Richard Brooks was something of an Oscar regular by the time he made Elmer Gantry. The Blackboard Jungle, The Brothers Karamazov and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof had all garnered attention; he’d continue to keep that up during the ‘60s. Gantry receiving the nominations it did (five, including Best Picture), feels like a surprise in some ways, though: that the Academy would recognise material so overtly critical of religion, or by implication, through broadsiding those treating it like a business. That may partly be because its source material dates back to Sinclair Lewis’ 1927 novel, so there’s a literary pedigree, however current and controversial. It may also help that, while the film starts out to expose and critique with uncompromising zeal, by the conclusion it has become a much more recognisably traditional affair.
Plus, the makers were very careful to preface the picture by stating that those portrayed within it weren’t intended to reflect Christianity as a whole (well naturally – United Artist weren’t looking for a boycott), as well as, if not being slavish to the then increasingly tenuous Hays Code, making some changes; Gantry is no longer an ordained minister, having been thrown out of the seminary for seducing the deacon’s daughter. Nevertheless, one can’t help wonder if the Academy might have had a bee in their bonnet that year, since Inherit the Wind, Stanley Kramer’s attack on creationism, was also jostling for Best Picture attention. Here, the opportunistically mocking Elmer brings a chimp on stage to emphasise his argument against the evolutionists.
Perhaps a historic setting was perceived to provide sufficient insulation in both instances, then. Lancaster, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the title character, a con man travelling salesman turned evangelist, intended the film as an attack on Billy Graham. Indeed, it’s difficult not to think of Graham. Lancaster is terrific, a tornado of unexpurgated flim-flam in the aid of persuading rapt audiences to buy what he’s selling, and just self-effacing enough to allow that he might pull off this doozy of confidence tricks.
Bizarrely – for poor Pat, that is – he got the part after the earmarked Pat Hingle fell down a lift shaft, and in due course had to vie with notables Jack Lemmon (The Apartment) and Laurence Olivier (The Entertainer) for the Oscar. I’ve never much liked Archie Rice, celebrated as the role is, but Lemmon might well have been the favourite, given The Apartment’s taking of the big prizes. It’s doubtful either could have equalled Lancaster’s acceptance speech wit (“I want to thank all who expressed this kind of confidence by voting for me. And right now, I’m so happy I want to thank all the members who didn’t vote for me“). Lancaster notably won in a town where his reputation was widely known, but then, when such behaviour has only recently been an impediment to Academy recognition.
Morgan: You’re a crude, vulgar show-off, and your vocabulary belongs in the outhouse.
As impressive as Lancaster, in a contrastingly understated manner, is Jean Simmons as Sister Sharon Falconer, who offers the contrasting salve of heaven to Gantry’s hell, the haloes to his brimstone (“I’d say we make a pretty good team”). Admittedly in this regard, Elmer Gantry’s most obvious failing is that Sister Sharon and her manager Bill Morgan (Dean Jagger), who doesn’t warm to Gantry initially, wouldn’t be a lot more careful in disguising their cynical calculation in utilising his unique gifts, particularly with Arthur Kennedy’s reporter tagging along with the “travelling circus”.
Sister Sharon: God sent you to me as an instrument, do you understand?
One might also suggest there isn’t quite enough character work to account for whatever it is that makes Sister Sharon tick. She initially resists Gantry’s advances (“The big difference between you and me is that I believe. I really believe”), and impresses by seeing him for what he is immediately. But there isn’t really an insight into how she can profess to be a genuine believer while simultaneously thinking the kind of morally-culpable calculation that accompanies endorsing Gantry is acceptable.
Indeed, it’s a disappointment when she succumbs to Gantry’s charms, the satirical thrust giving way to a more melodramatic tenor. Now there’s a relationship between them, and a less than riveting honeytrap (“the old badger game”) involving Lulu, a prostitute he ran out on (Shirley Jones, later of The Partridge Family, who won Best Supporting Actress). Brooks’ film may have only taken a hundred pages of the novel as its basis, but it more than pads them out in a movie that’s almost two-and-a-half hours in length. It’s a shame, because in the early stages, Elmer Gantry is punchy and on point in its targets; it falls victim to indulging too much of a good thing.
And, of course, to drive its points home, the film needed the deceivers to triumph. Instead, Elmer Gantry manages, for all its disdain of those who would deceive, to arrive at a very Hays Code-indulging ending of protagonists in some way paying for their sins. We’ve already seen less than subtle arguments between the city elders – “Your problem is empty churches, gentlemen” advises Gantry; “Religion is not a business” disputes Hugh Marlowe’s Reverend Garrison – prior to the arrival of the revival in Zenith. Now, at the climax, following Gantry’s public humiliation and then Lulu’s retraction, he resists joining the revived revival, while Sister Sharon, refusing to run away with him, miraculously heals a deaf man.
Lefferts: Every circus needs a clown, Gantry. And who knows you might turn out to be the funniest clown of them all. And the most successful.
I’d been hoping this would be revealed as a con itself, even one unbeknownst to her, since it would have given the picture added bite when it most needed it (and also as neat an underscore as Gantry’s description of his own inspired sermons, whereby he fails even to realise he’s using the language of being a vessel of God: “It’s like a mighty spirit movin’ inside of me”). Rather, it provides a muddled, muddied sign from God, since sister Sharon takes the miracle as an endorsement, even when the tent starts burning and the audiences are running for their lives (“Wait! You must have faith!”), perishing in the flames. Gantry, meanwhile, is allowed maturity of a sort, quoting Corinthians (“When I was a child, I understood as a child and spoke as a child. When I was a man, I put away childish things”), which might be taken as a repudiation of the “childishness” of religion, but is directly in response to Morgan suggesting he carry on Sister Sharon’s good work.
Nevertheless, Elmer Gantry still packs a wallop when it’s firing on all cylinders, which is invariably when Lancaster or Simmons (who married Brooks) are in a partnership, rather than a relationship. It also stands as a notable and occasionally surprising yardstick of what was nascently allowed to fly, along with The Apartment, on the way to an altogether less censorious Hollywood.