Tuesday, June 2

Good 60s Films: Elmer Gantry

1960 Drama
From United Artists
Directed by Richard Brooks

Burt Lancaster
Jean Simmons
Arthur Kennedy
Dean Jagger
Shirley Jones
Patti Page
Edward Andrews
John McIntire

How one feels about this movie may lie in how one feels about religion, the Christian variety, in this case.  If you are a true believer, trust me, this is not the film for you.  I'd even recommend you just stop reading this.  If you are one to pass on most or all things religious, this film may be right up your alley.

I liked this movie when it first came out and over the years have come to appreciate it more and more.  I confess it's not necessarily because of the subject matter beyond a genuine surprise that a movie like this could be made at all in 1960 America.  I liked it mainly because I was a devotee of its director and quite simply adored its four top-billed stars.  I also thought the story was riveting, had something to say and said it pretty damned well.

It was based on a 1927 book of the same title by Sinclair Lewis.  He was more or less regarded as a chronicler of America and he liked to grab onto an idea and chew on it.  Here religion, tent revivalists (they're called TV evangelists today), con artists, hucksters, flim-flammers are put on exhibition in a carnival-like atmosphere.  Add prostitution, a dash or so of alcohol and a lot of self-righteousness and you've got Elmer Gantry

As one can imagine, Lewis's novel was not popular in all quarters in 1927 and the same could be said of the film.  But it's a damned good movie, completely worthy of inclusion in my Good 60s Films postings.  (By the way, we have five more films to go and then the 60s are history.  We'll be moving on to another decade.)  By the time the book got a makeover as a film, only about 100 of its pages were used, many characters were deleted or greatly changed and situations were often altered.  It was all superbly done by director Richard Brooks who also wrote the screenplay.

Brooks did not have an easy time getting the film made.  He shopped it to every studio in town, it seemed, and was particularly disappointed when his former home, MGM, opted out.  They'd rather make a film based on a biblical story than about religion in everyday life, he said about all the naysayers.  Little United Artists, the Focus Features of its day, was brave enough to say yes.

The book and the film attack religion but also the followers who, like lemmings, follow one another into the sea and drown.  It is an indictment of self-appointed moralists who steal hope from the hopeful, keeping their flock emotionally strung out by constantly reminding them of what sinners they are while passing the collection plate. 

In Gantry the man we also see the hypocrisy.  He is a loud-mouthed, smooth-talking, traveling salesman during the 1920s who has a special relationship with booze and hookers.  He comes across a tent revival.  Looking around he sees needy people and his immediate reaction is how easy it would be to con them.  Then he spots the charismatic leader, Sister Sharon Falconer, and he is totally smitten and determined to become part of her organization.  (We learn through exposition that in earlier days Gantry had actually wanted to become a preacher but was kicked out of the seminary for diddling a deacon's daughter.) 

Sister Sharon tries to ignore him but Gantry is nothing if not persuasive and ultimately she sees that very persuasion as what is needed the most to make her mission work.  She allows him to address the flock and they and she are spellbound.  Not so persuaded is Bill Morgan (Dean Jagger), her factotum who watches over Sharon with the grace of a loving father and finds Gantry to be a crude, vulgar showman.   Equally wary is Jim Lefferts (Arthur Kennedy), a newspaper reporter traveling with the road show to gather material for an anticipated positive article, who says about Gantry every circus needs a clown.  Both men ultimately, if begrudgingly, come to like Gantry.

Gantry joins the show and he and Sister Sharon develop a good cop/bad cop routine whereby he galvanizes the crowd, blares at them to repent (something he has no personal knowledge of) and she follows up with the promise of salvation.  He is clever with his bible passages and command of language but he's not in the game for anything more than his personal gain, which is some coin and Sister Sharon.  She, on the other hand, is a true believer.  If she weren't, there wouldn't be much of a story.  The fact is the story is as much about her as it is about him.

Ultimately she falls in love with him as he has with her.  He also finally manages to break down her resistance to consummating their relationship.  Just before that happens, there is a wonderful scene between the two of them.  Have a look:

Gantry becomes an indispensable part of the circus and all is going as well as can be expected until they decide to stop their nomadic existence and settle in a small town.  A tabernacle will be built with the help of townsfolk who see it a bit more as a financial opportunity than a divine one.  When it all starts to blow up, there is a wonderful scene with Sister Sharon and Lefferts where he takes her to task for all that he sees and asks her if she is ordained, which she is not.  He then asks what gives her the right to speak for God.  He proceeds to write a devastating article.

At the center of the downfall is Gantry's past catching up with him. It threatens his relationship with Sister Sharon and all that he has accomplished so far in the organization.  In the town he runs into Lulu Bains (Shirley Jones), a prostitute that he has known well but has not seen since he ditched her years earlier.  She's always held a grudge which escalates after he has her and her girls arrested.  He's on a campaign to shut down prostitution and stamp out booze.  Lulu sees the hypocrisy and vows revenge.  She sets up Gantry in a sting operation which makes the newspaper headlines and virtually closes down the show and causes rage among the congregation.

She does have one of the film's great lines when she is discussing their past together and says... 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 in me so fast I never heard my old man's footsteps.  One assumes the 1960 censors weren't working that day.

After being beaten up by her pimp, Lulu recants her story and all is forgiven.  The flock returns to the tabernacle in full but Gantry wants to quit.  He wants Sharon to pack it in, too, and run off with him and live happily ever after.  She can't.  She not only hears the glory of the coming of the Lord stronger than ever but in a hands-on approach aids in curing a man of deafness.  Gantry watches her from afar and realizes he has lost her.  If he only knew...

Soon a fire starts, gutting the tabernacle and killing Sister Sharon.  He had tried to save her but couldn't.  Despite the fact that his old nemises, Bill Morgan, offers to continue the mission with Gantry in charge, he goes off into an uncertain future.  One assumes he will always make out ok.

Very few movie roles have fit an actor better than Gantry for Burt Lancaster.  Always a favorite actor of mine, I have long thought that big-ass smile and laugh was usually pulling my leg.  He's always had a little carnival barker in him.  No wonder Brooks thought of him as the wayward preacher man.  He and Brooks had worked on a couple of earlier projects as actor and writer and the director showed him the script.  Oddly, Lancaster didn't care for it and declined.  Brooks then considered Montgomery Clift and James Cagney.  Can you imagine?  But he worked on the script, tailored it more toward Lancaster and the actor accepted.

I see it as his best work.  He delivered amazing performances in From Here to Eternity, The Leopard, Atlantic City and so many more but Gantry is his only Oscar-winning role.  He himself said it was the easiest role I was ever given to play because I was, in essence, playing myself.

Jean Simmons is magnificent as Sister Sharon, arguably the best work she ever did.  It's hard to believe that her pal Elizabeth Taylor and Susan Hayward had been considered for the part.  Simmons's delicate beauty and spirited demeanor were so right for Sister Sharon.  It was a good year for her, too.  She had just finished another super part as the wife of Spartacus and before that was oh so charming in the drawing room comedy, The Grass Is Greener, with her pals Deborah Kerr, Robert Mitchum and Cary Grant.

What always grossed me out is that she was not even nominated for an Oscar.  Not even nominated...!!!  And Taylor's win for Butterfield 8 was so not right.  I suppose the best news for Simmons was that she married her director.

I was also a bit jarred when Shirley Jones won Oscar's best supporting actress.  Was she that good?  I guess I missed it.  Or was it more an issue that she was chiefly known for doing musicals and light comedy and here she was in a dramatic role?  Lancaster personally asked Brooks to bring her aboard and the director was not only doubtful about doing it but treated her badly for some of the shoot.  An aside: she is the only one of the principal actors still alive.

Arthur Kennedy gave his usual second male lead performance that he always did... an excellent one. All movies are better with Kennedy in them.  His Jim Lefferts is the conscience of the film and he has some of the best dialogue.

I feel much the same about character actor Dean Jagger.  He is the conscience of the revival shows and handled all the business.  There was always such a quiet dignity, a calming influence that Jagger brought to all his roles. 

Popular songbird Patti Page (The Singing Rage) made her film debut in Elmer Gantry.  It wasn't a great stretch for her since she got to lead the choir.  Her Rachel was shy and demure and quietly in love with Gantry and he didn't seem to get it.  Page has said that Richard Brooks scared the hell out of her.

It is a fun film to watch in terms of spotting various character actors one has seen in many films.  Among my favorites is Edward Andrews who always played sleazy with such relish.

Brooks won an Oscar for his superb screenplay but he should also have been nominated for best director.  AndrĂ© Previn received a nomination for his musical score and the film was nominated for best picture.  Whatever scared off the studios didn't have the same effect on the public... they flocked to it.

If you haven't seen it, you really should.  Fabulous actors, acting, writing, directing and a penetrating story.  Well worth 146 minutes.

Next posting:
One for my pal Carlo



  1. I remember a lot of sweat oozing from Burt's pores in this one. I'd go see it in theatres today if it ran. Great movie and review!