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The film begins with the following written statement: "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!" The credits then run, followed by a close-up of the first page of the novel Elmer Gantry.
Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) wrote the novel in 1927 as a satire of evangelist religion. His "Elmer Gantry" is a drunken carouser who falls into religion as a way of gaining riches and fame. An ordained Baptist minister, Gantry is expelled from the seminary when he seduces a young girl, but soon becomes the manager of evangelist "Sharon Falconer." After Falconer dies in a fire, Gantry becomes a highly successful Methodist minister, and although he is set up to be caught in a scandal, he evades conviction and goes on to increase his influence, power and corruption. One of the book's characters, "George Babbitt," had earlier been the lead character in Lewis' popular novel Babbitt.
Lewis was inspired to create Gantry by the flamboyant evangelist ministers prominent in 1920s society, including Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944) and Billy Sunday (1862-1935). The book engendered extensive controversy, both in the literary community, much of which felt that the characters were mere caricatures, and in the religious community, which resented the portrayal of a degenerate minister. As noted in publicity materials for the film, "Lewis was personally invited to attend his own lynching." Despite being banned in various cities, Elmer Gantry was one of the novels that led Lewis to being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930.
The book was adapted into a play by Patrick Kearney and opened on Broadway on August 7, 1928. According to information in the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, as early as 1928 producers sought PCA analysis of a film version of the novel or play, but were informed that its content made it unsuitable for a motion picture.
In a July 1960 New York Times article, director Richard Brooks wrote that he first entertained the idea of writing a film adaptation of Elmer Gantry in 1945, when Lewis favorably reviewed Brooks's first novel, The Brick Foxhole, in Esquire magazine. When Brooks, at the time a marine, was then threatened with a court-martial for failing to submit the novel to the Marine Corps for approval, Lewis agreed to testify on his behalf. After the suit was dropped, Lewis met Brooks at a bar, where he gave him permission to attempt to film his book, cautioning the young writer to consult the many critiques of the novel, written by such journalists as H. L. Mencken and Elmer Davis, in order to improve on it. "I cannot overstate how much these reviews helped me in formatting the film," Brooks wrote.
Although he had not yet officially acquired the rights to the novel, in 1953 Brooks appealed to the PCA for approval of a script. Correspondence in the PCA file indicates that at that time, PCA head Geoffrey Shurlock suggested that Brooks use the assistance of an evangelist minister to prepare an outline. In April 1955, New York Times reported that Brooks had purchased an option on the novel and was considering Montgomery Clift to play the lead role. At the time, Brooks assumed he might produce the feature in 1956. As noted in an October 1959 New York Times article, several studios refused to support the controversial film and Brooks had to re-purchase the option each successive year. Finally, he attained the participation of Burt Lancaster, whom he had met while writing for Lancaster's first film, The Killers (1946), and the 1947 picture Brute Force (for both, see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50). After Lancaster signed on in 1958, United Artists agreed to finance and distribute the adaptation. Brooks noted in the July 1960 New York Times feature that he then spent over one year writing eight drafts of the screenplay.
A November 21, 1958 memo in the PCA file specifies that Shurlock considered the film's first draft to be in violation of the Code. In response (and in accordance with Lancaster's age), according to a modern interview with Brooks, the writer-director adapted the story to focus on Gantry's middle years, changed Falconer into a sincerely religious figure, converted "Jim Lefferts" from a seminary student to an atheist reporter and, most importantly, portrayed Gantry as not an ordained minister. This change sidestepped Code restrictions disallowing ministers to be portrayed in a negative light. In a November 24, 1958 memo, Brooks noted that he retained the story's 1920s setting in order to avoid any identification with contemporary religious leaders.
As a result, Shurlock stated in August 1959 that the basic story met with Code requirements, requiring only minor changes in language before the film could be awarded a seal. According to modern sources, in meetings with the National Catholic Legion of Decency, Brooks agreed to add the written disclaimer that precedes the film, warning parents not to bring children to screenings. The Legion then granted Elmer Gantry a B rating, stating that it created a negative atmosphere that failed to distinguish clearly between true "religionists" and commercial exploiters of faith.
Despite the changes to the book and the Code's lenience, by spring of 1959 many church leaders were expressing concern that any adaptation of the novel would be offensive. In June 1959, as noted in the PCA files, George A. Heimrich, the West Coast Director of the National Council of Churches of Christ, issued a press statement attacking the film industry as a whole and Elmer Gantry in particular for its overemphasis on violence and sex. In response, however, Robert W. Spike, General Secretary of the Board for Home Missions of the Congregational and Christian Churches, wrote the following to the PCA: "The film industry has recently begun to show increased maturity and artistic sensitivity....There is no need for Protestants to be defensive about Elmer Gantry. I'm sure our ministry has enough validity and integrity to withstand this classic caricature."
In response to what a October 28, 1959 Variety article described as the "severe attack" from Protestant pressure groups, Brooks countered that the "new generation of filmmakers...now have the courage to tackle subjects that were once taboo." In the Variety article, Brooks attributed this to both the emergence of independent production companies and a "lessening of the old fears." In a October 30, 1959 Los Angeles Mirror-News editorial, Brooks called the church groups' response "a matter of veiled force, censorship and boycott." The debate continued until the film's release, when Rev. Dr. Dan R. Potter, director of the Protestant Council of the City of New York, called the film "a slap at religion." As noted in a July 20, 1960 Variety article, Brooks once again responded that the picture attempted to portray a search for truth in religion.
Partially as a result of the controversy, Brooks kept the script and the production strictly confidential. The final draft was approved in August 1959 with only minor modifications by the PCA, but the filmmakers refused to make a synopsis of it available to the press, as was the customary practice. Producer Bernard Smith was quoted in a October 29, 1959 Los Angeles Times article as stating that "the script `is so technical that a layman might misunderstand it.'" Despite Brooks's caution, as reported in an August 1961 New York Times article, the script "fell into the hands of another producer," who then petitioned the PCA to be allowed the same liberties as had Brooks. As a result, Brooks was forced to make new changes to the already-approved script, fostering an even more intense desire for secrecy on the sets of his future productions.
Although a January 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item stated that Brooks's independent company, Richlaw Productions, would produce the film, that company was not listed in any other source. An August 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that Irving Lazar was originally to have co-produced the film with Smith. Don Ameche was originally cast as "William L. Morgan," but when the film's start was delayed, he left the production and was replaced by Dean Jagger. Other 1959 Hollywood Reporter news items mention Susan Hayward and Christopher Plummer as possible stars, and add Mark Allen, Frank Killmond, Jason Johnson, Mike Mason, Charles Alvin Bell, Mushy Callahan, Milton Parsons, Jim Richardson, Adrienne Marden, Robert Hoy, Saul Gorss and Tenton T. Knight to the cast, although their appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. Although Hollywood Reporter reported that Kevin McCarthy had been cast, he was not in the picture. In addition, a modern source adds to the cast Budd Buster, Mary Adams Hayes, Colin Kenny, Mike Lally, John McKee, David McMahon, Gloria Pall, Charles Perry, Dan Riss, Bert Stevens, Jack Stoney and Ken Terrell. Although Hollywood Reporter production charts from early November-early December 1959 list Joseph Pevney as a director of the film, his actual title has not been determined and it is likely that he worked as a second unit director. A modern source adds the following crew members: Robert Webb (2d asst dir), Bob Herron and Charles Horvath (Stunts), Leonard Doss (Color Consultant) and Kenyon Hopkins (Mus cond).
The novel's writer is mentioned by name in the film, during the scene in which Gantry convinces editor "Eddington" that he deserves radio time to rebut Lefferts' accusations, and compares the journalist to such other brilliant, atheist writers as Lewis and Mencken. Hollywood Reporter production charts and news items state that much of the film was shot at the Columbia Ranch and the Columbia and M-G-M studio lots, and as noted in studio press materials, the scenes of the tabernacle were shot on location in Santa Monica, CA. Brooks stated in a modern interview that the scene in which the tabernacle burns down included 200 stunt people and 1,200 extras, many of whom were recruited from nearby airplane factories. Press materials relate that the filmmakers had trouble starting the fire and so brought old nitrate films from the Columbia studio and used the highly flammable substance to start the fire.
Press notes add that two of Lancaster's children, Joanna and Sighle, appeared in the film. Lancaster sings several hymns in the film, and a September 1959 Daily Variety news item noted that United Artists Records was planning to distribute commercial recordings of the tunes. During filming, Jean Simmons, who at the time was married to Stewart Granger, began an affair with Brooks that culminated in their marriage on November 1, 1960. Their first daughter was born the following year and they remained married until 1977.
Shirley Jones stated in a modern source that Brooks wanted Piper Laurie to play the role of "Lulu Bains" and a result was initially cold to her. After her success in the role, for which she won her only Academy Award, she turned down many dramatic parts, fearful of being typecast as a prostitute. As a result, Elmer Gantry marked the only purely dramatic role in her feature film career.
Brooks shot the film in the then rarely used, classic aspect ratio of 1.33:1, stating in a July 20, 1960 Variety article that the story required the intimacy of the smaller proportions. As noted in that article, he then had to ensure that the picture would be exhibited in that ratio, rather than the more standard wide screens, and worked with certain theaters to provide the correct lenses.
At the June 29, 1960 premiere in Hollywood, children under the age of sixteen were not allowed in unless accompanied by a parent. The film ran with minor deletions in Canada, England and Australia. According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, in conjunction with the film's release, the novel was serialized in the NY Daily Mirror in August 1960.
Elmer Gantry won Academy Awards for Best Actor (Lancaster), Best Supporting Actress (Jones) and Best Adapted Screenplay. In addition, it earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Music (Andre Previn). Among the film's many other honors, Brooks was nominated for the DGA Award for Best Director and won the WGA Award for Best Written American Drama, and Lancaster won a Best Actor Golden Globe award. When the 1992 film Leap of Faith (directed by Richard Pearce and starring Steve Martin and Debra Winger) was released, many reviewers commented on its story's similarity to Elmer Gantry.