ELMER GANTRY (Richard Brooks, 1960)

Elmer Gantry may not be a very good movie, but it’s enjoyable. It’s Sinclair Lewis’s 1927 novel given the Peyton Place-treatment, and although it’s trash it seems to know that it is and never misses a chance to entertain. It’s skillfully written by Richard Brooks (who won an Oscar), who also directed, and acted quite horribly by the lead (who also won an Oscar); but this bad acting of his is of that outrageously overblown stripe that creates such a spectacular surface that you’re engaged even in the absence of any exploration of the character. Elmer Gantry is a smart dumb show designed to hoodwink an audience—and isn’t that, after all, what the novel is about?

Pity, though, that box office jitters—translation: cowardice—dissuaded Brooks away from Lewis’s thematic target. In the movie, certain elements of evangelical “tent” ministries are questioned as to the motives of those involved; but Lewis wasn’t after such small fry. In the novel, Sister Sharon Falconer’s traveling circus of redemption represents the apotheosis of Christian worship showing, magnified, all the quirks and chinks of mainstay Christian churches and mainstream Christianity. The movie takes uncertain aim at the revivalist fringes of Christianity—uncertain, I say, because contrary traits of sincerity and insincerity are sometimes balanced out even within the same character. By contrast, the novel takes dead aim at the heart of American Christianity and organized religion. For Lewis, the “new” Christianity of established, respected churches was merely the veneer behind which lurked “that old time religion.” Good grief: In order to attempt to turn a profit with a faithful adaptation of Lewis’s Elmer Gantry, Brooks might have had to forsake color for black and white, and “actors” Burt Lancaster, Shirley Jones and Patti Page for actors who really could act. Jean Simmons, who plays Sister Sharon, probably would have come onboard anyhow, even for less money, since she had just divorced Stewart Granger and married Brooks. Soap opera offscreen; soap opera on-.

The film’s upholstery—sets, color cinematography and so forth—is colorful. Its richness announces this is a movie, not television. I suppose it would have been too much to ask that the film actually explore its ostensible theme of the role of faith in American life; but certainly the film provides a captivating canvas of certain aspects of American life and culture in post-World War I America. A far more perceptive and interesting film about U.S. evangelism, with its close affinity to nineteenth-century minstrel shows, though, is Frank Capra’s The Miracle Woman (1931), whose evangelist, brilliantly enacted by Barbara Stanwyck, is based on Aimee Semple McPherson, on whom Lewis based his Sister Sharon.

Aimee Semple wasn’t quite as adorable as Simmons, although Semple’s groupies and devotees certainly adored her. She was born Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy in 1890 in Ontario, Canada, to a Methodist farmer and a Salvation Army worker. At eighteen, she became Pentecostal to marry missionary Robert Semple, who died of malaria in China two years later, bringing his widow and baby to New York. Her grief was short-lived. Two years later she remarried, this time a grocer named Harold McPherson. This marriage ended quickly in divorce, as did a third. Aimee Semple McPherson was truly married only to her mission to save souls and spread the Word of God.

In 1918, McPherson moved to Los Angeles. In her Gospel Car she toured the nation on the revival circuit. Back home, she built a temple with a 5300-seat auditorium, and her celebrity increased when she became the first woman to operate her own radio station. She was now in her mid-thirties. In 1926, she disappeared, an apparent drowning victim in the Pacific Ocean, but she reappeared a month later claiming she had been kidnapped and had escaped her captors, who had bound and tortured her, in Mexico. She was acquitted of criminal charges for perpetrating a hoax, and her adherents discounted rumors that their idol had had a romantic rendezvous in the Arizona desert. By the 1930s, at the height of her celebrity as evangelist and faith-healer, McPherson oversaw 200 churches nationwide. An overdose of sleeping pills ended her life at 53.*

Sister Sharon’s death in Elmer Gantry equally blurs a line of possible suicide. Sister Sharon refuses to vacate her tabernacle as it’s consumed by fire. None of her followers try to help her as, panicked, they flee the flames. Her co-evangelist, salesman Elmer Gantry, assures the crowd the next day that Sister Sharon, looking down, forgives them.

Brooks’s glossy film probably is at its best when involved in the nuts-and-bolts of the traveling ministry, including the complicated arrangements involved in setting up shop, for instance, in Zenith, Ohio. (In a bit of cleverness, Lewis’s George F. Babbitt, Zenith businessman, appears in the movie.) Indeed, Dean Jagger, as William L. Morgan, Sister Sharon’s business partner, financial advisor and caring surrogate father, gives one of the film’s two good performances. The other is given by Arthur Kennedy as Jim Lefferts, an honest, doubting reporter for the Zenith Times Dispatch who is cut along the lines of H. L. Mencken. (In the novel, but not here, Lefferts is Gantry’s roommate at Terwillinger College. Lewis, incidentally, dedicated the book “with profound admiration” to Mencken.) Simmons is adequate (and lovely), and quite spirited whenever Sister Sharon is sermonizing. Shirley Jones plays Lulu Bains, a deacon’s daughter and, eventually, a prostitute—a major character in the novel but not in the film, whose action begins only relatively late in Gantry’s life. Jones is flamboyant, but there’s hardly anything to her Lulu; she won an Oscar as best supporting actress purely for the stunt of a musical-romantic star’s “going dramatic.” However, Jones would be somewhat better, directed by John Ford, the following year in Two Rode Together (1961), a western starring Jimmy Stewart and Richard Widmark.

Lancaster’s Gantry is a completely superficial performance. Fourteen years after his (as Pauline Kael justly called it) “falsely promising debut” in Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946), Lancaster proved himself again a shallow, mediocre actor best suited to kids’ matinee period actioners. (Athletically, Lancaster always has a commanding presence.) He perfectly captures the salesman that Gantry is, but nothing else; with Lancaster, Gantry is always on stage, always performing. (Incidentally, this is pretty much the same performance he gave four years earlier, opposite a radiant Katharine Hepburn, in The Rainmaker.) Lancaster searches out nothing behind the mannerisms of a man who “never said anything important, and . . . always said it sonorously.” There’s no dimension to Lancaster’s Gantry, and while there may be a grain of truth to this (American salesmen tend to allow themselves to become reduced to the dimensions of their huckstering), there is also no reflection here on the limits of the man or on the social implications of those limits. There is no discovery of the loneliness of such American figures that compels them to sell themselves and their products, in this case, God, to make desperate contact with others, to cope with the void they find in themselves and outside themselves in an American landscape where poverty continuously threatens to yawn open underneath them and swallow them up. Instead, Lancaster simply smiles, gladhands and performs with gusto. This is among the very worst performances ever to win a best actor Oscar. Three years hence, however, Lancaster—dubbed into Italian by an actor with much greater vocal gifts than his—would be memorable as Prince Don Fabrizio Salina in Luchino Visconti’s tremendous Il Gattopardo (1963), from Lampedusa.

* Anthony Harvey, who directed The Lion in Winter (1968), eight years later directed for television The Disappearance of Aimee, with Faye Dunaway playing Aimee Semple McPherson and Bette Davis playing McPherson’s mother.

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