"You think Jesus was some kind of a sissy, eh? Let me tell you, Jesus wouldn't be afraid to walk in here or any speakeasy to preach the gospel. Jesus had guts! He wasn't afraid of the whole Roman army." --Burt Lancaster as Elmer Gantry
Dir. Richard Brooks
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons, Arthur Kennedy, Dean Jagger, Shirley Jones, Patti Page, Edeard Andrews, John McIntire
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Slinking through one post-war-pre-depression tank town after another, with a smile wider than the midwestern prairie skies always above him, title character Elmer Gantry (Burt Lancaster) might be the best travelling salesman in America.
Driven by a thirst for cheap liquor, even cheaper women, the company of other back-slapping bagmen and blessed by the Lord on high with the alternately revered and reviled acoethes loquendi, Elmer's gift of gab knows no bounds. He's always got the latest and greatest ribald jokes on the tip of his tongue and splatters his brilliant, charming sales pitches with the expert blarney of a top-flight evangelist, peppering every second word, phrase or sentence with passionate dollops of scripture.
When we first meet him in the unforgettable Richard Brooks 1960 film adaptation of the sprawling 1927 Sinclair Lewis satirical novel of the same name, Gantry is holding court amongst a colourful coterie of similarly sharp-tongued vipers in a sleazy watering hole, his eye on the ample rump of the blood-red form-fitting dress of a local whore at the bar and his loquacious patter in mid-joke. Gantry's delivery is first rate. Like any great comedian or, for that matter any orator worth his weight in gold will tell you, it's not so much the content spewing forth from within, but rather, the manner in which it's related.
And, Oh, does Elmer let rip with a good one:
"So, anyway... anyway, this guy comes home, you see, and he finds his wife in the sack with his best friend. And the husband says, "Oh Harry, how could you do this to me?" And the wife, she says, "Why should you complain? Harry didn't do it to you!"
Elmer's gag is met with a raucous chorus of approving guffaws and hearty accolades:
"What did I tell you? Isn't he a card?"
"Oh yeah! Class. Real class."
Within seconds, Gantry spies a Sally Ann worker attempting to collect alms for poor orphans. It is, after all, Christmas. As the woman leaves with one paltry donation and babbling of derision from the assembled booze hounds, he leaps immediately into action. Like a fiery preacher, Gantry, raises his eyes upwards and emotes, "Hey, Lord? Can you hear me up there, Jesus? You didn't think we'd forget your birthday, did you?" He looks upon his cohorts with disgust, makes the first donation, then points to a portrait of a football star above the bar. "Think that quarterback's hot stuff? Well, let me tell you,," he opines furiously and with passion, "Jesus would have made the best little all-American quarterback in history."
In no time at all, Gantry's pitch to these hard-drinking cynical reprobates results in a full plate of dough for the pretty little Sally Anne Missy. He's the real thing. He can sell anything to anyone.
And Elmer, ultimately proves his sales gifts when he sidles his way into the heart of gorgeous, sexy travelling tent evangelist Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons) and not only takes her virginity, but becomes her righthand preacher. Employing the same hucksterism he uses on the road with his clients, Gantry not only transforms into a beloved star evangelist, but starts to command wheelbarrows worth of money for her religious organization. Though Gantry is slowly and genuinely falling in love with Sister Sharon, he can't leave his cocksman-like ways completely behind him. He gets some boinking in on the side with Sister Rachel (Patti Page - YES! THAT Patti Page), the evangelical singer and musical director of the Falconer God Squad. And, of course, he even briefly rekindles his love affair with the mouth-wateringly delectable whore Lulu Baines (Shirley Jones, here looking very un-Partridge-Family-like).
Where there is religion, there is sin and sex and plenty of babes.
Richard Brooks (In Cold Blood, Looking For Mr. Goodbar) not only directed Elmer Gantry, but he also wrote the superb adaptation of the novel. It's a great book and Brooks expertly wove a terrific movie from a mere 80 or so pages of the Sinclair Lewis bestseller and miraculously, it's just as funny, sexy and penetrating a work in the medium of film as it was as literature. Brooks adheres to the savagery of Lewis's satire and expertly creates an even-more compelling version of Sister Sharon - at least for the purposes of the film. In both mediums, however, she's clearly based on the controversial evangelist Sister Aimee Semple MacPherson, the founder of one of the more extremes sects of the Pentecostal Church.
When Lewis published his book, he was bombarded with criticism from all Christian quarters, even receiving death threats from God-fearing Christians. No matter, this merely drove sales of the book to astronomical heights and over thirty years later, the book was still popular enough to generate a movie that was not only showered with awards and accolades, but became one of the top-grossing films (#40) of all-time with over 11,000,000 smackers in 1960 dollars upon its first release.
This, of course, seems extraordinary from today's perspective. I sincerely doubt anyone would be able to make such a savage, intelligent and entertaining contemporary movie rooted in shredding Christianity to bits as this one does AND be a huge hit. Elmer Gantry, to my eyes, has not dated. Thematically, the religious fundamentalism displayed in the book and movie have, if anything, intensified today. The story's sexual frankness seems rooted in period, but not because the filmmaking is dated.
The inevitability with which things steadily mount to a tragic conclusion are, rather than being ploddingly predictable are the kind of inexorable truth of this world and these characters. Gantry is especially a towering figure in all this. Even when things seem at their very worst, he picks up his bootstraps and offers a genuine sense of solace and hope to the parishioners. The light in Lancaster's eyes as he rousingly sings "I'm on my way to Canaan Land" is both the light of inspiration and that of an expert grifter/bagman. The people have hope from a fraud, but it's their belief that offers a savage indictment of how the flock will follow anyone with the power to rouse them, no matter how disingenuous it is. On the other hand, there's a hint, only a hint, mind you, that there exists the potential for redemption.
Wisely, Lewis's book, Brooks's interpretation of it and ultimately his canny direction evokes the real truth -- that redemption is only in the eye of the beholder and in Gantry's case, he not only knows his scripture, he uses it to convey the truth to those smart enough to get it and most importantly himself. As he clutches the Good Book in his hand, Gantry quotes from St Paul, First Corinthians:
"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."
The bullshitter is tired of bullshitting other bullshitters -- mostly himself, the biggest bullshitter of them all. And though he knows this and acknowledges it, there's also a sense that he wholeheartedly embraces the old adage that you can't bullshit a bullshitter to begin with and especially not the one with whom he sees everyday in the mirror as he's about to perform his manly ablutions.
Elmer Gantry is a perfect picture in every respect, principally in the exquisite key creative endeavours such as art direction, cinematography and the magnificently stirring Andre Previn score which, when one is making a movie about something as big as America, a score with clear nods to Aaron Copland (but living and breathing on its own two feet) seems more than appropriate.
The cast, from the picture's stars on down to the extras are nothing less than first-rate. Arthur Kennedy as the "agitator" journalist who seeks to expose Falconer's church carries himself with his usual stolid earnestness, but as a newspaperman with a conscience, it works very nicely and he has a terrific rapport with Lancaster, especially during their final scenes together. Dean Jagger as Falconer's right-hand preacher holds his own with Lancaster during his fiery sermons and he proves a formidable bullshit detector in his mistrust of Gantry. It's a treat seeing the huge 50s/60s songstress Patti Page as the devoted and naive beauty who rounds out Falconer's team. Jean Simmons as the good sister Falconer knocks you on your ass as well as investing her role with a nice combination of repression and conflicted virginal desire to be manhandled by Gantry and she holds her own with Lancaster and indeed moves us tremendously during the tragic last third of the film. Shirley Jones is pure lollapalooza whore-with-a-heart-of-gold-cum-vengeful-woman-scorned and her final scene with Lancaster is a heartbreaker.
As for Lancaster, and no matter how good everyone around him truly is, the simple fact remains that this is his show all the way. To be sure, he's always generous and gracious with his fellow performers when he shares the frame with them and his bombastic nature is consistently rooted in Gantry's character to such a degree that he plays the scenes by always attempting to connect or communicate with others, to listen to them (as Gantry naturally would in order to achieve the upper hand). Never, though, does Lancaster use the flamboyance to hog the show. BUT, when Brooks allows Lancaster time alone - when it's just the camera, Burt and the viewer, we are witness to one of the most astoundingly malevolent sales jobs committed to celluloid.
At one point during a mega-fiery sermon, Lancaster takes a run and a leap and recreates s major slide into home plate. It's not just great physical acting, but when he picks himself up energetically, he drills holes ever-so calmly, yet with a kind of come-hither defiance, not unlike the Mona Lisa's ever-shifting gaze and he proclaims:
"Any punk ball player can make a slide like that. But how many folks have got the guts to play ball on God's team? And heed this -- The captain of that team is Jesus Christ Almighty himself."
Lancaster's so damned convincing, you believe it hook, line and sinker.
Belief, however, is what the movie is all about. Believing in yourself, believing you'll score the big sale, believing you can get anyone to believe anything and everything you say because you're so goddamn charismatic (and know it), that you can convince the believers and non-believers alike that hitting a Grand Slam for Jesus Christ means emptying your pockets for the Church, no matter how much you need the money for yourself or your family.
In a world where religious leaders, politicians and captains of corporate power are all snake-oil salesman, where the richest 1% of the world's population are cumulatively, exponentially richer than the 99% of all the rest, Elmer Gantry is a novel and a film that have as much power to attack the hypocrisy of any organized entity but especially the scourge of faith-based industries -- then as now as for the future.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** 5 Stars
Elmer Gantry is available on a great transfer from the best existing materials on a Kino Lorber Blu-Ray. It's about time the gorgeous colours and aural presentation have found themselves available on the best home viewing format created to date. The film is housed in a box featuring the glorious original poster and in addition to a trailer, we get one solid bonus worth noting -- a terrific on-camera interview with Shirley Jones. The Kino Lorber release is also available in Canada via Video Services Corp (VSC).
PLEASE FEEL FREE TO ORDER ANYTHING FROM AMAZON BY USING THE LINKS ABOVE OR BELOW. CLICKING ON THEM AND THEN CLICKING THROUGH TO ANYTHING WILL ALLOW YOU TO ORDER AND IN SO DOING, SUPPORT THE ONGING MAINTENANCE OF THE FILM CORNER. BUY MOVIES HERE FOR SOMEONE YOU LOVE! OR HELL, BE SELFISH, AND BUY THEM JUST FOR YOURSELF