Movie: Elmer Gantry (1960)

Circuses, carnival attractions, revivals.  I’m starting to think one should avoid all enterprises held in tents.

1960’s Elmer Gantry stars Burt Lancaster as the title character, a smooth-talking travelling salesman who schmoozes his way into the organization of a popular tent revival.  The star of the revival is Sister Sharon Falconer, as played by Jean Simmons.  She’s the perfect foil for him: pure of intent and yet whip-smart. 

And yet, like every other woman in this movie, she isn’t immune to his charms.  There is a palpable sexual tension between these two, and I was surprised by how much of this movie seems to be about the similarity between religious ecstasy and sexual ecstasy.  As Shirley Jones, playing a prostitute from his past which will come back to haunt him, says, “He rammed the fear of God into me so fast I never heard the old man’s footsteps!”  Pretty surprising stuff for a movie from 1960.

Another surprising aspect of this picture, given its vintage, is how it portrays organized religion as being obsessed with money.  When Lancaster connives to have a revival outside a major city, this leads the revival committee to become mired in heated, petty bickering about funding.  At the same time, I wondered, “tent revivals would have a board like a corporation would?”

I assume it is elements like this that led the producers to add a bizarre disclaimer to the beginning.  At some length, it seems to defend revivalism while condemning certain aspects of it, but also defending anybody’s choice to worship as they please.  In the end, it urges you not to show it to impressionable children.  ‘Cause those kids, y’know…always dying to watch 2 ½ hour cynical dramas about religion and how it can exploit the masses.

Lancaster justly won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance here.  He is intense, as I have come to expect from every movie I have seen him in.  Copiously sweating, cords standing out in his neck—how did he not have a heart attack every couple of years?

I find it interesting his character treats commerce, religion and lust so similarly as to erase the barriers between them.  When we first meet him, he goes from telling dirty jokes in a bar to soliciting money from the patrons for the Salvation Army.  His pitch includes a bizarre statement about how Jesus would have been the best All-American quarterback of all time.  He thanks the lord for closing a sale for him.  Then he takes a street walker (well, stool-sitter in this scene) back to his place.

Jean Simmons more than holds her own here, and I am surprised she didn’t take home a Best Actress statuette for this.  Shirley Jones, on the other hand, did take home Best Actress in a Supporting Role, though I found her a bit too over-the-top as a conniving lady of the evening.  In my rather prurient assessment of her performance, I was mostly aware Mrs. Partridge had a chassis built for some serious oscillation.

By the end, there are some interesting themes explored.  Things like the hollowness of revenge.  Then there’s a point explicitly conveyed by a character, “The mob don’t like their gods to be human”.

Speaking of the ending, I believe that should have happened earlier.  There is a surprisingly strong scene at the first revival after the public turns on them, and the film pulls a punch by not ending then.  That said, the major event on which the movie does end is shocking.

And now the usual random observations.  Did there used to be radio stations that played burlesque music all the time?  I’m imaging a station identification like, “You’re listening to WSKN—The Skank.”  Jean Simmons sitting in a darkened office as “REPENT” graffiti on the wall behind her, combined with text on a window lit from outside light, reads, “REPENT SHARON”.

I don’t think it is a great movie, but Elmer Gantry is a unique and memorable one.  It is a bit too tawdry, and goes into histrionics too frequently, to succeed entirely for me.  But I do admire the subjects it dared to approach, especially for its time.  Highly recommended.

Dir: Richard Brooks

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons, Shirley Jones

Watched on Kino Lorber blu-ray