Elmer Gantry (1960): Sinner & Saint

“You not only put the fear of God into them, you scared the hell out of them.” – Arthur Kennedy as Jim Lefferts talking about Elmer Gantry.

Elmer Gantry opens with a disclaimer, which no doubt plays as a defense tactic against the National Legion of Decency. However, taking a page out of some of the gangster pictures of decades gone by, while the filmmakers don’t condone the behavior, they find it within themselves to represent it. The caveat reads like this:

We believe Revivalism can bear some examination — that the conduct of some revivalists makes of a mockery of traditional beliefs and practices of organized Christianity…Freedom of religion is not a license to abuse the faith of the people…due to the highly controversial nature of this film, we strongly urge you to prevent impressionable children from seeing it. 

Elmer Gantry is really the brainchild of writer-director Richard Brooks although it was adapted from the eponymous short story from years earlier by Sinclair Lewis. If you allow me to use the term, the picture boasts an embarrassment of riches, with actor-producer Burt Lancaster headlining, revered cinematographer John Alton, and the music of the much-esteemed Andre Previn. In most regards, they do not disappoint.

For his part, Lancaster delivers his most ingratiating, charismatic street preacher act. He seems to understand the inner anatomy of the character even as he seems to embody bits and pieces of Gantry himself. If you recall Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter, Lancaster does his own rendition or for that matter, he shares some small resemblance to Lonesome Rhodes from A Face in the Crowd.

By day, he makes ends meet as a traveling salesman — a tramp in a silk shirt — with a penchant for booze, women, and tall tales. As he sees it, his real calling is as a “Man of God,” though his definition seems pretty thin. Still, in the grassroots world he lives in, if you’re compelling, carry big ideas, and have a sprinkling of the Good Lord’s holy scriptures hidden away in your heart, it goes a long way.

Is it just me or do Lancaster’s eyes have a certain lecherous glint to them? It seems to rise up in him unsolicited, whether singing a gospel spiritual, looking around a big revival meeting, or quoting passages of scripture with extra panache. It’s true; he knows the hymnal by heart and the scriptures like the back of his hand, or at least just enough to use them effectively.

He gives us a little taste of his magnetism on one fine Christmas night, interceding on behalf of some Salvation Army charity workers as they call on the good graces of his fellow bar mates. However, after taking on a cattle car full of hobos, he ends up lugging his suitcases to the nearest town alongside the railroad track. Regardless of what he tells his mother over the telephone, he’s barefoot and, by all accounts, destitute.

In the very same moment, we catch a glimpse of some prominent signage, “Sister Sharon Falconer — can save you!” If Gantry is our wheeling-dealing main attraction, Sharon is his foil. Jean Simmons plays the role as a truly empathetic champion of the cause, who nevertheless runs her crusade like a business.

Patti Page is one of her devotees with the voice of an angel, while Dean Jagger, her right-hand man maintaining the facts and figures, ensures they stay on schedule. They also have their personal entourage of journalists, including Arthur Kennedy, who make quite sure they get the necessary press support. Everyone agrees she’s quite the lady, and it’s a well-oiled operation as they travel across rural America.

But Elmer takes them to another level. When he joins the team, his impassioned messages make the good people swell with emotion; his sights are on an urban revival. He wants to take religion to the cities. After all, that’s where the money is.

Soon they are courting the community leaders in the city of Zenith and all they have to offer. The name is apropos because it really is the pinnacle of what they are trying to accomplish. If they can succeed here, there’s no question where they might go.

The local leaders and ministers bandy about what they might do about the competition from entertainment industries, diminishing church attendance, and pervasive financial problems. They’re all real-world issues no doubt plaguing the church today and in most any generation. It’s a Mr. Babbit who opines that they need to get the young people back in church and keep the train on the tracks.

Arthur Kennedy might be the voice I appreciate the most. Because Elmer Gantry is born out of a deeply religious context. People have the rhetoric and a certain cultural liturgy down, but if I am aware of anything about Jesus Christ, so many of the people who call themselves Christians, don’t know him. They use his name, evoke his words, and then choose to live by their own standards.

Jim is one of the few characters in the movie who lives as a searcher. He’s still trying to find the answers to life’s questions. In a single moment, he turns the public against the sister and Gantry with his honest, albeit incisive news reporting. However, when he could embroil them in greater scandal, he elects not to. That’s not his game. When he lambasted for his lack of Christian faith, he says his doubt is not blasphemy. On the contrary, it makes him the most honest character in the picture.

Shirley Jones doesn’t show up until well into a picture and yet soon enough Lulu Banes becomes what feels like the lynchpin character to the whole drama unfurling before us. She lives a life of ill-repute in a brothel, but she wears her profession as a badge. More importantly, she has a history with Elmer Gantry. In their earlier days, Gantry was kicked out of seminary and she was disowned by her ministerial father, for their indiscretions. She knows Gantry more intimately than most, and she can use it against him.

It’s a foregone conclusion that this religious empire must come tumbling down. The images when an ensuing scandal breaks out are some of the film’s most definitive. From the podium he once enraptured audiences, Gantry is pelted by fruit, eggs, and hot jazz under the big top. He’s ridiculed as a total hypocritical disgrace — and in a fit of irony, it’s the single moment where he feels the most Christ-like. No, he’s not sinless and not a saint; he is very human in that regard, but in this moment of immense humiliation, he’s forced to bear the brunt of all the shame.

This is only superseded in the final moments in what feels like a hellish conflagration as the tabernacle bursts into flames. it’s such an evocative image as holiness and hell meet in a fiery inferno with Sister Sharon and Elmer Gantry right in the middle of it. From dust, you came, and to dust, you will return.

Considering the historical moment and Burt Lancaster’s own religious leanings, there’s a sense he intended the movie to be his response to such stadium preachers as Billy Graham.

Lancaster relishes the opportunity of being a louse and also very easily undermining religious thought and rhetoric — telling half-truths and appealing to religious fervor — while conveniently looking after his own ambitions. He slinks his way into other people’s life like a worm (or a serpent) laughing and cajoling and spouting his own brand of religion. His tongue flatters all, and he’s good at it, but he’s always looking to gain something from others. Mind you, he’s not the only one. We all have that tendency.

I am by no means an authority on Graham, but despite any unpopular opinions he had, he was also a very faithful man of God and he had such a profound impact on generations of people, literally, millions of people all over the world. Thus, the parallels to Graham never were of a great deal of interest to me and feel mostly immaterial.

It’s easy to draw out the movie as an indictment of Gantry and to a certain extent maybe it is, but it says something more endemic to our society and our systems. Those people still exist today. Sometimes it’s fire and brimstone and sometimes it’s inverted into a prosperity gospel.

However, then scandals come out, lives unravel, churches schism, and hearts are hardened. We put these religious figures on a pedestal and almost without fail they let us down in some manner. Some have misguided beliefs in themselves like Falconer. Maybe they burn with the human lust and passions of Gantry.

Is it scandalous to say, I rather like him? He seems like a genuine fellow.  Like Sister Falconer, he seems to generally believe what he’s preaching; this I didn’t expect. But he’s hardly a saint. The fallacy comes with building him up to be one.

None is righteous, no, not one; and no one understands. Lefferts is getting there. We must seek after the truth. We would do well to not just cave to feelings and emotions. Still, intellect will only get us so far. We must have ears to hear. Because true wisdom, true discernment is proved right by what we do. It’s up to each of us to figure out what that is.

4/5 Stars

Divorce American Style (1967): Debbie and Dick Get Divorced

Divorce American Style starts out as a symphony of marital nagging, and it looks to build off this cacophony to make some sense of the current state of affairs in 1960s America. While the title doesn’t capture the same milieu of its Italian counterpart, it fits for a plethora of other reasons. It’s satire in the American mode and Norman Lear, who would become renowned for his brand of socially conscious comedy, is hard at work. In order to go about it, he hones in on one couple in particular: Richard and Barbara Harmon.

Off the top, it’s an important distinction to make. Creatively, it seems like a stroke of genius to cast Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds as this bickering couple slowly tearing apart at the seams. I say this purely from the likability factor. Their entire career trajectory thus far from sunshiny MGM musicals to crowd-pleasing family sitcoms all banks on their likability quotient.

Here is a picture that tests all of that built-up reservoir of goodwill and fuzzy feelings we have for them. If you only accept them as the picture of Cathy Seldon in Singing in the Rain or Rob Petrie in Dick Van Dyke, there’s a reason to vehemently oppose what Lear has done with them here.

While it’s not my favorite pastime to see two such actors put each other through such hell, some part of me understands why they wanted to take a stab at it. Because it’s not safe, and it challenges the status quo and how we accept them as performers. To their credit, in stretching themselves, it’s an attempt to get past one-note characterizations.

True to form, their first full scene starts with a fight. It’s postponed due to the party they are throwing only to reconvene after all the friends have shuffled out the front door. They can drop the veneer and all pretense is cast off again.

She bemoans the fact he’s critical of everything, and he just doesn’t understand her anymore. He’s frustrated that when they finally get some of the things they always dreamed about, his wife seemed to turn unhappy, and he can’t figure it out. It was another picture from 1967 that famously acknowledged a failure to communicate. This one gives it a whole new domestic context.

We see their bedtime rituals and there’s something almost mechanical to them because there’s no intimacy between them even in this highly intimate space as they open cupboards, plug in razors, and do their bits of business…without a word and still somehow in perfect cadence.

By day, Barbara continues seeing a psychologist and Richard begrudgingly gives it a try, although he’s uncomfortable sharing his feelings with a stranger; the way he was brought up it just isn’t done. If we wanted to add something else to their marital complications, it’s their kids. Normally, their two boys would be trapped in the middle, but there’s a pollyanna-like understanding about them. They are so easy-going and well-adjusted as their own parents continue to go down the tubes.

One call to a lawyer and all of a sudden it’s like the trip wires have been set off on both sides. There are trips to joint bank accounts and friends on both sides supply their two cents worth, not to mention their respective legal counsel. It’s not a new phenomenon, but we are reminded how these things can escalate; this is divorce taken to outrageous proportions.

They sit at a table in the law office as their lawyers casually settle their case, mixing in chit-chat about their latest golf games and shared business associates. Then, Richard is taken under the wing of Nelson (Jason Robards), a fellow divorcee, who gives him advice about alimony and how to survive. His life is fairly abysmal and pretty soon Richard is going down the same path moving into his new digs and trying to find romantic direction.

Meanwhile, Barbara tries to make her own way with an oft-married family man (Tom Bosley), getting to know all his children. It devolves into another madcap orchestration, reminiscent of the opening prelude. This time we have the notes of parents and step-parents, kids and step-kids all being assembled for a day out.

With the robust cast, it’s rather curious the film was not better known in its day because it gradually introduces other familiar faces including Joe Flynn, Lee Grant, Robards, Jean Simmons, and Van Johnson.

In the epochal year of 66-67, it does make sense Divorce American Style never received the same plaudits as Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate or Two for the Road. If not altogether a sitcom episode, it’s the American counterpart to its more high profile continental brethren starring Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney.

Again, there is the sense of the middle-class malaise where things and stuff and cars are in one sense inconsequential compared to the relationship. And yet they mean everything when it comes to comfort and status.

To the very last frame, there’s something subversive about seeing sweet Debbie Reynolds and lovable Dyke Van Dyke as divorcees with a marriage hitting the skids. But if this is true, there might also be a kind of catharsis for Reynolds when a hypnotist puts her under on a stage in front of a whole host of people. She’s been through so much and there she is throwing off the shackles of all our preconceived notions. She heads off stage and goes to give Van Dyke a big ol’ kiss, effectively rekindling their romance.

The film hasn’t aged particularly well, but then again, what better way for it to remain as a testament to the social mores of the times and the prevalent anxieties? It’s probably better for it. Because all the fracturing, recoupling, and suburbanization of society definitely created a new kind of landscape.

It’s all there in the later scenes as all the stars couple up uneasily. Van Dyke is with Simmons who was Robards’s former spouse. He’s trying to marry her off so the alimony doesn’t break his back. Then, Robards and Simmons try and set up Reynolds with Johnson — a genial used car salesman — because that makes Van Dyke even more unattached.

I tried to make this all needlessly convoluted but hopefully, the point has been made. Love is strange. Love is messy. Love is complicated. If that’s true of love American style, then it’s true of divorce even more so.

3/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Kirk Douglas

With this ongoing series, our goal is to help people who are new to classic movies, get a foothold. To make it easy, we give you 4 representative choices and then some supplementary options.

Sadly, with the passing of Kirk Douglas earlier this week at 103 years of age, it seemed apropos to tackle his career for those who might be interested. There are so many great movies to choose from, spanning the decades, but we’ll give it our best shot.

Champion (1949)

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Kirk Douglas had so many stellar early supporting roles in noir: Strange Love Martha Ivers, Out of The Past, I Walk Alone are all memorable. However, Champion was Kirk Douglas’s big break channeling his trademark intensity into the ring as an overzealous fighter. It would set the tone and help shape his growing reputation in Hollywood.

The Bad and The Beautiful (1952)

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Despite all the glitz and glam to go with a Hollywood storyline, Kirk Douglas is as blistering as ever. Like Sunset Boulevard or In a Lonely Place, it shows another side of the industry and Douglas and Lana Turner deliver some of the most memorable performances of their careers in this Vincente Minnelli drama. That’s saying something if you consider Kirk’s work in Detective Story and Ace in The Hole around the same time.

Paths of Glory (1957)

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Paths of Glory stands as one of the great wars films for the very reason it runs counter to many of the narratives we know well. At the core of this Stanley Kubrick WWI piece is Douglas as a man caught in the middle of the insanity of war, in this case, perpetrated by his own superiors. If you want more conventional entertainment there’s also Gunfight at The O.K. Corral (1957) highlighting Douglas’s longtime screen partnership with Burt Lancaster.

Spartacus (1960)

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Spartacus is arguably the tentpole of Kirk Douglas’s entire career, and it has the epic spectacle of sword and sandal epics of the era with Douglas anchoring the action with his typical dimpled charisma opposite Jean Simmons. Behind the scenes, the picture would prove to be a watershed for unofficially ending the Hollywood Blacklist by openly crediting ostracized writer Dalton Trumbo. It’s one of Douglas’s great moral triumphs as a Hollywood producer.

Worth Watching

A Letter to Three Wives, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Man Without a Star, Lust for Life, Last Train from Gun Hill, Lonely are The Brave, Seven Days in May, etc.

Angel Face (1953)

angelface1Rumor has it that Howard Hughes was angry at Jean Simmons who had cut her hair short prior to filming, as her contract was due to expire soon. But not to be outdone he told Otto Preminger that the director would get a bonus if he could shoot the picture before Simmons was released. That he did, and in the 20-day interim he gave us yet another stylish film-noir classic to follow in the footsteps of Laura and Where the Sidewalk Ends.

Robert Mitchum plays ambulance driver Frank Jessup who falls victim to the webs of young beauty Diane Treymayne who adores her superficial father, but nurses a lifelong grudge against her step-mother. She has it in for her arch nemesis and meanwhile strings Frank along, coaxing him to become her family’s chauffeur. He loses sight of her other side, and their budding romance means trouble for Frank’s longtime relationship with the sensible Mary. She sees a better fit in one of Frank’s ambulance coworkers, but he still wants her back.

Instead, Diane and Frank get caught up in a trial for their lives, after they are accused of a murder that Diane did indeed commit. But due to some wheeling and dealing, their shrewd attorney gets them off. It’s at this point that Angel Face takes an unsuspecting twist that ends up being intriguing. Could it be that the seductive Tremayne girl is actually remorseful for her actions? Is she a more nuanced femme fatale then would first be assumed? Frank was an unsuspecting lout, but then again maybe Diane is a sort of victim too.

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Her tryst with Frank is doomed and he is stuck because Mary no longer wants him, so of course, he can only end up going one place. The slow buildup to the finale makes these last moments all the more shocking. Angel Face seems to be less of a deadly poisoning than a slowly ticking time bomb just waiting to blow.

Jean Simmons is most often associated with civilized and demure beauties. A couple counterpoints or variations would be The Grass is Greener and this film. Playing against type proves to be as fruitful for her as it did for the likes of Barbara Stanwyck, Gene Tierney, Cary Grant, and Henry Fonda, just to name a few. However, in a way, Angel Face had a far more complex femme fatale than I was expecting and that’s to its credit. Still, I would never want to be trapped in her nightmarish world like Frank.

4/5 Stars

Guys and Dolls (1955)

8d99c-guys_and_dolls_movieposterHeadlining this film are Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra as Sky Masterson and Nathan Detroit respectively. Both men are high stakes gamblers and things have heated up in town because the police are trying to crack down on a floating crap game. That’s not the only thing that turns hot though. Masterson is bet by Detroit that he cannot get a sidewalk missionary (Jean Simmons) to fly with him for an evening in Cuba. Detroit has his own problems brought on by his reluctance to marry the girl he has been going with for 14 years. All along the way money constantly switches hands and “markers” are doled out as IOUs.

Both Masterson and Detroit ultimately show their noble sides and as you would expect the guys get the dolls.

This musical certainly had its moments and it looked lavishly beautiful in color like many of the contemporary musicals. I will say that there were some great personalities here including Vivian Blaine. However, Brando seemed painfully out of his element here and I’m pretty sure Sinatra had better roles. I wonder what this film would have looked with a different cast? We can only speculate now.

Also, the dialogue almost completely lacking in contradictions was quite noticeable, but I’m not sure if that was a bad thing or not. Overall I think this one would be better for the stage than on film. But don’t get me wrong a lot of the numbers like Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat were catchy. I will say I was surprised that Brando ended up singing Luck Be a Lady and not Sinatra. I had previously only heard the Sinatra version.

3.5/5 Stars

The Big Country (1958)

230bc-big_country833Directed by William Wyler and starring Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston, and Carroll Baker, this pacifist western revolves around a feud between two ranching families. A gentleman sea captain comes out west to be with his fiancée on her father’s ranch. After his arrival, he encounters a jealous farmhand (Heston), the beautiful schoolteacher friend of his fiancée, and of course the Hannasseys, who are sworn enemies of the Terills. In a sense he is a fish out of water because he never feels a need to try and prove his bravery to others. The schoolmarm is caught between the two families since she owns the vital watering hole “Big Muddy.” Mckay buys the land as a wedding present but when the wedding ties are cut now he is the one in the middle of it all. In order to stop the imminent bloodshed, he bravely rides into the Hannassey’s territory in order to get both sides to reason. Whether it be the score, the cinematography, or the dialogue, you will certainly come to realize that this is a Big Country.
 
4/5 Stars

Great Expectations (1946)

ad366-great_expectationsWith director David Lean, and starring John Mills as Pip, the film begins with Pip as a young boy. Upon meeting a fugitive, Pip show him kindness and the man promises he will return the favor. A year or so later Pip begins to go to the home of an eccentric, rich widow to call on her. There he meets the lady’s adopted daughter Estelle and he falls for her. Now an adult, Pip learns he has a mysterious beneficiary who is paying for him to move to London to be a Gentleman. There he interacts with Mr. Wemmick, the attorney of Mr. Jaggers, and also Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness). Then, someone shows up on his doorstep and changes his world. Soon he is orchestrating an escape for his friend, saying goodbye to the cold Estelle, and showing his displeasure for the elderly Ms. Havisham. However, in the end he learns a happy truth and reunites with Estelle. This moody, Dickens adaption actually has an optimistic side which is a nice change.

5/5 Stars