ELMER GANTRY is a terrific tale about a fast-talking Bible Belt gadget salesman who, in the days of Prohibition and Speak-Easies, sneaks up the ladder of success and transforms into a fiery preacher capable of stirring the masses in any direction imaginable.
A zealous sidekick to Sharon Falconer, an evangelist with more truth in her soul than Elmer, he is building a sizeable following in Zenith, Kansas. At all costs, Gantry takes the whole enterprise to its tragic conclusion when this super huckster’s transformation becomes the most important character arc of the entire storyline.
Based on Sinclair Lewis’ book of the same name, director Richard Brooks created a classic indictment of those revivalists who manipulate the masses for their own ends, using Jesus’ love message as a shield and subterfuge.
The film was nominated for 5 Oscars in 1961 and won 3 of them – Best Actor in a Leading Role for Burt Lancaster, Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Shirley Jones and Best Screenplay from Other Medium Material for Richard Brooks.
Elmer Gantry (played by Burt Lancaster with considerable fire and brimstone) begins his journey as a big loser, a traveling appliance salesman in his 20’s who is more successful at making his drinking buddies laugh with lewd jokes and attracting young women for one-night Stands to seduce than anything else. Always broke, always moving from one city to another, but with an obvious gift for bombastic rhetoric, he finds his calling under the tent of revivalist Sharon Falconer (played by the incredibly beautiful Jean Simmons).
Despite Falconer’s initial reluctance, the fast-talking, fast-acting Gantry manages to gain her trust to deliver his first sermon as a guest preacher, which becomes a resounding success.
Many other such sermons follow: “Sin. sin, sin. You are all sinners. Ye are all doomed, created by God for sinners unless, unless you repent” is an example of the kind of delivery Gantry unleashes in deadly slumbers.
Gantry shoots up the success curve with alarming ease, relocating all tent-based rural operations to Zenith, Kansas, an urban setting that terrifies Falconer’s cautious general manager. But when the city guarantees to pay the Falconer operation $30,000 in advance, the deed is done and the troupe marches into the Zenith with a marching band, clowns and great fanfare.
Falconer, Gantry and their team promise to reignite the fire of devotion in the souls of Zenith citizens and fill the empty pews of local churches with new parishioners. In return, local churches promise not to hold gatherings while the falconer is in town to maximize proceeds. Falconer and Gantry deliver exactly that, and in the process their relationship moves from a professional to a deeply personal level.
One of the key roles in this film is that of Pulitzer Prize-winning veteran journalist Jim Lefferts (played with great restraint and credibility by Arthur Kennedy), who is the premier reporter for local newspaper Zenith.
Lefferts provides the skeptical, secular, pro-scientific counterpoint to Gantry’s soaring Bible-banging hellfire and brimstone rhetoric. Even when gantry is down and vulnerable to attack, Lefferts adheres to his own professional principles and refuses to exploit scandalous stories, which may be true or false, regardless of their impact on circulation numbers.
As such, the Lefferts figure stands as a symbol of objectivity, whose vision is not clouded by the dust of moody emotions easily stirred up by revivalist movements. He successfully presents the contrapuntal view that unbridled religious fervor may not be the sole source of morality in bourgeois life.
Another major role includes Lulu Bains (played by the angelic Shirley Jones, who really brings her soul to this supporting role), the girl Gantry had a one night stand with in his early days when no one knew him, and ceremoniously deposed the next morning, without saying goodbye save for a cynical “Merry Xmas,” which he scribbles on the bedroom mirror with her lipstick while she’s still asleep.
Now, years later, Lulu meets Gantry again in Zenith, this time working as a maid in a disreputable house that Gantry is launching a public cleansing campaign against. As the citizens of Zenith Gantry follow his lead in media-covered nighttime raids on the speak-easy hideouts and brothels, Lulu exacts her revenge with devastating effectiveness.
Gantry’s hypocrisy bites his butt, but not for long. Regretting how she framed an unsuspecting gantry in her apartment with the help of her pimp and a hired photographer, she retracts her accusations and admits the framing, returning a despised gantry to its burning pulpit. Here, too, Brooks allows us a glimpse into unconventional sources of shared virtue.
The film ends with a spectacular scene in which total devastation ravages the newly opened tabernacle that Falconer has dreamed of for so long. The ending reveals both the weakness in the way Falconer approached her faith and the way that same faith transformed an ordinary country girl into a truly spiritual being with healing powers.
Gantry, on the other hand, refuses to take Falconer’s mantle despite being offered everything he ever dreamed of on a golden plate and moves on to the next thing in his life.
Turning his back on true power and more riches, he simply walks away because, for the first time in his life, he has discovered something in his soul that is truer and more precious than all the outer power he has been able to usurp through one lifetime deception and manipulation.
The film ends with the great hint that divine love sometimes visits us precisely when we have the courage to walk away from this implacable desire to obtain the same love by force, through our own efforts and our intrigues.
A 9 out of 10.