Elmer Gantry (1960)

Dir. Richard Brooks. Starring Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons, Shirley Jones

When I was at the student newspaper at my university, one of the team’s favorite little perks of the job was getting letters from an especially nutty fellow. Doubtless he sent out these rants to every newspaper, professional or otherwise, in the state, but we didn’t let that stop us from believing they were special. What I remember most about his letters, more than any phrase or his politics, was his penchant for ending sentences with exclamation points. He was not discriminatory with them, and so the whole letter would gain this incredibly excited tone which built up to a hilarious fever pitch by the end. That’s basically how I feel about the three statements at the beginning of Elmer Gantry, which culminate in one incredible sentence about keeping impressionable children away from the film. (Also, check this use of a hanging indent in the wild.)

Each one ends with the exclamation point, and while I’d like to give the benefit of the doubt to the filmmakers, it was also 1960, which is not a year one frequently associates with sarcasm. To me it’s an opening representative of the limitations of a 1960 Elmer Gantry movie, which are significant. If it’s a barb aimed at the fundamentalists who would criticize the film for existing, then it’s too cheerful to sink in. If it’s a peace offering to those same people, then it’s somehow even stupider.

Elmer Gantry the film takes about some chapters out of Elmer Gantry the novel, and they are probably the least aggressive and least controversial sections in the novel. The film makes mock of Elmer’s (Lancaster) go-to line (“Love is the morning and the evening star…”) just as much as the novel does, although the film does not let on, as Lewis joyfully does, that the line is cribbed from Ingersoll. Elmer’s time at seminary is taken out, the character of Lulu Bains (Jones) is radically altered, Elmer’s roving eye focuses solely on Sharon Falconer (Simmons), and the greatest excesses of Elmer the celebrity preacher are pruned. The scariest part of the novel for evangelicals was never really Elmer, anyhow; it was Frank Shallard, a man who believes in God, sees the hypocrisy of his prophets, and recognizes the contradictions in his text. Frank’s meditations on the contradictions of the Sermon on the Mount and the really terrible fate realized for him by his fellow Christians are the sort of pieces which are scarier than bad PR, and they are tellingly absent from the film. No doubt a great swath of the American people did not need Lewis to tell them that tent revivalism was frequently disingenuous, or that some pastors don’t walk the straight and narrow. Fewer would have had a snappy comeback for Frank Shallard’s crisis: can you really be a city on a hill and keep your left hand from knowing what your right is doing? This is why it’s totally amazing that the film begins with what plays like a disclaimer; it’s like eating a mild curry when the menu put a little chili pepper next to it. (The movie does, to its credit, live up to those mealymouthed words at the outset. It never makes belief in God into something to be made fun of, and it really does want to uphold “freedom of conscience.”)

The list of great American movies based on the novels of great American authors is a short one, perhaps not even ten movies long, and even that requires us to stretch the definition of “great American author” a smidge: The Age of InnocenceThe Grapes of WrathThere Will Be Blood (but like, not really), GreedThe Magnificent AmbersonsNo Country for Old MenThe Shining. We’re still waiting on, and may wait forever for, a great adaptation of Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Vonnegut, Warren, Wright, O’Connor, Bellow, Roth, Morrison, Walker, Twain. (Pour one out for the 1949 All the King’s Men, Wise Blood, and The Color Purple, which are Hall of Very Good movies.) That Dodsworth, based on a minor Sinclair Lewis novel, even exists is a minor miracle. Adaptations of ArrowsmithBabbitt, and Elmer Gantry range from fine to forgettable; the It Can’t Happen Here movie, when it happens, is going to be as blandly safe as Sunday school because Hollywood liberals are meek as broken horses. Main Street has, as far as I can tell, been made into a movie once and lost forever. I have always felt that Lewis, though dashed difficult to adapt well because of his style, made brilliant movie material. Whether or not people would get the point now is harder to gauge—if people couldn’t tell that Walter White was the bad guy, I dunno that they’d figure out what’s insidious within Will Kennicott—but there is meat there for a good director and one of those Oscarbait casts we can’t keep our paws off of.

Perhaps no novel of his cries out for cinematic adaptation more than Elmer Gantry, which has hellish fire and screaming preachers and enough sex scenes to occupy the Marquis de Sade on a rainy day. It has a true rags-to-riches story in a practically archetypal style, and that archetype is fooled around with relentlessly. Elmer takes enough adventures on the side (like that bizarre New Age job he gets himself for fifteen minutes) that an adaptation would have plenty of material to work from or cut as necessary. Its biases are the simplistic ones of Hollywood; Gantry represents a notion of dishonesty in the clergy that I think that town feels safe denouncing, and perhaps more than that Lewis’ fairly simplistic biases about religion are not unlike those in Hollywood. With all that to work with, it is no wonder (and still awfully disappointing) that this adaptation of the novel focuses on the Sharon Falconer section, which is probably the broadest of all.

Elmer Gantry is certainly very interested in how to broaden the story. Lulu Bains’ sexual willingness comes with her from the novel, and Shirley Jones saves a thankless part (and got a Best Supporting Actress win, too). She approaches Elmer kittenishly, speaks to him with a cautious smirk, and in the end retracts what would have been a totally damning news story about the minister with the prostitute. (How times change, hyuk hyuk hyuk). Sharon’s religious zeal is broadened as well, and the keen businesswoman from the novel is mostly left behind in favor of a character whose serious demeanor more fully contrasts with Elmer’s huckster charm. Simmons is, like Jones, very good, although of the three leading characters she is probably playing the least interesting of the bunch. Attempts to make her more interesting, as when she goes from zero to sixty to zero in ten seconds with Elmer, only make the character feel more forced. Temptation may come upon a person right quick, but it’s not so frequent that it evaporates like a drop of water on a hot griddle. Simmons is at her best when Sharon is doomed; she deserves a higher tragedy than what ultimately, ah, befalls Sharon in order to really draw us in.

The reason to see Elmer Gantry is the man playing Elmer Gantry. Burt Lancaster is probably the favorite actor of this blog, in no small part because he was able to do just about everything as well as anyone else. His physical bearing on a movie is comparable to Rock Hudson, and I think that’s part of the reason that his humor is so underrated. His ability to slither into different roles is rare for a leading man of his time; of similar actors, only Kirk Douglas and Marlon Brando had that same sort of willingness and ability. As Elmer, Lancaster plays a part that one rarely finds him: the buffoon. Every action of his is completely transparent. There is no doubt from the beginning that Elmer is more cardsharp than card, no question that he is guided entirely by the physical pleasures of women and drink. Lancaster uses his teeth to emphasize when Elmer is getting really corny, sticking them out like a donkey might to emphasize a dangerously exaggerated smile. Most incredible of all is that Lancaster more or less manages to convince us that Elmer can change himself; by the end of the film, he is chastened, a much wiser man than the one who chased after Sharon Falconer for sex and money. That this seems like a fitting end for Elmer Gantry is entirely through the seriousness of Lancaster.

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