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Elmer Gantry is a fast talking, hard drinking traveling salesman who always has a risqué story and a hip flask to entertain cronies and customers alike. He is immediately taken with Sister Sharon Falconer, a lay preacher whose hellfire and damnation revivalism has attracted quite a following. Gantry uses his own quick wit and knowledge of the bible to become an indispensable part of Sister Sharon's roadshow but soon finds that his past catches up with him in the form of Lulu Bains, now a prostitute. While Gantry seeks and eventually gets forgiveness from Sharon, tragedy strikes when she finally manages to get out of her revivalist tent and opens a permanent church. Written by
Among the writers Gantry condemns in one of his sermons is Sinclair Lewis, the author of the book the film is based on. See more »
While Elmer is briefing the staff before the Zenith rally, he refers to an opening "tonight". In the next scene (presumably, on the same day or later), Jim asks Sharon if she is nervous about "opening *tomorrow* night." See more »
Scrolled before the opening credits: "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!" See more »
Elmer Gantry the novel came out in 1925 and it took 35 years to get it to the screen. But it certainly was worth the wait. The movie provided Burt Lancaster, Shirley Jones, and Richard Brooks all with Oscars and it has become a classic. But we sure view it differently 80 years after the book and 55 years after the movie debuted.
Inherit the Wind and Elmer Gantry came out in the same year and both were set in the Twenties. Both dealt with fundamentalist religion and the power it held. Both films got Oscar nominated for best film and for Best Actor for it's first billed male player.
In 1960 when you saw both films they were viewed as tales of a bygone era. Evangelists like Elmer Gantry and Sister Sharon Falconer have the kind of power that thankfully we don't give the fundamentalist community now. Even seeing film clips of Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson, they seemed quaint and old fashioned. Fortunately we'd outgrown the nonsense of that era.
But Sinclair Lewis proved to be a prophet. No one could ever have dreamed in 1960 that fundamentalist Christians would have the political power they do today. What Lewis if he were alive today would do with Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, John Hagee and the rest of that crowd would really be something. Elmer Gantry is alive and well. Some might even call it a resurrection.
And Elmer's a part that comes once in a lifetime to a player. Liar, conman, womanizer and likable on top. You've got to be a real extrovert to play that part. So Richard Brooks got perhaps one of the biggest extroverts ever to hit Hollywood.
Burt Lancaster was born to play Gantry, in fact he'd had something of a dress rehearsal in the part in The Rainmaker. During those sermon scenes, some of which are taken from Billy Sunday's actual sermons, you know he's giving out with nonsense and you still get taken in by his charm. Note the relationship between Lancaster and agnostic reporter Arthur Kennedy. Kennedy knows he's a conman, but still they get along just great.
It was a shame that Jean Simmons was neglected by the Academy for her portrayal of Sharon Falconer. Sharon is a true believer, but she's also a romantic as the real Aimee Semple McPherson was. And the woman had needs which Elmer is only too glad to fulfill.
The real Aimee was also an outrageous character herself, but I believe a decent soul at heart. During the Depression, her tabernacle set up a soup kitchen that fed thousands. In fact Anthony Quinn, growing up in Los Angeles at the time, recalled in his memoirs working for his and his family's supper as a volunteer there. Quinn had nothing but praise for Aimee, she was the difference in whether his family ate or not on many a day.
Shirley Jones got a career salvation with her Oscar winning role as Lulu Baines, prostitute who's out for vengeance. A fine singer, she came along unfortunately when musicals were winding down. That Oscar for Best Supporting Actress insured a continuing career for her.
Arthur Kennedy as the investigative reporter is whose perspective we view the film from. He'd had five trips to the Oscar World Series without a victory, might have been nice if this one had been a sixth. His is the voice of reason, of true compassion, of truth in fact the voice of Sinclair Lewis himself.
Another of Sinclair Lewis's great characters, George F. Babbitt, makes an appearance. Edward Andrews got probably his career part as Babbitt, hypocritical businessman to the max. He was as born to play Babbitt as Lancaster was to play Gantry. He could also have been given an Oscar nomination.
Elmer Gantry is a great film, a prophetic film, proving it sure can happen here.
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