side, the story of the scared and profane boy-man with a sneer and a Sweet Caporal pasted inhis mug is bound to connect. The story and characters are stock, but then so is life.
A lot of the credit for the show's strength must go to Colleen Dewhurst, who portrays Studs' mother. Looking buxom and sainted, with her hair pinned up behind her, she makes the role of the typical Irish Catholic mother at once believable and painful.
"Wouldn't I like to make a Jesuit out of my William," she says, clearing away the table in her lower middle-class kitchen.
"But has he the call" wonders a matronly friend.
"Ah, I think so. I say a rosary every day and offer up a monthly Holy communion...."
The six-hour production (or at least the first two-thirds of its, which is what was available for previewing) is generally faithful to Farrell's original.
It begins with young Lonigan "on the verge of 15" standing before the bathroom mirror telling himself, "well, I'm kissin' the old dump goodbye tonight." The old dump is St. Patrick's grammer school, presided over by Fr. Gilhooley, "the walking saint of God," as Mrs. Lonigan calls him. Studs is graduating tonight; he never felt tougher; the world is commencing. He is, as Farrell put it, a "hardboiled egg that they had left in the pot a couple of hours too long."
Dan Shor plays the early Studs and gets him right. Though the NBC press sheets tout Harry Hamlin -- he takes over the title role by the time Studs finishes high school, carrying it through to the character's death at age 29 -- it is Shor's canny portrayal that sets up the tensions and disillusionments that follow as the Great Depression weighs down on the Lonigan family. Farrell once described his work as the "story of an American destiny in our time." The malaise that Studs eventually settles into is one of spiritual poverty more than actual poverty. He is a good boy going wrong. The opening sequences establish that.
The sense of Irish ghetto, both in Farrell's novel and in the TV adaptation, is strong. It's as though the whole world were Irish, what with St. Patrick's and the hovering Fr. Gilhooley and street corner pals named Kenneth Killarney, Michael Kelly, Weary Riley. In a sense, the whole world was Irish -- a world that began and ended on those bungalow streets and in those Victorian houses of the South Side, an area known today as Englewood, just west of the University of Chicago.
It isn't true, but one of the stories long associated with "Studs Lonigan" is that little Dickie Daley -- who grew up to be boss of Chicago -- is a minor character. He could be, though. It was his neighborhood Farrell was writing of; his own, too. Today James T. Farrell is an old man living in New York, still writing, still passionate about baseball and the Chicago White Sox.
Charles Durning, an underrated character actor, plays the role of Studs' father, who cannot understand why his older boy is beginning to go bad. Why doesn't he want to come into the paint business with him? Why must he always lay around the damn pool hall with his bum cronies?
One of the things Farrell was doubtless trying to show in his novel was the descipline-cum-violence that erupts between frustrated, working-class the discipline-cum-violence that erupts sons. When the discipline flares between Studs and his father, Mrs. Lonigan sobs to the Blessed Mother. It is an old cycle, so cliche it hurts.
Some of the sequences in the film are needlessly dragged out -- an Armistice Day celebration, the first kiss at a "mixed" party -- but on the whole the production moves with a kind of fluid, pained reverie. "You boys don't know what the hell the score is," the pool-keep says. James T. Farrell knew the score, especially in this score, sweet bird of his own youth.