The other evening I noticed that the movie Elmer Gantry (filmed in 1960) was going to be on television and I reluctantly turned it on. I was lured in by the spectacle when I first watched the movie some fifteen years ago, and I could not turn away from watching it again. The reason why I was reluctant to watch it is because the movie is disturbing. The behavior of the believers and non-believers alike in the film is often irrational – which makes the movie believable. But as much as I like the novel by Lewis, the movie is much more powerful. Lewis, not being a believer, did not have much use for evangelists. Therefore, he had little problem in damning the preacher. Richard Brooks, who both directed and wrote the screenplay for the movie, had more qualms about it. In fact, the lecherous and greedy preacher known as Elmer Gantry (Burt Lancaster) becomes the most sane, forgiving and likeable of individuals by the end of the movie.
Elmer Gantry takes place during the heyday of barnstorming back in the 1920s. Gantry, kicked out of seminary school for indiscretions with a girl named LuLu Baines (Shirley Jones), abandons LuLu to a life of shame and heads out on the road in search of other opportunities. (LuLu then throws herself into a life in the brothel.) Elmer meets up with America’s most renowned female evangelist, Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons), whose previous identity was Katie Jones, and Elmer manages to charm her. Because of Elmer, Sister Sharon’s revivals attract crowds almost too large to fit under the circus tent. Enough money is raised that Sharon is finally able to afford a tabernacle in a large city. Along the way, she also attracts a newspaper skeptic, Jim Lefferts (Arthur Kennedy), who is modeled upon the great journalist, H.L. Mencken. Lefferts, at first repelled by the whole religious revival business, eventually comes to believe in Sister Sharon’s sincerity.
Sister Sharon does have a vulnerable side and often wistfully reminisces about the life she left behind. It’s to Elmer that she confides her desires and regrets. Inevitably, Sharon falls into Elmer’s arms. She is seduced and probably even believes that she is in love. Elmer, too, becomes a changed man as a result of his relationship to Sharon. Unlike in the novel, Elmer becomes almost a believer in what he is preaching. Behind all of the grinning and exhortations, he manages to speak directly to his audience. Once, when accused of demagoguery, he proclaims that he’s not a voice speaking down to the people, he is the voice of the people. Naturally, his past comes back to haunt him. LuLu tries to get some dirt on him through the use of a hidden photographer. LuLu gives photos to a newspaper for publication, but immediately regrets it when Elmer saves her from her pimp. The scandal at first ruins the reputation of the Sister Sharon’s revival, but membership returns after LuLu confesses that the pictures were the result of a frame-up.
Sharon, ridiculed during this period of scandal, has become increasingly self-reflective. She believes that she is being punished for her own lack of faith. No longer satisfied with the circus atmosphere, she wants to do something of real benefit. So, during the first and only service to be held in her new tabernacle, she tests her faith by praying for a man who is deaf. At first it seems like a failure, but she keeps trying. She even asks those in attendance to pray with her. She continues praying for what seems like several minutes. Finally, the man turns towards his wife and announces that he can hear. Members of the audience then fling themselves towards Sister Sharon and ask her to pray for them as well. Unfortunately, while all of this is gong on, a careless cigarette tossed away by a newspaperman covering the spectacle sets the entire church into apocalyptic flames. Sharon refuses to leave during the chaos and begs those fleeing in panic to trust in God. Elmer is unable to reach Sharon and save her, and while pushed out of the church by the escaping crowd he witnesses the church come crashing down. After the fire has ended, the newspaperman, Lefferts, who had since formed a strange triangle of friendship with Elmer and Sharon, finds Sharon’s bible in the debris and presents it to Elmer. Though leaders of the church encourage Elmer to carry on the church in place of Sharon, Elmer declines and heads back out on the road. God only knows what Elmer will be up to next.
The movie, Elmer Gantry, is truly ambiguous as to whether Elmer is either good or bad. Elmer has a positive impact on many people in the movie, but he is so great of a huckster that we are never quite sure when the charm he puts on is fake or real. While helping some, he also is taking money away from others who can barely afford to give it away. While Elmer persuades an intelligent newspaperman to reexamine his attitude towards evangelism, others in the evangelical business can never quite get their selves to trust Elmer. Elmer is capable of great daring and great selfishness at almost the same moment. It would probably have even caused Sinclair Lewis consternation to know that the answer at the end of the movie regarding Elmer Gantry’s character is still open to question.
Dogmatic revivalists would have been offended by Elmer Gantry. It is straight up about the fact that many cities welcomed the revivalists in for strictly economic reasons. As the movie was filmed before the Swaggerts and Jim Bakers of the world were to get dragged through scandal of the same types as portrayed in the movie, the kind of excesses displayed were thought by religious people to be slanderous. The believers and preachers alike are portrayed as being backward. As the timeframe of the story takes place shortly after the Scopes Trial, Elmer Gantry pokes fun at the fundamentalist’s aversion to the theory of Evolution. Though the evangelists in Elmer Gantry were shocked that a Catholic was running for President in 1928 (Al Smith), this movie was released at about the same time that a Catholic was elected as President.
Yet Elmer Gantry never once suggests that there isn’t a place for what occurs under the revival tents. In fact, it sends a message that tolerance must go both ways. Full or part time skeptics (like myself) are often too sure when it comes to matters of religious faith and can be as dogmatic as the most single-minded believer. Education can convince us that we are superior to those who openly seek religious assurance, but whether we are right or wrong we still need to be wary of our own arrogance. It’s easy to be complacent when you are in a comfortable position. It’s much more difficult to refrain from criticizing someone when you do not understand the situation that the other person is in. I find it ironic that a movie based upon a novel that set out to belittle the hucksters in the end suggests that these same hucksters may have been onto something. This is what made the movie disturbing to me. It never encouraged or discouraged skepticism. What it does try to do is make us look at the reasons behind our beliefs and skepticism and warn us not to judge the believers or the non-believers too harshly or hastily – even if it concerns something as intellectually unsatisfying as Christian Fundamentalism. For this reason, Elmer Gantry is to me one of the greatest and most under-appreciated movies ever.
© Robert S. Miller 2007