Burt Lancaster won his only Academy Award for his irrepressible portrayal of the title character, a traveling salesman trying to eke out a living wage in the Depression-ravaged 1920s. He's something of a fast-talking con man, but he has a good heart and a leaning toward religion, as we learn in an early scene when he joins the worshippers in an African-American church and stays to help the pastor after everyone else goes home. Arriving in a new town one ordinary day, he finds an old-fashioned revival service going on in a big tent, presided over by Sister Sharon Falconer, an evangelist with an untainted soul, a silver tongue, and a very pretty face. Elmer immediately cozies up to her, but she's too busy to give him the time of day until she hears him deliver an off-the-cuff sermon. She can tell he's a scamp, but he definitely has talent, so she takes him into her entourage, and eventually they become more than just professional partners.
Along the way we discover that Elmer was once a seminary student, kicked out before graduation for seducing the deacon's daughter in the chapel. And there's also more to Sister Sharon than meets the eye her real name is Katie Jones, and while she truly believes she's doing the Lord's work, her evangelical success owes more than a little to the kind of slick showmanship that Elmer has so brilliantly mastered. Other major characters include Jim Lefferts, an atheistic journalist who's traveling with Sister Sharon to gather facts for a newspaper story; Bill Morgan, the Sister's aging right-hand man; and Lulu Bains, the deacon's daughter, now a prostitute who starts dreaming of revenge when her old seducer comes to town. Also present in a few scenes is George F. Babbitt, the chronically discontented antihero of Lewis's novel Babbitt, a ferocious satire of middle-class life published five years before the equally scathing Elmer Gantry.
Brooks began his directorial career under contract to MGM, and he had worked there for a full decade before embarking on Elmer Gantry, his first independent production. He made all the right choices from the outset, starting with the decision to adapt just a portion of Lewis's novel; the finished film runs almost two-and-a-half hours as it is, so more ingredients would have made it overstuffed. Brooks measures out the material with perfect dramatic timing, and while he makes assorted changes in the novel's storyline and character list beyond simply shortening them, there's no feeling that he toned things down to make the film a safer prospect at the box office. If there's any doubt about his stand on the hazards of unchained religious fervor, notice a small detail in the last seconds of the movie, when a title card reading "The End" comes in from the left and right to close off the picture, but freezes for one tiny moment so the camera can linger on a revivalist who's been badly injured, in body and perhaps in soul, during the riot that climaxed the story. And the scenes showing Lulu doing business in her brothel and setting Elmer up for a humiliating sex scandal are notably bold by industry standards in 1960, when censorship was on the wane but hadn't entirely lost its bite. Hedging its bets, however, United Artists appended a printed prologue that looks quaint today, declaring that "the conduct of some revivalists makes a mockery of the traditional beliefs and practices of organized Christianity!" and adding that "due to the highly controversial nature of this film, we strongly urge you to prevent impressionable children from seeing it!"
Of all Brooks's smart decisions, his casting choices were the best of all. Lancaster modeled Elmer partly on Billy Sunday, a hugely popular real-life evangelist and former baseball player whose athletic "slide for God," slightly modified, becomes part of Elmer's energetic revival-tent routine. In addition to his adroit body language and physical moves, Lancaster croons, intones, and belts out Elmer's sermons as if he believed them to his bones. When he starts his trademark oration with the silkiest of words, "Love is like the morning and the evening star," you can understand why everyone from Sister Sharon to the most naïve worshipper comes so easily under his spell. Lancaster himself was no revivalist, but he certainly saw the links between Elmer's preaching and his own profession. "Some parts you fall into like an old glove," he said of this role. "Elmer wasn't acting. It was me."
Elmer Gantry isn't a one-person show by any means. Jean Simmons brings a sense of inborn class and subtle passion to Sister Sharon she and Brooks got married after completing the picture and Shirley Jones is downright smoldering as the fallen Lulu, a part that earned her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. It's hard to imagine how Arthur Kennedy and Dean Jagger could be topped as Lefferts the newsman and Bill the evangelical second banana; ditto for Edward Andrews as Babbitt, and while the pop singer Patti Page doesn't make much impression as Rachel, a member of the flock who quietly pines for Elmer throughout the picture, her recessive acting is oddly in tune with the character. The cast is rounded out by a crowd of old folks from California who play the believers in Sister Sharon's tent, another good idea on Brooks's part.
Elmer Gantry was a labor of love for Brooks, who had dreamed of filming Lewis's novel for more than a decade and spent two years writing the script, which won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. (The film also scored Oscar nominations for Best Picture and for André Previn's score.) His most important collaborator behind the camera was John Alton, who photographed the action with his usual flair for dark-toned expressionism, although his daytime exteriors are striking as well. Various critics have commented on Brooks's decision to shoot the picture in the traditional 1:33 aspect ratio since MGM and other studios were now committed to widescreen ratios, some feel the director was just asserting his newfound independence but Alton makes the choice seem entirely natural, bringing claustrophobic intensity to interiors and dramatic focus to exteriors. Only some shots during the chaotic climax have a disappointingly stagy look.
In a 1960 photo feature on the film, Life magazine said that Brooks had "written into Lewis's rogue a quality of compassion that makes him almost human and, ultimately, pathetic." That's true, but it doesn't go deep enough. The key to Elmer's appeal as a character is that although he's a deeply flawed person a drinker, womanizer, and hell-raiser with a badly checkered past he isn't a hypocrite because he truly believes in God and Jesus, sincerely loves the old-time religion that Sister Sharon preaches, and has the courage to take his comeuppance when it finally arrives. Brooks may have been speaking sarcastically when he remarked that the picture "is the story of a man who wants what everyone is supposed to want money, sex, and religion. He's the all-American boy." But an all-American boy is exactly what Elmer thinks he is, and while he's not above bamboozling the people he wants to persuade, he's also not afraid to shout the convictions he does have to the rooftops. He's one of the great characters in American fiction and American film, and Brooks's fine movie does him proud.
Director: Richard Brooks
Producer: Bernard Smith
Screenplay: Richard Brooks, from the novel by Sinclair Lewis
Cinematographer: John Alton
Film Editing: Marjorie Fowler
Art Direction: Ed Carrere
Music: Andre Previn
With: Burt Lancaster (Elmer Gantry), Jean Simmons (Sister Sharon Falconer), Arthur Kennedy (Jim Lefferts), Dean Jagger (William L. Morgan), Shirley Jones (Lulu Bains), Patti Page (Sister Rachel), Ed Andrews (George F. Babbitt), John McIntire (Rev. John Pengilly), Hugh Marlowe (Rev. Philip Garrison), Joe Maross (Pete), Philip Ober (Rev. Planck), Barry Kelley (Police Captain Holt), Wendell Holmes (Rev. Ulrich), Dayton Lummis (Mr. Eddington).
by David Sterritt