Prophetic Voices: Sinclair Lewis

lewisSinclair Lewis, Jack London, Sui Sin Far/Edith Eaton, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Edith Wharton, Kate Chopin, Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Upton Sinclair, Mary Austin, Frank Norris. Were they prophets without honor in their own country?

Back in the mid 20th century, when the world was young and New Criticism ruled, they were all sort of . . . well, political, and everyone “knew” that Art was never Political but a well-wrought urn. The closer to modernism you could get on a sliding scale, the greater you were as an artist. Maybe Crane is sort of like Gertrude Stein! Maybe Wharton is like Henry James!

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Dreaming of being Henry James? Nope.

Except that art isn’t disinterested but is always political, as critics since have pointed out. And the works you may have read by them, if you read them at all, were carefully curated to be Art rather than Politics.

This issue comes up now because all of a sudden people are rediscovering Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. But he wrote a lot of other good stuff, too, as did all the writers listed above, all of whom are well known today but often for a few works.

I started this post meaning to talk about them all, but there’s so much to say that this list will be only about Lewis; I will write about the rest later. I’ve read all his novels except The Job, many (Main Street, Babbitt, Dodsworth, Arrowsmith, Ann Vickers, Elmer Gantry, Cass Timberlane) more than once, though I couldn’t honestly tell you much about Gideon Planish or some of the other later ones.

You can also go to the Sinclair Lewis Society site for information: https://english.illinoisstate.edu/sinclairlewis/

Say you want to read or teach a Sinclair Lewis with some social or political relevance. I’m including the film versions, too.

It Can’t Happen Here, about a homegrown fascist takeover of the U. S., is popular right now.

annAnn Vickers: Feminist social worker with an honorary doctorate in sociology works in a settlement house, tries to reform a Southern prison, fights capital punishment, has an unhappy love affair and decides to have an abortion, and finally falls in love with a judge and decides to live with him when his wife won’t give him a divorce. Oh, and everyone calls her “Dr. Vickers.”  The Pre-Code movie version stars Irene Dunne; you can read a good discussion of it here (the source of the image).

imarriedadoctor1936_ff_188x141_052020100846Main Street (1920): The novel about Midwestern small-town America that made Lewis’s reputation, with a dissatisfied heroine who tries to reform a town that thinks she’s the one who needs reforming. It was made into a movie called I Married a Doctor, but the movie doesn’t convey the depth of the book. Image courtesy TCM.

Babbitt (1922): Begins with 24 hours in the life of a real-estate salesman (“Realtor!” I can hear Babbitt yelling) and then shows his growing anomie and disillusionment with conformity. He turns down the right-wing Good Citizens’ League and searches for his idealistic roots, only to–well, you’ll have to read it. Edith Wharton admired this book. The 1934 Warner Brothers movie stars Guy Kibbee as Babbitt.

elmer-gantryElmer Gantry (1927): Popular hypocritical evangelist (character based on Billy Sunday) who preaches what he definitely doesn’t practice and lives very well on the offerings from his flock. The 1960 movie version takes a lot of liberties with the plot but won Burt Lancaster an Academy Award. (Image link)

 

Arrowsmith.jpgArrowsmith (1925): An idealistic doctor-researcher, Martin Arrowsmith, faces incredible pressures from those who don’t believe science is important and discovers a “bacteriophage” to fight a tropical plague. Lewis turned down the Pulitzer Prize he was awarded for this novel. The fine 1931 movie version directed by John Ford and starring Ronald Colman is worth seeing, especially for its portrayal of Arrowsmith’s equal partnership with an African American doctor from Howard University.

dodsworthDodsworth (1929). Car manufacturing giant Samuel Dodsworth and his wife, Fran, leave their midwestern city of Zenith (fictional location of many of Lewis’s novels) and travel to Europe, where they try to acquire culture in different ways, Sam through visiting places and reading guidebooks, and Fran by finding men to tell her that she looks and is young.

There’s a lot more to it than this, however, including some discussions of Henry James & W. D. Howells as well as broader meditations on American exceptionalism and expatriate living. Fun facts: Dorothy Parker admired the ending tremendously, though she wasn’t crazy about the rest of it, and Lewis dedicated the novel to Edith Wharton.  The 1936 movie adaptation directed by William Wyler, with Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, and Mary Astor, is based on the stage play and is superb.

kingsblood_royalKingsblood Royal (1947). The racial dynamics of this are problematic now but were courageous in its day (1947). Neil Kingsblood discovers that he has an African American forebear, a coureur du bois, and defiantly confronts his racist neighbors, culminating in his standing down a white mob.

 

 

Recently Published: The Oxford Handbook of Jack London

oxfordjackThe Oxford Handbook of Jack London, edited by Jay Williams, has just been published.  My essay in it is called “Women’s Rights, Women’s Lives.”  Here’s the full Table of Contents:

Table of Contents
Introduction
Jay Williams
1. Life on the Pacific Rim: The Ideology of The Overland Monthly
Jay Williams
2. The Facts of Life and Literature
Cecelia Tichi
3. Family, Friends, and Mentors
Clarice Stasz
4. Jack London, Marriage, and Divorce
Clare Virginia Eby
5. Kenneth K. Brandt
6. Jack London’s International Reputation
Joseph McAleer
7. Michael Millner
8. Jack London, War, and the Journalism That Acts
Karen Roggenkamp
9. Kevin R. Swafford
10. Lawrence D. Taylor
11. The Essays, Articles and Lectures of Jack London
Daniel J. Wichlan
12. Jack London as Playwright
George Adams
13. Jack London as Poet
George Adams
14. The Atavistic Nightmare: Memory and Recapitulation in Jack London’s Ghost and Fantasy Stories
Michael Newton
15. Darwin’s Anachronisms: Liberalism and Conservative Temporality in The Son of the Wolf
Stephen J. Mexal
16. The People of the Abyss: Tensions and Tenements in the Capital of Poverty
Sara S. Hodson
17. Canine Narration
Loren Glass
18. Making Sense of Jack London’s Confusion of Genres in The Sea-Wolf
Per Serritslev Petersen
19. The Iron Heel and the Contemporary Bourgeois Novel
Kathy Knapp
20. Christopher Gair
21. Burning Daylight
Tony Williams
22. Jack London’s Sci-Fi Finale
John Hay
23. The Valley of the Moon: Quest for Love, Land, and a Home
Susan Nuernberg, Iris Jamahl Dunkle, and Alison Archer
24. Susan I. Gatti
25. Cherry, Unfinished Business: Race, Class, and the American Empire
Lawrence Phillips
26. Sex and Science in Jack London’s America
Layne Parish Craig
27. From Atavistic Gutter-Wolves to Anglo-Saxon Wolf’s: Evolution and Technology in Jack London’s Urban Industrial Modernity
Agnes Malinowska
28. A Bestiary from the Age of Jack London
Michael Lundblad
29. Paul Durica
30. Jack London and Physical Culture
Paul Baggett
31. The Sovereign Logic of Jack London’s Sea Stories
Hank Scotch
32. Howard Horwitz
33. Jack London, Suffering, and the Ideal of Masculine Toughness
Leonard Cassuto
34. Women’s Rights, Women’s Lives
Donna Campbell
35. Blurred Lines: The Illustration of Jack London
Amy Tucker

Ten little-known facts about Frank Norris for his birthday

picture_of_f-_norrisHappy birthday to Frank Norris (March 5, 1870-October 25, 1902)!

Reading through the reminiscences in Frank Norris Remembered, edited by Jesse S. Crisler and Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. (University of Alabama Press, 2013) has given me a different perspective from the more formal portrait than McElrath and Crisler provide in their comprehensive biography (University of Illinois Press, 2006).  Some of these might be familiar to Norris fans, but seeing the original sources from Franklin Walker’s interviews (the source of his biography on Norris) makes them new again, especially the frivolous details that enlarge our perspective of him.

screen-shot-2017-03-05-at-11-15-03-am1. Norris was fascinated by medieval life, especially armaments and implements of war. His friend Ernest C. Peixotto, a professional illustrator who (six degrees of Edith Wharton alert!) also illustrated Wharton’s Italian Backgrounds, told Walker that Norris “started to paint a huge historical picture of the ‘Battle of Crécy'” (26).

2. Indeed, his first publication was Yvernelle (1892), “a long romantic poem à la Sir Walter Scott” (27). He was either proud of this effort or tried to gather all the copies and burn them, according to various accounts.

3. In Professor Joseph LeConte’s class at Berkeley, Norris wrote a “limerick on Geology” (82): 

There once was an ichthyosaurus,
Who live[d] when the earth was all porous
When he first heard his name,
He fainted from shame,
And departed a long time before us.

tf138nb1v5-fid24. Norris made jokes about his wife’s bad singing (which she shares with Travis Bessemer, the heroine of Blix):  “Marriage. Returned to apartment for the honeymoon. They sang with banjo. He let her sing. Said he would let her sing as often as he got married” (144).

5. Norris was not a paragon of organization: “One of the Phi Gamma boys told me–when we were no longer freshmen–that Frank was pretty terrible about keeping appointments–so utterly undependable that it took a lot of patience not to blame him; but nobody ever did blame him, or resent it at all. He had no capacity for keeping money, so they just looked out for him and loaned it when necessary . . . . “(77).

novelist_frank_norris6. Notoriously bad at mathematics, Norris had a friend rig up a game to teach him about the commodities market. As George D. Moulson remembers it, “I recall he came down to Wall street, met me and asked if I would be willing to assist him by coming up to his apartment while he was writing this book he intended to call The Pit dealing with a corner in wheat and help him get the details accurate. . . . We then rigged up a sort of thermometer arrangement on the steam heater, whereby the fluctuations, in cents, halves, quarters and eighths would be shown and we had the market fluctuating as it would during an active day in the pit” (186).

7. Norris was more intellectually than athletically inclined: “He was indisposed toward any violent exercise and not overly strong. [College friend Harry M. Wright] Remembers him in black tights in the gym; not much muscle on parallel bars, looked like a great spider. . . . Only sport was fencing and he was pretty good at it” (109).

8. As a writer, he was intense and focused, as his San Francisco friend Bruce Porter recalls: “He was a ‘tiger’ for names–a tiger crouched to spring. While he waited for an incident that, as he put it, ‘belonged to him.’ When you produced it, it set him on fire. He grasped the bone in his jaws, and retired with it into the lively solitude of his realistic imagination, built up the skeleton, clothed it with flesh, and the man walked, in that peculiar world of Frank’s brain, as a reality” (149).

9. He prized freshness over multiple revisions: [College roommate Seymour Waterhouse] “tried to advise him to revise his work a little more carefully but Frank maintained that that tended to kill the freshness of it” (101).

jnorrisfbk110. Norris’s early death resulted at least in part by his refusal to believe that he was seriously ill from appendicitis. His wife Jeannette had just had her appendix removed, and Norris, experiencing acute indigestion on October 20, apparently did not believe that lightning would strike twice in the same family, even though he knew that in cases of appendicitis, swift action is best.  According the San Francisco Chronicle as related in McElrath & Crisler’s biography, Norris “refused to believe his ailment of so serious a nature as to warrant . . . radical treatment.” Feeling slightly better, he ignored his surgeon’s advice and decided to wait, with the result that peritonitis set in, “with gangrene and perforation of the appendix” (428-29).  Norris died on Saturday morning, 25 October 1902, with his wife and his mother by his side. He was 32 years old.

 

 

MLA Humanities Commons

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Figure 1. Humanities Commons offers you space to post your work and also a peaceful, forest-like atmosphere if you choose that header.

The Site Formerly Known As “MLA Commons” is now Humanities Commons (http://hcommons.org). It’s a user-friendly space to share your work rather than at Academia.edu.

I had already moved my work to the WSU Research Exchange and had asked whether links from research exchanges could be used in MLA Commons; Kathleen Fitzpatrick had tweeted back “not yet,” so maybe this new iteration will have that as a possibility.

In the meantime, I’m uploading my work–well, all that it’s legal to post–into the CORE section of Humanities Commons as well as in the WSU Research Exchange. As with all new spaces and technologies, there’s some duplication of effort (think about the evolution from vinyl to cassette to CD to downloads in music).  It’s a little like Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black seeing a newer, smaller CD format and saying, “Guess I’ll have to buy The White Album again.”

It’ll be worth it, though, for the possibility of sharing work in a broader space.

#Hamilton’s Eliza, subjunctive mood

mrs_elizabeth_schuyler_hamilton_web-jpg__800x600_q85_cropAbout #Hamilton and grammar, not American literature.

When you listen to the soundtrack of Hamilton repeatedly, features that you hadn’t noticed at first leap out at you.

For example, in “Guns and Ships” Burr sings, “He’s constantly confusing, confounding the British henchmen / Everyone give it up for America’s favorite fighting Frenchman!”

marquis_de_lafayette_2

America’s favorite fightin’ Frenchman

Chorus: “Lafayette!

Lafayette:I’m takin this horse by the reins makin’
Redcoats redder with bloodstains

And so on.

Rising Notes Ask the Question

The chorus repeats this five times, always on rising notes (I don’t know the musical term for it), as though asking a question.

Falling Notes Give the Reply

Then, when Lafayette says “there’s someone else we need” and Washington says, “I know,” there’s this:

Washington and Chorus: “Hamilton!”

This is also repeated 5 times and interspersed with the reasons, but in a series of falling notes.

We’ve heard the question and the first part (“Lafayette!”) in a series of rising notes.

hamilton.jpg

“You called? I’ve got this.” Image from thefederalistpapers.org

The falling notes and the repetition tell us that Hamilton is the answer.

Eliza, Subjunctive and Indicative Moods

Eliza’s lyrics, too, are carefully constructed. Her character is all about the present, as she constantly reminds Hamilton. Her key phrase is  “look around, look around, at how lucky we are to be alive right now” in contrast to Washington’s and Hamilton’s simultaneous past and future perspectives (“history has its eyes on you” for Washington; “this is the only way I can protect my legacy” from “Hurricane” for Hamilton).

In Act I, even without the subject of triple uncertainty in “Helpless”–she’s not sure first what Angelica’s going to do, next what Hamilton’s going to do, and finally what her father’s going to do–her speech patterns show this uncertainty.

Eliza lives in the subjunctive mood, which uses “if,” “should,” “could” and other such words to express  a wish or condition contrary to fact. Think about all the times she expresses herself this way:

In “That Would Be Enough”:

And if this child
Shares a fraction of your smile
Or a fragment of your mind, look out world!

In “Non-Stop”:

And if your wife could share a fraction of your time
If I could grant you peace of mind
Would that be enough?

By Act II, however, she’s past it. In “Take a Break,” she isn’t tentative about asking Hamilton to “go upstate,” and by the time of “Burn,” she uses the subjunctive differently.

She recalls the past (“when you were mine”), scorns the idea of a legacy (“you and your words obsessed with your legacy”) by burning his letters, and uses one more subjunctive, not so tentatively this time, in the last line of the song:

“I hope that you burn.”

By her last songs, “Best of Wives and Best of Women” and “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” Eliza’s totally in the indicative mood rather than the subjunctive. Her verbs are active and direct rather than tentative:

“Best of Wives and Best of Women”

“Well, I’m going back to sleep.”

“Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”

“I raise funds”

“I speak out against slavery”

“I established the first private orphanage in New York City.” [this is the lyric as printed, although it sounds as though she’s saying “establish,” which would make the tenses more consistent.]

Hamilton has gotten a lot of press and praise for its innovative lyrics, its allusions, its uses of various musical forms, and so on, but it’s clear that it keeps that same level of consistency and innovation right down to its use of grammar.

What made Aaron Burr AARON BURR? Edmund Wilson and Harriet Beecher Stowe have some answers.

burrWhat made Aaron Burr become Aaron Burr?  Not just in 1804, but before and after?  I can think of no historical figure for whom Milton’s phrase “sense of injur’d merit” applies more strongly–and yet Milton, in Paradise Lost, was talking about the motivation of Satan.

The Burr that emerges in Gore Vidal’s novel (Burr, 1973) is supremely cynical, which sounds close to the mark, as does the outraged, haughty, secretive, and slippery Burr that Ron Chernow describes in Alexander Hamilton. I haven’t come to sections dealing with Burr in Joanne Freeman’s Affairs of Honor  yet, or finished Nancy Isenberg’s Fallen Founder.  Since I’m not a historian, Burr remains for me a fascinating literary character, and a tragic one.

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A. Burr and his Memoirs.

Matthew Davis’s  Memoirs of Aaron Burr (1836, 1855) (free at Archive.org) includes a raft of letters portraying Burr as the brave young officer, something of a martinet but a rational one. Among the interesting pieces there is a letter from Gen. Charles Lee, who confirms a Hamilton lyric by writing to Burr in October 1778, after he had been sentenced at his court-martial:

“As I have no idea that a proper reparation will be made to my injured reputation, it is my intent, whether the sentence is reversed or not reversed, to resign my commission, retire to Virginia, and learn to hoe tobacco, which I find is the best school to form a consummate general” (135).

As Thomas A. Foster writes in Common-Place, however, Davis was not a sympathetic biographer, at least where Burr’s relationships with women were concerned; that would wait for the later biographer James Parton, perhaps better known to most 19th-century Americanists as the husband of Sara Willis Parton (Fanny Fern).

screen-shot-2016-11-27-at-9-00-46-am

Burr as an older man, behind a tissue mask in the frontispiece of The Private Journal of Aaron Burr.

But The Private Journal of Aaron Burr (1903; free at HathiTrust) already gives a less elevated picture of Burr, and in his own words. It’s a book that could be subtitled Down and Out in Paris, London, New York, &c.  It’s difficult to reconcile the man of such intellectual gifts and bravery during the siege of Quebec and the Revolution, who (maybe, kind of, sort of–but acquitted!) thought about establishing a Western empire, with the man we see in his daily life drinking a little too much and seeking out some cream of tartar punch for the hangover, visiting his tailor, ordering a chess set, and so on. The reader can only think about the waste of talents that this represents.

Which brings me back to the original question: why did you do these things, Burr? Chernow makes a good case about why the duel with Hamilton occurred, but so much of the rest seems inexplicable.

hbstowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe explains it all, but she had a soft spot for bad boys like Burr, according to Wilson.

Fearless as always, Harriet Beecher Stowe enters the fray in The Minister’s Wooing  (1859) and Oldtown Folks, by presenting two fictional versions of Aaron Burr. In The Minister’s Wooing, Senator Burr is brought up short by the memory of his mother as his better nature struggles with his darker side:

Burr was practised in every act of gallantry; he had made womankind a study: he never saw a beautiful face and form without a sort of restless desire to experiment upon it, and try his power over the interior inhabitant. But just at this moment something streamed into his soul from those blue, earnest eyes, which brought back to his mind what pious people had so often told him of his mother—the beautiful and early-sainted Esther Burr.

In Oldtown Folks, Burr is “Ellery Davenport,” grandson, as Burr was, of Jonathan Edwards. Davenport challenges his grandfather’s doctrine of predestination and points to the sorry state of Christianity as it is practiced to support his point:

Taking the mass of human beings in the world at this hour, they are in such circumstances, that, so far from it ‘s being reasonable to expect the morals of Christianity of them, they are not within sight of ordinary human decencies. . . . That ‘s what I call visible election and reprobation, get rid of it as we may or can.”

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Edmund Wilson, who in person could be as terrifying as this picture.

As the critic Edmund Wilson sums up Stowe’s argument:

Her point is that Jonathan Edwards, in his overweening spiritual pride, had put the Calvinistic qualifications for Election and Salvation so high, at a level so unattainable by the ordinary man–this matter had been much on Harriet’s mind ever since her brother Charles had been driven to despair by reading the treatise by Jonathan Edwards–that Aaron Burr, also the son of a clergyman and brought up in his grandfather’s shadow, had from the start been discouraged with religion and led by a powerful intellect completely to discard morality in furthering his own career.  This picture of Aaron Burr is thus a part of Mrs. Stowe’s expose of the pernicious effects of Calvinism (Patriotic Gore 49).

Wilson adds, “The truth is that this sort of character–sophisticated, clever and fearless–rather piques and excites Mrs. Stowe” (49), as she was later to show in The True Story of Lady Byron (1869), where she shows sympathy for Lord Byron despite his misdeeds.

The complexities of human nature are such that no one thing can explain Burr. But Stowe’s (and Wilson’s explication of Stowe’s answer) give the reason for Burr’s behavior in logic that my students often point out when we study Edwards: if you’re already predestined not to be saved, why be good?

 

Ahab’s backstory, Hollywood-style (1926)

sea_beast_film_still_6In which Ahab acquires a love interest, a last name, and a half-brother, not in that order.

The Sea Beast, an adaptation of Moby-Dick, was a huge hit for John Barrymore and for Warner Brothers in 1926. The cast list does not show Ishmael, but it does show Ahab’s half-brother and rival for the affections of Esther Harper, “a minister’s beautiful daughter,” played by Dolores Costello, soon to be Mrs. John Barrymore, and, much later, grandmother of Drew Barrymore.

The Sea Beast retains characters such as Queequeg and Fedallah, the latter played by Sojin Kamiyana, although Winnifred Eaton Reeve (Onoto Watanna) had described his part as being a “coolie” in a 1928 interview with him. 

In Moby-Dick, Ahab explains his motivation to Starbuck as follows:

All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event–in the living act, the undoubted deed–there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.

But Warner Brothers, probably correctly deducing that something a little less metaphysical and “inscrutable” would be likely to bring more patrons into the theater, went with something more familiar to audiences: a love triangle, a vengeful brother,  and a happy ending in which Ahab gets over that obsession with striking the sun if it insulted him and all that.

AFI Catalog Description:

Ahab Ceeley and his half brother, Derek, are rivals for the hand of Esther Harper, a minister’s beautiful daughter. Because Esther favors his brother, Derek pushes Ahab overboard on a whaling trip; Ahab’s leg is chewed off by Moby Dick, a white whale; and he returns to Esther a broken and embittered man. Ahab, believing that Esther no longer loves him, becomes captain of a whaler and obsessively sets out to kill Moby Dick. Ahab learns of Derek’s treachery and, after killing the whale, kills Derek. Ahab return to New Bedford and, his obsession gone, settles down with Esther.

(Incidentally, I pity the poor high school students in 1926  who thought they’d save a little time by basing their book reports on the film version.)

You can see a clip from The Sea Beast here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VVKsRIvSrkk

barrymoremobydickThe movie proved so popular that Warner Brothers made it again, four years later, in what people did not yet call a “reboot” of a “franchise.”

Here’s John Barrymore again, with all the original added features–love interest, vengeful brother–and an added mustache. Queequeg is played by the famous African American actor Noble Johnson, but Fedallah (and Sojin Kamiyana) is gone from the cast list. The love interest, now played by Joan Bennett instead of Dolores Costello, is still a minister’s daughter, this time the child of Father Mapple, who gives the famous sermon early in the novel.

In this 1930 ad from Motion Picture Classic, the film was still sporting the book’s title, Moby Dick (minus the hyphen in Moby-Dick) and some semblance of its original plot:

“Can he win revenge against this awful enemy–or will he perish in the giant maw that has been the graveyard of a hundred men before him?” There’s even a pod of spouting whales, though they’re dwarfed by John Barrymore’s famous profile.

The thing is, though, that in both these versions the white whale is clearly an instrument (Ahab’s “agent”) and not the entity responsible for the action (Ahab’s “principal”). He’s not to blame for taking off Ahab’s leg; it’s the brother’s fault for pushing Ahab overboard. The white whale acts in accordance with its nature, as Mark Twain would say.  Does this render Starbuck’s statement that Ahab’s desire for revenge is “blasphemous” any more or less true? Does Ahab’s quest make more sense if the backstory is a love rivalry?

If you want to challenge yourself with some questions on Moby-Dick, here are some to get you started: https://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/mddq.htm

Read the New York Times review of The Sea Beast: http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9E00E7DA1231EE3ABC4E52DFB766838D639EDE