Filmsite Movie 

Elmer Gantry (1960)
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Elmer Gantry (1960) is an entertaining melodrama with memorable performances, from writer/director Richard Brooks. The 146 minute United Artists drama was the controversial telling of part of Sinclair Lewis' 1927 satirical muckraker novel regarding the charismatically engaging, but scandalous Midwestern salesman turned evangelist preacher in the 1920s.

The film's taglines emphasized the title character's revivalist fervor - and the continuing struggle between the dichotomous and contested parts of the human soul (light and dark, sin and salvation, heaven and hell, angelic and devilish, redemption vs. damnation, the spirit world vs. worldly desires, sainthood vs. prostitution, etc.):

  • If there was a dollar to be made - Gantry would make it... If there was a soul to be saved - Gantry would save it...
  • Nobel Prize Winner Sinclair Lewis' Bold Novel of Passion and Damnation Now Bursts Full-Life Across the Screen!
  • Tell 'em, Gantry... save 'em from sin... lead 'em to salvation... tell 'em about everything - but not about your whiskey and your women!

The film brings together elements of religion, sex and money, and accurately foretells the actual real-life scandals of many tele-evangelists in the last part of the century, including Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Bakker, and Oral Roberts, as well as other prominent evangelists in the early and middle of the 20th century (Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson, and even Billy Graham). Lancaster had earlier played a similar manipulative huckster in the film The Rainmaker (1956).

The film was very popular and a box-office hit - on a budget of $3 million, it grossed $11.3 million dollars. It was shot in the uncharacteristic and unfashionable aspect ratio of 1.33, in protest to the current prevailing trend for CinemaScope features.

The film was nominated for five Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Score (Andre Previn)) and won three: Best Actor for Burt Lancaster (his sole Oscar win of four Best Actor nominations), Best Adapted Screenplay (Richard Brooks), and Best Supporting Actress (Shirley Jones with her sole Oscar nomination, known for her squeaky-clean role in TV's The Partridge Family). Jones had previously been known only for her 'good-girl' roles in Oklahoma! (1955), Carousel (1956), and April Love (1957) (opposite Pat Boone), and won an Oscar for her "fallen woman" role.

In more recent years, director Richard Pearce's Leap of Faith (1992), starring Steve Martin and Debra Winger, has been compared to Elmer Gantry's plot-line.

Plot Synopsis

The film opens with an upward-scrolling preface or title-card disclaimer - to waylay expected fears that the film (considered unsuitable for the big-screen) would cause resentment (and possibly cause it to be banned for its offensive nature) because of its caricatured portrayal of a degenerate revivalist religious figure:

"We believe that certain aspects of Revivalism can bear examination -- that the conduct of some revivalists makes a mockery of the traditional beliefs and practices of organized Christianity! We believe that everyone has a right to worship according to his conscience, but --Freedom of Religion is not license to abuse the faith of the people! However, due to the highly controversial nature of this film, we strongly urge you to prevent impressionable children from seeing it!"

After the opening credits with a stark and stylized image of a tilted cross (and then a more traditional wooden cross casting a long dark shadow), a close-up of the first textual page of Sinclair Lewis' novel is then portrayed, beginning with the first paragraph: "Chapter 1 - Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk. He leaned against the bar at the Old Home Sample Room, the most gilded and urbane saloon in Cato, Missouri, and requested the bartender to join him in 'The Good Old Summer Time,' the waltz of the day...." A miniature Nativity crèche (revealed to be sitting at the end of a long speakeasy bar counter) sets the time period of the year - Christmas.

In the Midwest of the 1920s, in the small-town Missouri bar, Elmer Gantry (Burt Lancaster) is portrayed as a traveling salesman-huckster who sells shoeshines and vacuum cleaners. Con-man Gantry is telling risque jokes to a table of other similarly-employed gents. He is lustful, coarse, loud, forceful ambitious, motivated by an easy dollar, golden-tongued, and often drunk. The film continually questions the real character of Gantry - was he just a charlatan or a saving saint, or a combination of both?

His first memorable appearance on screen in the speakeasy demonstrates his high-energy eloquence with words in an impromptu Christmas-Eve sermon. He is prompted to deliver these words after a female Salvation Army worker (Mary Adams Hayes) asks for donations, and one of the customers rejects her: "Religion don't belong in any speakeasy." Gantry responds to shame the non-giving customers to encourage them to contribute to the charity so as not to leave her "empty-handed" - while he implies that religion and sex go together: ("This joint is the home of fine bourbon and fast women, and we need plenty of religion to keep 'em both in line. So, come on, folks..."):

Hey! Hey, Lord? Can you hear me up there, Jesus? You didn't think we'd forget your birthday, did you, boy? There you are, Jesus. And if I had any more, you'd be welcome to it....The Bible says: 'Never let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.' What's your beef, mister? You ashamed of bein' a Christian? Oh, I see, you think, uh, religion is for suckers and easy marks and molly-coddlers, huh? You think Jesus was some kind of a sissy, eh? Well, let me tell you, Jesus wouldn't be afraid to walk into this joint or any other speakeasy to preach the gospel. Jesus had guts. He wasn't afraid of the whole Roman army. (Pointing to a picture) Think that quarterback's hot stuff? Well, let me tell you, Jesus would have made the best little All-American quarterback in the history of football. Jesus was a real fighter - the best little scrapper, pound for pound, you ever saw. And why, gentlemen? Love, gentlemen. Jesus had love in both fists! And what is love? Love is the mornin' and the evenin' star. It shines on the cradle of the Babe. Hear ye, sinners. Love is the inspiration of poets and philosophers. Love is the voice of music. I'm talkin' about divine love - not carnal love.

For the most part, Gantry attracts only the attention of a red-dressed female (Marjorie Stapp) at the bar, and she accompanies him back to his hotel room for the night. The next day, the penniless Gantry hops a train to avoid paying his hotel bill. Later in the film, after having his shoes stolen by tramps in a freight train car, the opportunistic Gantry views an outdated poster-billboard sign next to railroad tracks advertising revival meetings: "Sister Sharon Falconer can save you." He is drawn to gospel-singers in a nearby all-black church, is taken in as a dirty hobo (after ardently singing in the congregation), and soon is back on his feet as a traveling salesman hustling vacuum cleaners.

A second time, he spots a poster advertising the pretty, touring tent ministry evangelist-healer and attends one of her prayer meeting services. He becomes infatuated with the beautiful, pure, and dedicated Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons) - costumed at first as a simple farming milkmaid to convey her pastoral innocence. (Later, she is usually portrayed in a dazzling white angelic costume during revivals.) Both are charmed with each other, as she compliments him: "You're amusing and you smell like a real man."

He joins her tent ministry, and becomes her genuine lover after sweet-talking her to have sex with him:

One minute you're a howling banshee, the next, you're cold potatoes. I don't understand anything at all, but Shara, I worship you...It's you I want, Shara. No one else. I want you so bad, I'm in pain half the time. I'd like to tear those holy wings off you, make a real woman out of you. I'd show you what heaven's like - no golden stairways or harp music or silvery clouds. Just ecstasy, comin' and goin'....Every woman competes with every other woman for every man. It's the truth, Shara. You want it. You want it as much as I do. You want it with me. When are you gonna make up your mind to take it?

[Note: Sister Falconer's character was based upon real-life Canadian-born radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson headquartered in Los Angeles, CA in the 1920s.]

Exhibiting tremendous showmanship, Brother Gantry, with rolled up shirt-sleeves, preaches hellfire and brimstone, thumps his Bible, performs miracles, and leads repentant sinners to conversion in the Bible Belt tent meetings:

Sin. Sin, Sin. You're all sinners. You're all doomed to perdition. You're all goin' to the painful, stinkin', scaldin', everlastin' tortures of a fiery hell, created by God for sinners, unless, unless, unless you repent.

Gantry turns into an evangelizing, Bible Belt revivalist preacher, recognized by cynical reporter Jim Lefferts (Arthur Kennedy), an H.L. Mencken disciple, as having exceptional qualities:

I've heard many a powerful Bible-walloper, but you not only put the fear of God into them, you scared the hell out of 'em. And the way you strung certain words together - "America, home, mother. Heaven, hell... Love, hate, sin."

He also preaches against the evils of booze:

But as long as I got a foot, I'll kick booze. And, as long as I got a fist, I'll punch it. And, as long as I got a tooth, I'll bite it. And, when I'm old and gray and toothless and bootless, I'll gum it till I go to heaven and booze goes to hell.

His popularity helps to increase her fame and fortune, and she is able to realize her dream of building her own tabernacle of worship.

In an act of revenge, one of his old jilted girlfriends, minister's daughter-turned-prostitute Lulu Bains (Shirley Jones) sets him up with her pimp and frames him with photographs taken in a compromising situation. She uses the photos as blackmail to ruin his reputation and turn the public against him. At one point earlier in the film, she remembers how Gantry had seduced and violated her when she was 'saved' as a teenager, when asked if Gantry could save anybody:

Can he? Ha, ha, ha, ha! Can he!? Anywhere, anytime. In a tent, standin' up, layin' down, or any other way. And he's got plenty of ways....Sister, I was saved by him way back in Schoenheim, Kansas. "Love... love is the mornin' and the evenin' star." "And what is love? Not the carnal, but the divine love!" Oh, he gave me special instructions back of the pulpit Christmas Eve. He got to howlin' "Repent! Repent!" and I got to moanin' "Save me! Save me!" And the first thing I knew, he rammed the fear of God into me so fast I never heard my old man's footsteps! The next thing I knew, I was out in the cold, hard snow in my bare little soul.

Although Gantry is later vindicated and cleared of morals charges, and his reputation is restored, he still jeopardizes the ambitions of Sister Falconer's ministry.

The new tabernacle opens, but Sister Falconer, after miraculously curing a deaf man in her audience during a faith healing, tragically dies in a blazing tent fire set by a carelessly-tossed cigarette. Almost mesmerized by the flames and her newfound power, Sister Falconer begs the fleeing crowds and Gantry (who attempts a rescue) to remain calm and faithfully trust in God during the conflagration, and then perishes when she runs back into the burning tent that collapses onto her.

The next morning, the evangelizing Gantry leads the crowd in the singing of a gospel spiritual-song: ("I'm on my way, up to Canaan land"). When asked if he will carry on Sister Sharon's work in the lucrative revivalist business, Gantry quotes scripture to explain how experiences have matured him, and why he will not continue and run the new proposed "bigger" tent-tabernacle that would be rebuilt:

When I was a child, I spake as a child. I understood as a child. When I became a man, I put away childish things. St. Paul. First Corinthians. Thirteen eleven.

Unflappable, he exits with the film's final line of dialogue: "So long, Bill" (spoken to Sister Falconer's manager William Morgan (Dean Jagger)) and walks off down the pier with a half-smile on his face, as the film ends.