Based on the 1927 novel by Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry tells the story of a fast talking, womanizing traveling salesman who becomes the main preacher in a traveling revivalist church. Both the novel and film were very controversial in their time. In the twenties, the novel was banned in many cities and denounced in churches the world over. Director Richard Brooks beings the film with a statement to explain the message and warn audiences of the controversial content:“We believe that certain aspects of Revivalism can bear examination- that the conduct of some revivalists makes a mockery of the traditional beliefs and practices of organized Christianity! We believe that everyone has a right to worship according to his conscience, but- Freedom of Religion is not license to abuse the faith of the people! However, due to the highly controversial nature of this film, we strongly urge you to prevent impressionable children from seeing it!”
Honestly, I wasn’t expecting anything so gutsy from the year 1960. For those worried about that statement above, the film does not make a mockery of religion, but rather examines characters that abuse the faith of the public and turn it into a circus. The film offers some great food for thought and should not be immediately dismissed by religious communities.
Burt Lancaster drives the film and earned an Oscar for his performance as Elmer Gantry. In his first scene, we see Gantry’s amazing talent from telling dirty stories in a speakeasy, to selling Christmas spirit comparing Jesus to a regular All-American football star. Gantry seems to rely on the kindness of strangers by putting on a wholesome choirboy attitude, scoring him trusting smiles and places to sleep, sometimes with a female companion.
When he happens upon a Revivalist tent with the beautiful Sister Sharon (Jean Simmons), Gantry works his charm, and hops on their train, to become part of the traveling church group. His energetic sales pitches, I mean sermons, can range from mocking Darwinism with a cute chimp to ranting and sweating with proclamations of brimstone and hellfire. He gains the church so much attention and converts that they are invited by Mr. Babbitt (Edward Andrews) to the big city ofZenith, where there’s a lot of sinners to be saved and Gantry’s racy past could ruin his new reputation.
It’s obvious to us that Gantry is a no-account drifter only using this revivalist church to his own gain. He tries to hide his exploits with booze and women as he becomes a more public figure. To help further his image, Gantry takes it upon himself to lead the people of Zenith to destroy the local speakeasies and other sinful establishments. They’re like a mob, complete with torches and chopping down doors with an ax. Then Gantry happens upon Lulu (Shirley Jones), a one night stand he once had, while overturning the prostitution ring. Lulu has told her coworkers all about Gantry and how “he rammed the fear of God into me so fast I never heard my old man’s footsteps!” With the whore house destroyed, Lulu decides to blackmail Gantry and expose his unholy side.
Through all this unwholesome drama and turmoil, Sister Sharon is the one true believer in the story. From her humble beginnings and no training, she started this revivalist church on her own to spread the word of Jesus. She has nearly reached her ultimate goal of having a permanent church. Along the way, she falls for Gantry, which seems nearly scandalous for woman trying to be a pillar of moral fiber. The real problem Sharon has is that she can trust God too much. No matter how religious you are, always get out of a burning building. Or Darwinism will always win.
“The mob don’t like their Gods to be human.”