Time to talk about Miss Simmons…
As the Production Code became less and less of a thing in the late fifties and early sixties, movies took on more of an overt edge. Language and content standards began to be relaxed, and once-untouchable topics became fair game. One of the early films of the cinematic new day was 1960’s Elmer Gantry. Based on the Sinclair Lewis novel of the same name, it’s a lusty, raucous story that satirizes religion, particularly Christianity of the tent revival variety.
The first sentence in Lewis’s novel sums up the title character: “Elmer Gantry was a drunk.” A charming, persuasive drunk who lies at the drop of a hat. The movie opens at a bar right before Christmas, where Gantry is drinking and telling bawdy stories with a bunch of bar patrons. While they’re yukking it up, a group from the local mission ask for contributions. No one bites until Elmer picks up one missionary’s tambourine and starts working the crowd. Failing to net any takers, Gantry puts in his own money and whisks people’s money out from under them before handing the tambourine back to the missionary. The woman at the bar thinks Elmer is a great parson, and he buys her a drink.
The next day is Sunday, and Elmer wakes up in his hotel room next to his feminine drinking partner. His mom calls, and he lies about going to church to keep her happy. Then it’s off to catch the next train, where Elmer has to defend his stuff from a bunch of vagrants.
While on the road, Elmer sees signs for a tent revival led by Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons) and stumbles into a small church, where the congregants eye him suspiciously until he joins in the singing. Yes, Elmer is very familiar with church culture and can talk the talk and sing the songs like he was born in a choir loft.
It’s all a veneer, of course. Elmer’s got to pay the bills. He’s a traveling appliance salesman, and business is very bad. No one wants his tchotchkes, but he gamely soldiers on, and he likes that he’s got a hookup in every town. Married women aren’t off-limits, either.
While up in his hotel room, Elmer spies a pretty blonde lady, Sister Rachel (Patti Page) singing on the flatbed of a pickup truck. She’s a member of Sharon Falconer’s revival troupe, and Elmer likes the way she looks, so he goes to the meeting. When Sharon sashays in dressed as a milkmaid, however, Elmer’s dead gone. It’s kind of sick, really. Sharon is charming and lovely, and at her slightest witticism Elmer guffaws that exaggerated fake laugh people do when they want to get noticed.
The next day, Elmer tries to talk to Sharon, only to get rebuffed and referred to Sister Rachel. Sharon is extremely popular everywhere she goes, and people treat her as if she’s a female Pope, so she has an entourage around her, protecting her. Elmer being Elmer, he butters Sister Rachel up and hops on the train with her, following her to the next tent revival site. He ensconces himself next to Sharon while she’s trying to sleep, and slimes out a story about how he took care of a ruffian at one of her meetings. It’s another lie, of course. Sharon’s got a few street smarts, and guesses right away that Elmer likes the ladies.
It doesn’t take long before Elmer is preaching right alongside Sharon, and he knows how to whip a crowd into an emotional frenzy. He slides toward the pulpit, which was one of Lewis’s direct references in the novel to Billy Sunday, and even injects some of what we would today call prosperity gospel. People pour forward, begging to be saved, and at one meeting a farmer stands up and barks. It’s a weird, creepy moment that Elmer plays to the hilt.
Sharon’s manager, Bill (Dean Jagger) has severe reservations about where Sharon’s meetings are going, and he’s been checking into Elmer’s background. Specifically, Elmer got kicked out of seminary for seducing the pastor’s daughter in the church building where he had just preached a sermon.
Bill is worried about the publicity they may get from Elmer’s methods. One journalist in particular, Jim Lefferts (Arthur Kennedy), is always with the troupe, watching everything they do. Sometimes he seems to be nothing but eyes. He’s jaded and cynical about Sister Sharon and chuckles at Elmer’s obvious pretense.
Never mind all that, though. Elmer rushes in with a telegram. The troupe’s been asked to go to Zenith. It’s a huge, major, stupendous opportunity. It’s the big leagues.
And yep, if you’re familiar with Sinclair Lewis’s writings, this is the Zenith. As in, the illustrious Midwestern city where one George F. Babbitt resides, played in the film by Edward Andrews. He’s the King of Conformity, and Zenith is his pet project. Babbitt is present in the meetings Sharon, Elmer and Bill have with the pastors, and he’s instrumental in convincing the pastors to get on board with hosting the revival. It’s good business, he says. Zenith’s churches need more warm bodies. Some of the pastors are reluctant, because they don’t like that Babbitt presents Christianity as a commodity, but they’re overruled. Sharon is equally against it. In the end, though, she decides to go along.
The first night of the revival arrives, and everyone’s acting like it’s opening night of a play. They even call it Opening Night. There’s a buzzing phone center with people giving out advice on behalf of Sister Sharon and counselors ready to disciple the newly saved. As if that weren’t enough, a group of rowdy college students come in to picket and sing The Star Spangled Banner. Sharon quiets them down by having everyone in the tent take a knee and pray.
Sister Sharon has her own motives for holding a revival in Zenith. Her real name is Katie Jones, and she’s from a poor background, but she felt called to minister as an itinerant preacher. She’s building a church in Zenith–an expansive, domed affair right on the pier, where everyone can come to pray and worship. Elmer’s got his own ideas, too, and they include seducing Sister Sharon.
Unfortunately, the proverbial chickens come home to roost. All will have their sincerity and real loyalties tested, and some will pass, while other ones won’t.
The film was toned down from the novel, as its Elmer was an ordained minister. According to IMDb, none of the studios would touch Elmer Gantry at first, because it presented Christianity and tent revivals in such a bad light. United Artists finally greenlighted the movie, adding a disclaimer during the opening credits that impressionable children should not see it. This was a good move, as the film strongly implies that Sharon and Elmer consummate their relationship down on the beach.
Many of the major characters in the Elmer Gantry novel and film were based on real people and events. Sharon Falconer was clearly a take on Foursquare Church founder, Aimee Semple McPherson, with the flowing white robes and flair for the dramatic, although MacPherson’s sweeping gestures and illustrated sermons are absent. McPherson came from a poor background just like Sharon, except that she never changed her name. Sharon and McPherson would both enter services to music, and Sharon’s church had a dome on it just like McPherson’s. Sharon healed someone from deafness; McPherson is said to have healed a paraplegic. Like McPherson, Sharon diffused a rowdy group of college students by having the congregation kneel and pray. McPherson had her big break, too, except that it came in Baltimore, not Zenith, and it was in a theater, not a tent.
There’s plenty of evidence that Richard Brooks and Burt Lancaster meant Elmer Gantry to be an attack on Billy Graham, because Lancaster apes some of Graham’s early delivery style. I take issue with this interpretation because it showed how little Lancaster and Brooks knew about him. Graham was Gantry’s polar opposite. In fact, Graham made a point not to be Elmer Gantry. He refused to be alone with any woman but his wife, not even at dinner in a restaurant. It was a hard and fast rule for his staff members as well. In fact, one of the only controversies Graham met with on the road was that the wives of the men in the group were criticized for wearing makeup. He was even nervous about taking love offerings at crusades because he thought it looked like fleecing people.
We don’t know for sure if Graham ever saw the film or not, but Kurt Edwards noted in his dissertation that Graham was bothered by the movie enough to preach a sermon about it, citing its attitude toward sexuality as contributing to a decline in society.
Jim is based on H.L. Mencken, who covered McPherson’s activities. Like Jim, Mencken wasn’t an ardent supporter, but as time went on he became McPherson’s advocate, even showing up to support her at her trial after her mysterious kidnapping.
Watching it almost sixty years after its release, Elmer Gantry doesn’t feel like satire anymore. There are preachers today that have taken what Gantry did in the story and magnified it via social media and copious merchandising. These types treat coming to Christ like a PBS pledge drive, only instead of a tote bag or a DVD set, givers may get a bigger house or a bigger bank account. Their message has nothing to do with sincere faith in God or acknowledgement of Jesus sacrificing Himself for mankind’s sin. It’s humanism, plain and simple. I won’t name names, but one of the worst of them is heavily stocked at Target. I think most will know who I’m referring to. Put it this way: The fella blocked Matt Walsh on Twitter after Walsh suggested he preach about Jesus. Regardless of anyone’s opinion of Matt Walsh, it’s very telling, isn’t it?
As a film, though, Elmer Gantry is well-done. Burt Lancaster brings a manic, explosive energy to Elmer. Jean Simmons is particularly notable, as she plays Sharon in a feisty, alluring way, and she nails Aimee Semple MacPherson’s oratory presence. Her eyes pierce right through her congregants and anyone who dares cross her. A lesser actor than Lancaster would have melted under her stare. She also has this faraway expression most of the time that makes her seem otherworldly, in sharpest contrast to Lancaster’s sleazy salesman.
Elmer Gantry did what it set out to do, which was to present the idea that what evangelists do publically may not be what goes on behind the scenes. It would have been an uncomfortable thought for audiences in 1960, and likewise for today’s viewers. As a Christian who has grown up in church and served in ministry, I look at it and think Sinclair Lewis may have been more dead-on than even he intended.
Not every minister or evangelist is like Elmer Gantry, but as we’ve all seen, no one is completely immune to going that way. Everyone from Louie Giglio to Tobymac to Mother Theresa has had to be on their guard, because no one should presume to think they’re above temptation.
Elmer Gantry might be edgier than certain Christians are comfortable with. It also has some doctrinal issues. However, it does shine a spotlight on the effects of insincerity and how easy it is to gain the world and yet lose one’s soul.
Coming up in February:
If anything here looks inviting, please see these fine folks:
- J-Dub at Dubsism
- Paul at Return To the 80s
- Maddy at Maddy Loves Her Classic Films
- Virginie at The Wonderful World of Cinema
- Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews
- Lea at Silent-ology
- And yeah, mine’s coming up too (I’m trying to be modest here)
As usual, thanks for reading, all, and see you next time…
Elmer Gantry is available on DVD from Amazon.
Edwards, Kurt, “Billy Graham, Elmer Gantry, and the Performance of a New American Revivalism” (2008). Theatre Ph.D. Dissertations. 12.
Graham, Billy. Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham. New York: Harper Collins, 2011.