‘Continental Divide’: 40 years ago, John Belushi played a Chicagoan easy to like, easy to believe

He brought authenticity to the role of a quick-witted Sun-Times columnist who finds love in the rugged Rockies.

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John Belushi was in the actual Chicago Sun-Times newsroom for scenes as news columnist Ernie Souchak in the 1981 film “Continental Divide.”

Universal Pictures

‘“This is a great town. It’s got everything.” – Sun-Times columnist Ernie Souchak (John Belushi), describing his beloved Chicago in “Continental Divide.”

Even in 1981, Chicago Sun-Times news columnist Ernie Souchak was something of a throwback — a pavement-pounding, notebook-wielding investigative journalist who wore a terrible porkpie hat, almost always had a cigarette dangling from his lips, could throw down drinks with the best and worst of ’em at the Billy Goat Tavern and was constantly at odds with his gruff managing editor, who also happened to be his best friend.

Souchak was a man of the people, exchanging pleasantries with the local newsstand guy, cabdrivers, sex workers and even muggers he’d encounter on the gritty streets of the Loop, as newspaper trucks zipped by bearing the slogan, “ERNIE SOUCHAK: ONE REASON PEOPLE TURN TO THE BRIGHT ONE!” Then it was off to the paper, where he’d pen columns with leads such as, “Good Afternoon, Chicago: Ald. Yablonowitz has his finger in another sticky City Hall pie …”

What a time it was, and what a character was Ernie Souchak.

When we think of John Belushi’s most memorable roles in his tragically brief movie career (just seven feature films), the one-two punch of John “Bluto” Blutarsky in “National Lampoon’s Animal House” and Joliet Jake in “The Blues Brothers” will always be mentioned first. But Belushi delivered his most authentic and grounded performance as a sardonic and cynical but big-hearted ink-stained wretch in “Continental Divide,” which hit theaters 40 years ago this month — just six months before Belushi died of a drug overdose at the Chateau Marmont hotel in West Hollywood, California, at the age of 33.

Re-watching the film is a bittersweet experience, as we delight in Belushi’s quick-witted comments and his slapstick pratfalls as well as his nimble moves, as when Souchak hangs gracefully from the back of a train and doffs his hat while saying goodbye but not farewell to the love of his life. On a much less profound but still impactful level, “Continental Divide” holds a special place in my heart, as it would only be a half-dozen years before I would be walking into the same Sun-Times newsroom (in the old, squatty building at 401 N. Wabash) featured prominently in the movie, learning the ropes from some of the great reporters and editors in the country, pounding the Flintstones-looking keyboard and learning the Atex computer system with its green-on-black lettering and its station-to-station Messaging capabilities, which we thought was pretty damn futuristic at the time.

Director Michael Apted (The “Up” documentary series, “Coal Miner’s Daughter”) and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (writer of “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” and director of such films as “The Big Chill” and “Grand Canyon”) fashioned “Continental Divide” as an homage to classic newspaper-themed screwball comedies such as “Woman of the Year” and “His Girl Friday,” with Belushi as the workaholic bachelor with outdated views of women and the wonderful Blair Brown (who looks and sounds a bit like a young Katharine Hepburn) as Dr. Nell Porter, a renowned but reclusive researcher who has been conducting studies on the endangered American bald eagle for several years in the Rocky Mountains.

Souchak almost never leaves Chicago and Nell is content to live in a remote cabin with just the magnificent peaks and the eagles and the occasional bear or mountain lion to keep her company, so how do these two even meet? Plot device! Souchak’s ongoing investigation into the criminal wrongdoings of the powerful, pinkie-ringed Ald. Yablonowitz (Val Avery) leads to a couple of corrupt cops beating him up and someone blowing up his apartment — so Souchak’s editor, Howard McDermott (Allen Garfield), tells him to get out of town for a while and pursue an interview with Nell.

OK, that’s a stretch, but we go with it. When Souchak is left stranded at Nell’s cabin high in the mountains for a two-week period until his crusty mountain guide will return and guide him to safety (Souchak would clearly die if he tried to make the trek alone), Nell reluctantly agrees to let Souchak stay with her, lest he starve to death or get eaten by a bear. When Nell discovers Souchak had planned to write a story about her, she exclaims, “Did it ever occur to you to ask permission? Of all the unmitigated, presumptuous gall!”

“Oh, there’s no call to use big words,” comes the deadpan reply.

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Ernie Souchak stays in a mountain cabin with wildlife researcher Nell Porter (Blair Brown) while attempting to interview her.

Universal Pictures

So, we have a classic fish-out-of-water adventure, with a budding romance between two opposites who have nothing in common but quickly become friends and then lovers — all within two weeks, because this is the movies. Eventually the action returns to Chicago, with more scenes shot inside the gloriously shabby Sun-Times newsroom, as well as inside the Billy Goat and at the old Chicago & Northwestern Terminal (now the Richard B. Ogilvie Transportation Center).

“Continental Divide” is not a great newspaper film on par with films such as “All the President’s Men” or “Spotlight.” For one thing, we spend as much time in the country as we do in the city. But as Souchak himself might say, it’s a damn solid picture about a damn good journalist, and there’s a helluva love story in there as well.

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