This movie dives straight in to its subject and barely gives you time to get adjusted to the world it portrays, but I certainly didn't mind this lack of introduction with this sharp and insightful satire. Athough made more as a straight drama than an obvious satire, and gets its (critical) point across without being openly disrespectful of religious folk, the magnificent screenplay is not short of humour. The direction is pacy and full of verve. The camera work is excellent, capturing the real showmanship of revivalist evangelism in America's mid-west of the 1920s. Several put in terrific performances, not just Lancaster, but you can't say he didn't deserve his only Oscar here. Simmons takes her character even further down the road to righteousness, giving us a preacher of God's word who really believes she is a chosen one, and is totally sucked in to her own saintliness. When she starts believing she has special healing powers, the viewer, as well as Gantry himself, knows she's lost it. Lancaster shows us that Gantry is never so convinced by his own fire brand sermonising he forces on others, and not so gullible to think he is protected by God from everything, as does Simmons' tragic character. Events finally force him to end his trailblazing career and he leaves the travelling church altogether, walking off, we presume to lead a more normal, sceptical life.
This film is utterly condemning of the style of hysterical evangelism which took such a hold in some states as reaction to the spreading scourge of Darwinism, and reminds us all not to be so susceptible. It has faults, one being its excessive length, but is overall a spirited critique on the folly of humanity and gets its point across loud and clear: Beware the travelling, bible holding, door knocking, loud talking preacher, especially if he has rather scary hair.
I had never seen this film before and didn't really know what it was, I certainly didn't know how immersed it was in its subject and how revealing it would be of a movement I knew little about. Nor did I know how good both the acting and direction were. Finally watching this has to be one of the best surprises I've had seeing a film that was new to me. It utterly immersed me in a world I knew so little of, and never stopped entertaining me. This dvd has already been placed in my favourite film dvd rack. A very enjoyable movie.
In ELMER GANTRY Burt Lancaster has the best role of his illustrious career. He essentially is playing himself - a gifted hustler who accidentally finds himself in a profession for which he is a perfect fit. As an evangelist he shows that he understands people and is easily able to manipulate the crowds of devout believers attending his services. Lancaster gives the performance of his life. It is easy to see how much he is enjoying himself in this movie. The cast includes accomplished character actors Arthur Kennedy and Dean Jagger. Don't miss Patti Page in a minor but important role. The screenplay was adapted from a book by Sinclair Lewis about religious evangelism in the American Midwest in the 1920's. ELMER GANTRY won Academy Awards in 1960 for Best Actor (Burt Lancaster), Best Supporting Actress (Shirley Jones) and Best Adapted Screenplay. Nominations were also received for Best Picture and Best Scoring of a Dramatic picture.
Elmer Gantry doesn't need a lightshow, radio mikes or his own TV channel, he creates his own energy and carries all before him with a gift of the gab that can turn any situation to his advantage. Phoney as a two-dollar bill and first seen drinking, womanising and fighting in that order, Gantry is a crude, vulgar showoff with a vocabulary that belongs in an outhouse who goes from selling vacuum cleaners to selling religion in a travelling revival show. Worming his way under her guard to become bad cop to Jean Simmons' Sister Sharon's good cop, he damns them and she saves them. If he's a sharp operator, she's not exactly a mug herself: "God chose me. I chose you." Before long, he's converting her to the ways of the flesh and all hell breaks loose...
Sinclair Lewis' novel may well be Book of the Month Club choice stuff, but at least in those days books of the month were about something. A work of both ambition and substance, this is the kind of film that Day of the Locust wanted to be. Sharing many of the same themes, but putting them over with breathless energy, it is filled with outstanding moments. Gantry's reunion with Shirley Jones is touchingly pathetic without being openly sentimental, giving a real sense of wasted lives, and there is real tension in the miracle leading up to the genuinely apocalyptic ending that puts Frank Capra's earlier Miracle Woman to shame.
The sexual chemistry between the leads is just as convincing, and the film is not without humour as well, even throwing in a sly in-joke when Gantry tells how Arthur Kennedy's doubting Thomas learned his use of words from "Sinclair Lewis, lot of other atheists." The films own use of language is superb, and not just when sermonising. It is hard to believe that some of the dialogue crept past the 50s censors - although there is no foul language, the screenplay is incredibly daring for its day. Shirley Jones recounts to her fellow whores the time Elmer "rammed the fear of God into me so fast I never heard my father's footsteps" in the pulpit one Christmas Eve, while Gantry propositions Sharon with "I'd like to tear those holy wings off you, make a real woman of you. I'd show you what heaven's like." It's no surprise that MGM pulled out of a planned version in the mid-50s to be produced by and star William Holden (who was so sure the film would be made he turned down the lead in Giant to make it).
It may not be Lancaster's greatest performance, but in true Oscar-winning fashion it's hands down his showiest - at times you want to tell him to put those teeth away before he hurts someone. You know exactly what he is in any given scene, it's putting them all together that makes it hard to get a complete picture. Gantry's semi-redemption is more subtle and complex and elusive than the cinematic norm and therefore more poignant.
Both Simmons and Oscar-winner Jones, cast wildly against type as the fallen woman, are superb. The under-appreciated Arthur Kennedy, in what is almost a dress rehearsal for his cynical reporter bit in Lawrence of Arabia also offers strong support: the moment where his dictation of a newspaper article matches the power of Gantry's oratory and stops the other reporters in their tracks is beautifully underplayed.
The DVD includes a trailer with Lancaster's Gantry selling the film the way he sells religion. Wearing its length lightly and taking you with it every step of the way, this is more than worth the money, with outstanding direction and screenwriting from Richard Brooks and great performances from all concerned, Elmer Gantry is terrific.
This is a spectacular movie which focuses on the early evangelical movement in the United Sates. Some critics think it is crudely based on the lives of evangelists, Aimee Semple McPherson and Billy Sunday, but it is based on a novel by Sinclair Lewis (1927) which caused a public furor. His book was banned in Boston and other cities, and clergy denounced from pulpits across the country. He wrote this book after his research at several churches in Kansas City. The theme of the movie is corruption and fraud perpetrated in the name of God, but there are no foul words, no nakedness, no illicit sex or alcohol among church members, but there is greed and ambition.
Burt Lancaster, as the lead character Elmer Gantry, offers a brilliant performance that is captivating: Some critics said that he was born to do this role. Sometimes he acts like a crazy drunk, a flamboyant salesman, a womanizer, a penniless drifter who cons others for his own enjoyment. We see Gantry as a disillusioned and misguided middle aged human being with no particular aim in life. While travelling in the Midwest, he comes across the public prayer meeting of evangelist, Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons). Sister Sharon is the leading preacher of a new movement, a kind of revival of faith movement, or evangelism, or church without walls. She is very feminine, tender, and vulnerable and yet she can put her foot down when she has to make firm decisions about her preaching or her style of spreading the message of God. She is on a fast track to make to the top as the messenger of God, and it is then Gantry meets her and cons her into believing that he is a man of God and he can help her movement. Sharon is hesitant and her right-hand man, William Morgan (Dean Jagger) expresses his displeasure especially when he finds about the shadowy past of Elmer Gantry. But Gantry squirms his way into the movement as the new leading man; he impresses Sharon Falconer with his style of preaching. Soon he will be making deals with crooked men and gamblers.
Jean Simmons offers a great performance as Sharon Falconer, but she is strongly overshadowed by the brilliance of Burt Lancaster who won the Academy award in the best actor category in 1960 beating a heavy weight like Spenser Tracy (Inherit the wind), another movie about Biblical teachings.
Gantry sees his end coming when his past catches up with him. His involvement with a young woman named Lulu Bains (Shirley Jones) becomes scandalous and his reputation and the movement is discredited, but when the air clears and later Lulu claims that she framed Elmer, the movement gains its strength again, but it is too late for Sharon Falconer when the church catches fire . It is at end of the movie, we see humanity in all its beauty, love and forgiveness in the spirit of Biblical teachings.
The rest of the cast is also superb. Patti Page is poignant as Sister Rachel, who leads the choir of the ministry, and falls in love with Gantry, but in vain, her voice is never heard, since he is more focused on expanding the ministry and building the coffers of the movement. Jean Simmons does her best to speak with a Midwestern accent, since Falconer is supposed to be from Kansas. Shirley Jones as Lulu Bains is beautiful and seductive was also honored with an Academy award in the best supporting actress category. My favorite moment in the movie is when Gantry enters a black church, barefoot, filthy, with two suit cases in his hands (after a fight with drifters on goods-train). Then he joins the startled congregation in singing the prayer; "I am on my way, Glory, Hallelujah, I am on my way." You may watch part of this video on YouTube.