Filmsite Movie 

Review
Elmer Gantry (1960)
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Background

Elmer Gantry (1960) is an entertaining melodrama with memorable performances, from writer/director Richard Brooks. It is the controversial telling of Sinclair Lewis' 1927 muckraker novel regarding the charismatically engaging, but scandalous Midwestern salesman turned preacher in the 1920s. The film accurately foretells the actual real-life scandals of many tele-evangelists in the last part of the century, including Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Bakker, and Oral Roberts.

The film was nominated for five Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Score (Andre Previn)) and won three: Best Actor for Burt Lancaster (his sole Oscar win of four Best Actor nominations), Best Adapted Screenplay (Brooks), and Best Supporting Actress (Shirley Jones, known for her squeaky-clean role in TV's The Partridge Family).

The Story

Elmer Gantry (Burt Lancaster) is a huckster who sells shoeshines and vacuum cleaners. Gantry is lustful, coarse, loud, ambitious, motivated by an easy dollar, golden-tongued, and often drunk.

His first memorable appearance on screen in a speakeasy demonstrates his high-energy eloquence with words in this impromptu Christmas sermon:

...You think, uh, religion is for suckers and easy marks and molly-coddlers, eh? You think Jesus was some kind of a sissy, hey? Well, let me tell you, Jesus wouldn't be afraid to walk into this joint or any other speakeasy to preach the gospel. Jesus had guts. He wasn't afraid of the whole Roman army. (Pointing to a picture) Think that quarterback's hot stuff? Well, let me tell you, Jesus would have made the best little All-American quarterback in the history of football. Jesus was a real fighter - the best little scrapper, pound for pound, you ever saw. And why, gentlemen? Love, gentlemen. Jesus had love in both fists! And what is love? Love is the mornin' and the evenin' star. It shines on the cradle of the Babe. Hear ye, sinners. Love is the inspiration of poets and philosophers. Love is the voice of music. I'm talkin' about divine love - not carnal love.

The opportunistic Gantry becomes infatuated by touring tent ministry evangelist-healer, the beautiful, pure, and dedicated Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons), and she is charmed by him as well: "You're amusing and you smell like a real man." He joins her tent ministry, and becomes her lover. [Sister Falconer's character was based upon real-life evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.]

Gantry turns into an evangelizing, Bible Belt revivalist preacher, recognized by cynical reporter Jim Lefferts (Arthur Kennedy), an H.L. Mencken disciple, as having exceptional qualities:

I've heard many a powerful Bible-walloper, but you not only put the fear of God into them, you scared the hell out of 'em. And the way you strung certain words together - "America, home, mother. Heaven, hell... Love, hate, sin."

Exhibiting tremendous showmanship, Brother Gantry, with rolled up shirt-sleeves, preaches hellfire and brimstone, thumps his Bible, performs miracles, and leads repentant sinners to conversion in the Bible Belt tent meetings:

Sin. Sin, Sin. You're all sinners. You're all doomed to perdition. You're all goin' to the painful, stinkin', scaldin', everlastin' tortures of a fiery hell, created by God for sinners, unless, unless, unless you repent.

He also preaches against the evils of booze:

As long as I got a foot, I'll kick booze. And, as long as I got a fist, I'll punch it. And, as long as I got a tooth, I'll bite it. And, when I'm old and gray and toothless and bootless, I'll gum it till I go to heaven and booze goes to hell.

His popularity helps to increase her fame and fortune, and she is able to realize her dream of building her own tabernacle of worship.

In an act of revenge, one of his old jilted girlfriends, minister's daughter-turned-prostitute Lulu Bains (Shirley Jones) sets him up and frames him with photographs taken in a compromising situation, ruining his reputation. At one point earlier in the film, she remembers how Gantry had violated her when she was 'saved' as a teenager, when asked if Gantry could save anybody:

Can he? Ha, ha, ha, ha! Can he!? Anywhere, anytime. In a tent, standin' up, layin' down, or any other way. And he's got plenty of ways....Sister, I was saved by him way back in Schoenheim, Kansas. "Love... love is the mornin' and the evenin' star." "And what is love? Not the carnal, but the divine love!" Oh, he gave me special instructions back of the pulpit Christmas Eve. He got to howlin' "Repent! Repent!" and I got to moanin' "Save me! Save me!" And the first thing I knew, he rammed the fear of God into me so fast I never heard my old man's footsteps! The next thing I knew, I was out in the cold, hard snow in my bare little soul.

Although Gantry is later vindicated and cleared of morals charges, he jeopardizes their ambitions.

The new tabernacle opens, but Sister Falconer tragically dies in a blazing tent fire. When asked if he will carry on Sister Sharon's work in the lucrative revivalist business, Gantry quotes scripture to explain how experiences have matured him, and why he will not continue and run the new proposed tent-tabernacle:

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. St. Paul. First Corinthians. Thirteen eleven.

Unflappable, he exits with "So long, Bill" (to manager William Morgan (Dean Jagger)) and walks off down the pier with a half-smile on his face, as the film ends.