This post is in conjunction with Film Forum’s Burt Lancaster tribute. Find out more and purchase tickets here.
If this is your first time taking in Elmer Gantry, expect the unexpected! For a film from 1960 – where the Hollywood Production Code was crumbling but not yet collapsed – there’s a shockingly progressive look at everything, from relationships to religion. At times, it’s hard to believe this film received a Code-approved certificate! It’s not for everyone, and yet everyone should take it in at least one; complex, emotionally resonant, and downright haunting in spots, KL Studio Classics certainly took a leap of faith with Elmer Gantry!
Gantry (Burt Lancaster) is a drunken sot who stumbles upon a revival meeting led by Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons). Gantry, infatuated with Sharon, comes to realize he’s actually pretty good as a huckster for the popular tent revivalist movement, leading congregations and becoming Sharon’s partner in life and in the tent.
The power of Elmer Gantry comes after you’ve watched it and walked away from it. It’s a dense experience, packed with evocative imagery that, coupled with an over two-hour runtime, can become overwhelming. However, after ingesting it the true power manifests within the audience. The opening text, almost comically warning audiences to prevent their children from watching this so as to stop the spread of revivalism, sets up this story in the vein of a documentary drama where the intent is educating the audience against the scourge threatening to take down America. And yet, the beautiful faces of Lancaster and Simmons make revivalism look good!
Much of Elmer Gantry, itself based on a novel by Sinclair Lewis, foretold the downfall of 1990s televangelists, and the debate running throughout the course of the film is: prophet or charlatan? Is Falconer able to concoct miracles, or is she nothing but an opportunistic fraud? Director and screenwriter Richard Brooks gives as many arguments for as against.
Jean Simmons played this type of character before with the optimistic Sister Sarah Brown of 1955’s Guys and Dolls. Simmons’ wholesomeness adds an air of authenticity to Sister Falconer, as she walks down the aisle in skirt and bonnet to “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Eventually, Gantry’s sinful ways corrupt her, turning into a woman who’s a bit more interested in other things not associated with her church. But even after she’s led astray, she remains devout to her cause, to the point of sacrificing herself if need be.
She’s complimented by Shirley Jones in the small but memorable role of Lulu Bains. Jones is the character who it’s hard to believe was allowed in the film at all! She’s the ultimate fallen woman who’s succumbed to Gantry’s charms and is forced to pay the price. She knows who he truly is, laughing in his face when he comes to run the brothel, in which she works, out of town.
Talking about what makes her both fun and shocking is difficult without being too graphic. Suffice it to say, listening to Shirley Jones say Gantry “preached” to her so effectively he “rammed the fear of God into her” caused me to look up and blush. She’s the Virgin Mary turned Jezebel whose come to the sad realization that her body is “the best bank in town.” Lulu is the best choice for Gantry because she’s vice incarnate.
Putting good girls like Simmons and Jones in bad girl roles does a lot to change up their respective images. With my previous experience being Jones in Oklahoma! and Simmons in Guys and Dolls, each woman strengthens and propels herself in range. These aren’t little girls, but women who have seen the world of sin, tasted it, and been found wanting.
Neither one is wholly evil or sympathetic, they’re all too human. Sister Falconer may be sad about the town of Zenith taking milk away from children to pay for her…but she really wants to preach there and will gladly take the money they offer. The same contradictions are at play with Lulu; she loves Elmer, despite realizing his flaws, and both betrays and saves him.
What about our titled character, Elmer Gantry himself? Is there a term for a male villain whose presence marks the downfall of the female characters? Lancaster’s Elmer Gantry is a male fatale, turning the classic fall of Eve into the fall of Adam. Upon meeting up with Sister Falconer he’s content to sit back and let the money roll in. Does he believe, as Sister Falconer does? Or is he the opportunist everyone assumes all revivalist preachers are?
The movie never makes a definitive statement, but suffice it to say Gantry ruins everything he touches. He embodies the entertainment and religion the revivalist movement caters to. “Do you know a better product to sell than God?” He’s able to work himself and the audience into a lather, sweating bullets and expostulating with all the powers that be swirling around him, and yet he falls into vice by seducing Sister Falconer.
The seduction sequence between Simmons and Lancaster is incredibly uncomfortable. Robin Thicke would say Gantry comes on too strong. Ultimately, it marks the turn leading to Gantry’s downfall. When he says “I am the people,” it’s too true. He understands people’s fear of damnation, and he also understands their human tendencies to fall into sin and then seek repentance only to return to their previous lives.
His eventual paranoia and exclusion of others shows the worst of all religion, no matter how likable he is. It must have been perfect casting Lancaster at this time, using his good looks as a sway only to turn him into a world-class jerk. When Gantry wanders into a church and starts singing hymns, a downright beautiful sequence, the audience is taken in only to be fooled by story’s end.
Elmer Gantry is aggressive, controversial, and all too relevant. For a film directed in 1960, it resonates in its ideas about spirituality and organized religion without making too many broad claims to alienate audiences, no matter where they fall on the subject. Instead, it takes a look at a type of religion acting as a microcosm for our own flaws and hubris. Burt Lancaster, Shirley Jones, and Jean Simmons make up an unhappy trio of true believers doubting everything they presumed to know.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.