Movies We Like
Based on Sinclair Lewis’s controversial, apparently dangerous 1927 novel of the same name, Elmer Gantry opens with a note from the producers warning that children should not see this film. Why all the hubbub? It’s a film about religion. More specifically it’s about a drunken, womanizing, two-bit salesman (Burt Lancaster) who hooks up with a true believer, a lady minister (Jean Simmons), and they become a big-time preaching duo. But things get ugly when his lusty old ways come back to haunt him, the con gets ugly. Yes, keep the children away.
Lewis’s massive book was apparently banned in some parts of the country (can you guess which?) for questioning the true faith of those who are worshipped for their religious zealism. Based somewhat on the famous Pentecostal evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, apparently the film version is only a small fraction of the book. I would guess that, though controversial in its own right, the film's “controversial” aspects may have been watered down - 1960’s Hollywood was still in the last days of control by the Hayes Office which had the power to censor material it found offensive, luckily for art’s sake that power was ebbing.
Lancaster plays Elmer Gantry, a charismatic but lecherous near-hobo, more or less a conman. One day he stumbles upon one of those big revivalist church tents and is struck by the magnetism of its star Sister Sharon Falconer (Simmons). He manages to leach his way into her entourage and eventually becomes her partner and then her lover, though those around her can smell his con, especially a pesky non-believer reporter Jim Lefferts (Arthur Kennedy, who played a similar character in Lawrence of Arabia). When Gantry is caught in a compromising position with a former flame, the naughty Lulu Bains (Shirley Jones, sexy and far from her matronly role as Shirley Partridge on The Partridge Family), the conman is out conned and all hell breaks loose. Eventually an apocalyptic fire in the tent brings everything back down to earth.
Elmer Gantry’s controversial statements about religion and evangelism are murky and frankly not that contentious. Sister Sharon seems to have good intentions, she’s admirable, her biggest mistake is naively trusting Gantry and falling for his snake oil charm. Maybe what had everyone all agitated was that fact that such an obvious liar like Gantry was able to dupe the flocks. Are all these folks preaching fire and brimstone actually just out of work door-to-door salesmen? Taking the act from the backwoods to the big cities is what brought in the really big money. What makes Elmer Gantry’s story particularly fascinating is Gantry; does he begin to buy into his own scam? Is he actually converted or does he just begin to buy into what success has wrought him?
The heart of the film, what makes it utterly watchable, is the amazing epic performance by Burt Lancaster (he won an Oscar for it). Lancaster was always a physical specimen, a one-time circus performer, all of his performances seem to spring from his body, not his head (even in a non physical role like the usually immobile J.J. Hunsecker in the brilliant Sweet Smell Of Success). Here Lancaster has the perfect role with Gantry to fit his big mannerisms and dangerous charm. You can see the wheels turning in Lancaster’s smile and his sermons. Like Gantry, Lancaster was an actor who always strived for more, pushing himself deep out of his comfort zone and usually succeeding. He was a giant star, but he never swayed from controversial material or unlikable characters. He was also a risk taker, willing to work with new directors and on international productions. Along with one of his last, Atlantic City, Elmer Gantry is the signature performance of his major filmography.
Director Richard Brooks had an interesting career, though many of his films didn’t work, like Lancaster he often challenged himself as well as audiences. In Cold Blood and Elmer Gantry may be his two masterpieces, but in 20-something years he knocked out a number of memorable flicks in different genres, including Blackboard Jungle, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, The Professionals, and the underrated Western Bite The Bullet. Along with John Huston’s Wise Blood, Elmer Gantry may be the best film about evangelism. Huston was able to make his film for late 1970s audiences with Flannery O'Connor’s novel making for much creepier source material. Brooks was working in a much less open Hollywood, in a more repressed era. And even with those obstacles to overcome he still managed to make a film that forces audiences to question their own ideas about faith, but please for the love of god, keep the children from seeing this one.
Elmer Gantry won three Oscars for: Best Actor (Burt Lancaster), Best Supporting Actress (Shirley Jones), and Best Adapted Screenplay. It was nominated for two additional Oscars for Best Picture and Best Drama or Comedy Score.