Reflections on “Elmer Gantry”,
written and directed by Richard Brooks,
starring Burt Lancaster and Jean Simmons,
based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis
Evangelism and revivalism are subjects that can stir deep feelings and provoke strong reactions. Sinclair Lewis’s book, “Elmer Gantry”, caused a furore on its publication in 1927, and is written as an attack on those evangelists who exchange faith and redemption for cash. I’m afraid I have not read the book, but it appears it is more cynical than the film, particularly in its ending where Gantry marries well and lives a prosperous life, confirming the author’s conviction that God and moral justice may not exist. Sinclair Lewis is even mentioned in the film script as “one of those atheists like Sinclair Lewis”!
The film, however, does a fine job in calling in to question the motives and validity of those evangelists who toured America’s Bible-belt in the 1920s.
Elmer Gantry is a salesman, a man with a chequered past (kicked out of a seminary due to unseemly conduct) who oozes charm, shows conviction, makes a convincing pitch by taking personal interest in his customers and makes no small use of humour. He is eloquent, charming and friendly, and his purpose is to separate his clients from their money.
Touring evangelists or revivalists try to convince the faithful of the worth of God and the Church, bring hope and solace through personal interest, display conviction, sincerity and charm while offering inspiration. They also wish to collect money from their “flock”.
Essentially, both Gantry and the evangelists are selling a service. Gantry offers a product while trying to make his customers feel good, and the evangelists encourage people to contribute to their works by way of financial gifts in exchange for fortification of the soul.
Both are in a form of show business, but while true believers and evangelists may be acting sincerely, show business benefits from professionals.
In many ways, the essence of the film is encapsulated in the opening scenes. We are in a bar where the atmosphere is merry and we meet Gantry (Burt Lancaster) who appears to be something of a hedonist willing to seize each moment. He is humorous, charming and pleasant, and has an eye for the ladies. He is also dynamic and spirited.
Enter the Salvation Army trying to raise money for their causes, a request that falls on deaf ears until Gantry seizes their collection bucket and drums up contributions by making a stirring (and apparently heart-felt) speech about Jesus, strength and fighting for a cause. These may be just words and a pitch to him, but the others in the bar are inspired and make (forced) contributions.
This inspirational behaviour is immediately contrasted with his conduct with a girl he picks up in the bar, and then steals some money from her purse. He goes on to behave like a hobo, hitching a ride on a train and fighting off (quite convincingly) attempts to steal his things by other hoboes.
We then see him charm his way into a church meeting, singing hymns with verve and helping out in return for food. We also discover he is a failed gambler, a drinker and an adulterer.
Life changes for Gantry when he comes across Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons) and her revivalist tour. He falls for Sharon in a big way, not just physically but spiritually as well – he sees a kindred spirit and admires the way she manipulates her audience, rousing their religious fervour and instantly combining this with the need to contribute financially to God’s work and her tour. She is quite genuine in her desire to “spread the word”, but she combines this masterfully with a recognition of the hard realities of business.
Gantry worms his way into Sharon’s business and her heart, joining her tour, “preaching”, and using the same skills of manipulation he applies to his preaching to make business deals with local towns and churches that will benefit financially from their presence.
This culminates in Gantry’s outrageous and high-handed condemnation of “immorality” and he leads attacks on various “dens of iniquity”, during which he discovers one Lulu Bains, now a prostitute, on whose life he had a profound and detrimental effect when he attended the seminary. In short, it is because of Gantry that she is where she is today, and she sets out to gain revenge, revealing the “truth” (a set of incriminating photos) which destroys Gantry’s image and life, leading to a dramatic and tragic end.
Gantry’s true nature is revealed, and there is a strong suggestion that his lack of sincerity and talent for manipulation for his own ends are shared by other evangelists whose financial gains seem to be excessive, and who may take advantage of those requiring spiritual guidance or a sense of purpose. Inspiration may be provided, but there is a price to pay for such services.
The script and direction by Richard Brooks are quite masterful. Each scene advances our knowledge and understanding of the characters, and advances the storyline. The viewer is involved as we share the “truth” about Gantry and share in his schemes while admiring and enjoying his charm! It could even be that we are being “conned” in the same way as Gantry’s “victims”!
Of course there would be no film without Burt Lancaster’s glorious overacting. He is quite superb in this role that won him his only Oscar. Lancaster’s energy, spirit and dynamism fill the screen and allow us to feel what those attending evangelist meetings might have felt. This contrasts beautifully with the end in which he is left shattered yet rises up to inspire others once more, suggesting perhaps that we cannot deny our true natures or the talents we are given.
In some ways I would suggest this is an existential drama, examining the ways in which we influence the lives of others, or interfere in them, and the responsibility and even guilt we bear in doing so. Yet we must all do what we must to survive.
My thanks for taking the time to read this page.
I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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