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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.
And there was light---9/10.
All you need to know about the character of Elmer Gantry is neatly summed up in the first 10 minutes of the film. The film opens as we see Gantry holding court around a table in a bar, telling jokes and anecdotes of sexual conquests one minute, and then the next minute is helping out two wayward parishioners by passing the hat around the bar and preaching in earnest the word of God. Lancaster plays out the duality in the role of Gantry as everyman/ preacher brilliantly throughout the film. We're witness to his meteoric rise within the ranks of the religious road show, we see his stumbles within those ranks and his eventual fall from popularity to an even more impossible grace under fire (literally), but most importantly we see the ability of his character to serve both his rise and fall in ways truly unexpected.
Gantry finds that there are many who will listen to him wax eloquent on the bible. But when Gantry sees Sister Sharon Falconer (as played by Jean Simmons) he forgets about getting closer to the lord and decides to ingratiate himself into her 'inner circle'. Gantry can see that the 'old time religion show' is a soul saver on Sunday, but quite a moneymaker on Monday. There are 'two very different' Gantry's, the one who has a lifetime of sexual anecdotes and the other who's true love is for the bible. What we are not in store for is the third Gantry; the one in love with Elmer Gantry and his own voice. In any case, Gantry sees a golden opportunity to satisfy all three Gantry's and he goes for it. Through his ability to con and sweet talk his way to the top, Gantry makes all of the right friends and maneuvers himself to a spot underneath Sister Sharon Falconer.
Gantry's fall comes in the form of Lulu Baines (as played by Shirley Jones), a prostitute with a past history with Gantry. As Gantry's popularity on the 'road show' circuit starts to hit its zenith, Baines appears into Gantry's life once again as she sets up Gantry for blackmail. How Gantry deals with Baines and the loss of trust from Sister Sharon is one of the best moments from the film. And although her time on screen doesn't come close to matching that of both Lancaster and Simmons, it is the performance of Jones in one scene that practically steals the show. Jones' speech to the ladies in the brothel about Gantry "Ramming the fear of God so fast" into her was exhilaratingly fun and mildly erotic. I would think it was largely this scene that got her noticed by the Academy in 1960.
However great Lancaster is as Gantry (Oscar winning performance) and spectacular Jones is as Baines (another Oscar winner), let us not forget how easy it would have been for this movie to have THREE Oscar WINNERS!!! Yes, Jean Simmons was robbed by the Academy that year. I think there are at least three reasons as to why Jean Simmons was not given the Oscar that year. One is the brutally lame ending to the movie. Sister Sharon is left to walk about the fiery inferno of her newly built church, while everyone around her is knocking her to the ground trying to escape. Sister Sharon is oblivious to human stampedes and is more concerned in urging everyone to remain calm. A performance that must not have been lost on John Landis when he made Kevin Bacon reprise it in 'Animal House' some 18 years later (sans the fire). It was a shame to see her babbling like an idiot while certain death surrounded her. That's one reason, but the other two reasons are probably more to the truth. You see, Jean Simmons wasn't the only actress who can claim to have been robbed on Oscar night, so could Shirley Maclaine. The Oscar could have gone to either one, but if it had gone to Jean Simmons, The Academy would've had a hard time giving any award to the 'The Apartment' or its director Billy Wilder. How could 'Elmer Gantry' win three of the four main awards yet not walk away with the Best Picture? It's also been said the Academy felt bad for Elizabeth Taylor as she was not only recovering from the recent death of her husband, Michael Todd, but also that she had just needed an emergency tracheotomy only weeks before the awards. However, one point should be clear, Elizabeth Taylor never should have won the Oscar over the performances that year from Simmons or Maclaine.
Another performer from the movie who gives a great performance is Arthur Kennedy as Jim Lefferts. Lefferts is the skeptical newsman who follows the 'road show' waiting to see a miracle or perhaps to see many a false prophet fall. One scene that stands out is the scene where Lefferts is dictating an article on the exploits of Lancaster and Simmons' religious road show. While he is dictating he is also absent-mindedly sharpening a pencil. As Lefferts comments become to take on more of a cynical tone, the pencil in his hand also becomes sharper. Once Lefferts is through with his thought, the pencil has been sharpened to a fine point and his thoughts are ready for print. He writes, "Is it a church, is it a religion or is it a circus sideshow complete with freaks, magic and rabble rousing?
This is a fine film with a slightly disappointing ending. I can't accept that the errant fling of a cigarette can flash through the heavens like a message from God, but if ever a bolt of lightning was captured onto the silver screen, it was the bolt from Burt Lancaster as Elmer Gantry. 9/10.
"Elmer Gantry" is an amazing film that does not seem dated at all,
having lost none of its bite or appeal with the passing of time. Taken
from the classic Sinclair Lewis novel of the same name, director
Richard Brooks garnered an Oscar for Best Screenplay for his
adaptation, and Burt Lancaster won his sole Best Actor Oscar for his
performance as Elmer Gantry. Gantry is an over-the-top opportunistic
traveling salesman who teams up with evangelist Sister Sharon Falconer
(Jean Simmons) to promote religion in 1920's America. Gantry turns out
to be the perfect publicity compliment to Sister Sharon, who, unlike
him, is a true believer. Where she is quiet and gentle with her manner
of preaching, he is all fire and brimstone, literally throwing himself
about the audience and inflaming them into repentance.
Burt Lancaster commands the screen: all flashing teeth, athletic energy, charisma, and wild hair, using his own physical prowess to great advantage. The angelic and lovely Jean Simmons, who had legions of adoring male fans when she was in her ethereal prime, portrays Sister Sharon (loosely based on a well-known real-life revivalist of the early 1920's, Aimee Semple McPherson, about whom I'd heard from my grandmother) in a manner reminiscent of her character in "Spartacus" - she was the perfect choice for this role, as was Lancaster for his.
Shirley Jones was awarded the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her lively portrayal of prostitute Lulu Bains, whose past history with Gantry comes back to haunt him, with some of the best lines in the film - gleefully laughing as she dances about a room full of her fellow prostitutes, she recounts that "He rammed the fear of God into me so fast I never heard my old man's footsteps!" Watching Burt Lancaster in his prime use his athletic ability (he was a circus acrobat before he became an actor) and physical grace helps make his performance truly electrifying. And he also manages to believably evolve Elmer Gantry from loud-mouthed salesman to a sympathetic and honest human being over the course of the film.
The top-notch supporting cast includes Arthur Kennedy, Patti Page, Dean Jagger, and John McIntire.
For some reason Richard Brooks seemed to think of himself as the man
best suited to turning great novels and plays into films, but if the
results were at best entertaining ("The Brothers Karamazov", "Cat on a
hot tin roof") they tended to fall far short of the originals. If
"Elmer Gantry" worked better than most was largely due to Brooks
ability to tell a rattling good yarn at a cracking pace and to the
performances of a superb cast.
Burt Lancaster seemed born to play the role of the lustful traveling salesman whose desire for the Aimee Semple McPhearson-like Sister Sharon turns him into a charismatic preacher, (his performance here is a virtual reprise of his performance as Starbuck in "The Rainmaker" a few years earlier). As Sharon, Jean Simmons gives a luminous performance, all fragility and repressed sexuality and singer Shirley Jones is a revelation as a trampy prostitute; (both she and Lancaster were rewarded with Oscars). Not great then, but several cuts above what it might have been.
In "Elmer Gantry," Burt Lancaster gives one of the all-time great
screen performances. Lancaster's performance is so rich, so real, that
the viewer knows this man, knows what Gantry smells like (sweat and eau
de cologne) and what he eats (big slabs of beef). I can't say I've ever
seen anything quite like it. Gantry's entire repertoire is performed
with encyclopedic thoroughness and accuracy. We see Gantry the
narcissistic conman, Gantry the philanthropist, Gantry the flamboyant
Just when we think we've seen it all, just when we think we can write Gantry off as a cross between a clown, a self-deceiver, and a blowhard, the movie reveals another nuance in Gantry's soul something we'd never seen before, and yet realize is totally believable, and, in fact, essential to understanding the man. Our views of the man change. We can't help but love him.
One such scene: almost 75 % of the way through the movie, in fact, after a shorter and shallower movie would have ended, Gantry says to another man, "Don't you know that that hurts?" in a voice we haven't heard him use before. Lancaster is breathtaking in this, the film's quietest line reading. Lancaster is so magnificent in this, his Oscar-winning role, that you have to wonder if he is not calling on much of his own character, as a charming, larger-than-life Hollywood star, to play the charming, larger-than-life star of tent revivals. IMDb trivia notes claim that Lancaster received a letter from a childhood friend saying that Lancaster's performance as Elmer Gantry reminded him of the Lancaster he remembered from real life.
The rest of the cast is also superb. Jean Simmons is domineering, spiritual, spooky, and lustful, by turns. Shirley Jones is heartbreaking as a doomed woman. Arthur Kennedy is perfect as a skeptical journalist. Dean Jagger perfectly times and pitches his paternal air, his outrage, and his surprised forgiveness. Patti Page is poignant as Sister Rachel. Edward Andrews is the embodiment of a sanctimonious, ambitious, brothel owner.
This film addressing religious corruption, lynch mob mentality, and illicit sex was made under strict rules of censorship. There are no four letter words, no naked breasts, no bleeding wounds. And yet this film raised goose bumps in ways that more explicit movies only wish they could. A crowd brays for blood; a man pulls a horse whip out of a paper bag and cracks it. Refuse is thrown at a man, and what looks very like maggots. A police officer arresting a prostitute says "You wouldn't believe what I caught this one doing." A virgin is taken under a building by a man who has practically hypnotized her. Wow! "Elmer Gantry" is critical of Christian revival meetings that were popular in the rural south and Midwest in the early decades of the twentieth century. Its indirect targets were understood to be the historical figures, Aimee Semple McPherson and Billy Sunday. Some Christians might avoid the movie for this reason. That would be a mistake. The movie is ultimately very charitable to all of its characters, even Babbit, the brothel owner. Like Gantry himself, the film sees humanity in all its beauty and ugliness, understands, and forgives. This is no black/white, two-dimensional screed. It's a complex exploration of complex behaviors, longings, needs, desires, ambitions. A woman can be a virgin dedicated to God and also a lover who empties sand out of her high-heeled shoe after a night of illicit passion on a beach. A villain who contributed to the ruination of a young woman's life can redeem himself through application of biblical concepts of humility and forgiveness.
Too, the flimflamming "Elmer Gantry" skewers is not limited to churches. There is a charming narcissist of uncertain background on the world stage today who, like Gantry, attracts chanting crowds, causes women to faint and men to believe in a national renaissance. This particular charismatic public speaker is not a religious leader, but a candidate for the presidency. The speaker who wows crowds, the crowds who yearn to surrender themselves to a putative messiah, are forever with us. That being the case, "Elmer Gantry" is a film that will never lose its relevance.
From the exceptionally talented pen of noted author Sinclair Lewis comes this entertaining story of a fast-talking, yarn-spinning vacuum salesman with the natural gift of persuasion. In his ever lustful sights is a voluptuous female preacher. In order to conquer her, he must use his extensive repertoire of biblical quips, quotes and bawdy antidotes. Within the sphere of a traveling troupe of bible beating, evangelicals on a religious crusade, the author's hero, one Elmer Gantry (supurbly played by Oscar wining Burt Lancaster) is as energetic as his tales. Although it's difficult to know if Gantry's spiritual motivation is genuine or merely a ploy, throughout the film, one is kept guessing. The target of his earthly desires is Beautiful Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons) a sincere, but fallible woman out to build a ministry. A serious obstacle to her goal is Gantry, but more so is the cautionary and caustic pen of Jim Lefferts (Arthur Kennedy), a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who questions the personal and financial motives of her entourage. Her main supporter is worldly William Morgan (Dean Jagger) who believes in Falconer, and sees Gantry and Lefferts for the opportunistic impediments they are. The film is a triumph for Lancaster and Kennedy and for all those who wish to visit a confusing period of Americanna, when the word of God was infected by preachers, pushers and spiritual leeches. ****
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It took a long time before I watched this movie on VHS. I had boycotted
it for years, thinking it was too anti-Christian to support with my
money, either renting or buying it. Finally, in the summer of 2005 I
took a look after seeing several Burt Lancaster films and being
reminded how good an actor he was. Well, he didn't disappoint here,
either, with a fantastic performance as those of you who have seen this
already know. Lancaster is absolutely mesmerizing as "Elmer Gantry." At
times I wondered if he wasn't overacting, but his character called for
a very animated salesman-type person. So, I'll give him the credit and
assume he was just playing his role, not hamming it up too much as it
"Gantry" gave the best speeches in this film and even though many people think he was the charlatan all the way through, I disagree. I think he had changed in the end. At any rate, Lancaster made him into a believable person.
He certainly was a lot more believable than Jean Simmons' female evangelist, "Sister Sharon." Anyone who knows Scripture, knows that NO evangelist - real or not - would say or do some of the things she said-did in here. Nonetheless, Simmons gives just as riveting a performance as Lancaster, her character just being lower-key than the fiery "Gantry."
The most shocking role to me was played by wholesome (can you say "Oklahoma!"?) Shirley Jones, who only appears in the last part of this long film but plays a memorable character: a hooker who had past encounters with Elmer Gantry and now wants to expose him for the womanizing heathen she thinks he is, and succeeds in doing so but is ashamed of her actions in the end.
Arthur Kennedy also is fascinating as the skeptical atheist-type newspaper reporter who softens quite a bit at the end. Meanwhile, the big-city businessman "George Babbitt" (Edward Andrews) was the only really annoying and overblown character in the film and typical of what Hollywood does today when they want to make a "relgious" person look bad.
I mention all these actors before remarking about the story because the acting and the characters are what make this movie so well-done and entertaining. As for the story, I don't believe this film is the "expose" and critical critique of evangelists Liberal film critics would have you believe. In fact, compared to filmmakers in the following decade - the '70s - they were quite tolerant. "Sister Sharon" was basically a sincere - if not misguided in spots - evangelist and a Believer and so was "Elmer" as he says at the end of the film.
Yes, there is some theology nonsense in here that simply isn't Scriptural and there is an obvious Hollywood bias against evangelists, but I expected far worse. To be fair, there were a lot of Biblically-sound lines in this script, too. And - by the way - not all evangelists are corrupt, despite what you see on film. (Don't hold your breath waiting for Hollywood to do a bio on the most famous one of them all: Billy Graham.)
As a Christian, I still don't trust the intent of the filmmakers but I found the film fascinating overall and think it's excellent work. I'm glad I got the movie. Better late than never!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This film is not only good; it misses being great by a narrow margin.
With a long line of charismatic cinematic rogues to his credit, Burt
Lancaster pulls off a barnstorming performance as Elmer Gantry, the
salesman turned opportunistic evangelist whose fast-talking pitch
scarcely slackens, off-stage or on. But for my money it is Jean
Simmonds, surely robbed of her own Oscar here, who has the most
Her ethereal Sister Sharon is an idealist who truly believes in her calling -- and is devastated when reporter Jim Lefferts calmly takes her assumptions apart -- but she is more than just a plaster saint, let alone the push-over Gantry initially counts upon. She has the logistics of her operation at her fingertips, sees through Gantry's act at first glance, and faces up to officialdom and blackmail alike with equal courage. Simmonds performs with conviction in her varying role as angelic preacher, self-possessed businesswoman, carefree girl and woman in love, and it's unclear why it was co-star Shirley Jones who received both Oscar nomination and award. As Lulu Baines, the girl whose seduction and ruin caused Gantry's earlier expulsion from theological college and whose reappearance threatens his newfound success, Jones plays a pivotal part in the plot, and conveys the character's crucial wavering between vengeance and sympathy for her lover; but I felt Simmonds' was the greater challenge and the greater, unrecognised, achievement.
The filmed version is perhaps inevitably softened from the savage satire of the book, presumably in quest of popular appeal; it certainly succeeded so far as I was concerned. Lancaster's Gantry is a more sympathetic and attractive character than the original. He uses his huckster's tricks to sell religion, but at the heart of it he has a genuine naive faith; he seduces Sister Sharon as he always intended, but as far as he is capable he loves her and she redeems him. He uses his rhetoric to undermine Jim Lefferts with his employer, just as the reporter uses the logic of his own sharpened pencil to rip apart and expose the revivalists' operation, and yet the two men share a mutual knowledge and respect that verges on friendship.
Ultimately, Gantry achieves a Christ-like moment of his own when he endures humiliation at the hands of a vengeful mob as if in payment for the disaster his actions have brought upon Sister Sharon, standing mutely beneath the pelting filth with no move toward the self-defence, both verbal and physical, in which he normally excels. And it is from this spectacle -- admirably played by Lancaster in resignation as in flamboyance -- that Lulu flees, unable to bear what she has brought about.
This is not, however, the story of Elmer Gantry's redemption, and it is in the handling of the ending that in my view the film chiefly misses greatness. The outcome, while perhaps deliberately ambiguous, is confused.
The plot mandates that Sister Sharon perish in the fire, but the methods chosen to achieve this make both her and the scriptwriters appear idiotic. The presentation of her attempts to prevent the congregation leaving, in the face of what is here shown as clear and present danger, and her own determination to remain, came across as unmotivated and bizarre in a woman who has previously seemed realistic and practical. In consequence the sequence drags out beyond the bounds of plausibility, while the final shot of her miraculously white and untouched among the flames is just tasteless.
Rather than casting her as Joan of Arc, I feel it would have made more sense to shorten the scene, indicating her human reluctance to abandon her life's work if there is the faintest chance of saving it, having her trampled by the crowd and then struck down by the falling beam that as shot just misses her, and then, just as in the film, having the floor give way beneath Gantry before he can reach her -- and using *that* as the climax of the sequence. A couple of tiny changes to existing material, 30 seconds or so of cuts, and the climax could have been so much more coherent. It might even have served to redeem the coda afterwards, where the lack of satisfactory resolution is I think intentional...
'Elmer Gantry' is intelligent, attractive, and -- at least to my mind -- more subtle in its satire of hellfire evangelism than its source material. Outstanding is the role of Jim Lefferts the cynic, who tags along with the show in order to sell copy on its charades, but finds himself touched by its purely human side; in many ways he represents the modern audience, pre-empting our mockery and distaste and hence preventing them from destroying the illusion. (It is a mark of the film's sophistication that this character is presented neither as hero nor killjoy villain.)
The ending, however, isn't really up to the standards of the rest.
Based on the muckraker Sinclair Lewis' novel, and superbly translated
to the screen by Richard Brooks (In Cold Blood , The Professionals, Cat
on a Hot Tin Roof), this story of huckster-ism by religion is a
Burt Lancaster player the greatest role of his career, getting his only Oscar for his performance. Lancaster, so good in such films as From Here to Eternity, Atlantic City, and Seven Days in May, was spellbinding as the salesman for God.
Shirley Jones (The Music Man, "The Patridge Family," was simply delicious as Gantry's first conquest, and now a "five-buck hooker," that he left behind: "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 know he rammed the fear of God into me so fast I never heard my old man's footsteps!" 1960 was a great year for movies, and this was certainly one of the best of that year, and one of the best of all time. If you want to see real acting, this film should be on your "must-see" list.
The titular character starts out as a cynical small time hustler discovering
a good scam joining up with a traveling revival show, and casting his eye to
the charismatic and comely lady preacher leading it.
What is really good is how the character develops, and gradually becomes a good sincere Christian, which is best seen in his interaction with the Shirley Jones character.
She is a preacher's kid who was disowned by her father before the start of the movie timeline after he caught Elmer "ramming the fear of god" into her. She has since become a prostitute, and has the opportunity to repay Elmer's earlier callous treatment.
Oh, yes, I know these people, or at least watered down real life versions of them. This movie really gets at the charismatic Christianity of the heartlands, and the strong sexual tensions running just beneath the surface. Oh, I bet Jimmy Swaggart for one knew JUST what they were getting at.
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