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