Elmer Gantry (1960)
Written by Richard Brooks and Sinclair Lewis
Directed by Richard Brooks
When you look at the Joel Osteens and megachurches of our time, you need to understand they came out of the evangelical Christian movement. This fire & brimstone rhetoric taught people that the path to material happiness was through submission to the Lord primarily through giving up their income to the Church. Little was offered in exchange, save a euphoric fervor that lasted long enough for the revival grifters to make tracks to the next town. Then the wave of spiritual enlightenment faded, and the townspeople waited until the next grinning preacher came riding into town with promises of a cure for what ails you.
Elmer Gantry (Burt Lancaster) is a charismatic salesman who enjoys drinking quite often. He’s prone to sprinkling some of the Bible into his pitches and finds he’s a perfect match for a traveling revival group. The revival is headed up by Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons), a saintly woman who moves like an angel. Gantry weasels his way into Falconer’s good graces and begins whispering in her ear about “Christ in commerce,” turning the revival into a full-fledged entertainment operation. Gantry is riding high, making money, and charming the local rubes. Things go awry when they get a longterm gig in the big city of Zenith, and an old face from Gantry’s past comes a-calling.
It takes a bit for the existential horror of Elmer Gantry to kick in, but when it does, it will leave you reeling. At its core, this is a classic Sinclair Lewis satire, brimming with his measured contempt for an institution that takes advantage of the vulnerable. Lewis didn’t hide his disdain for the gross & gluttonous nature of American capitalism, and it’s on full display in this film. This comes out of the manic reaction of Americans to the horror of World War I, an event that pushed the planet to the brink of the apocalypse like nothing before it. People at the time truly believed it was the end of the world, and that is reflected in volumes of literature as well as the visual art of the time.
One place that Americans flocked to in the wake of the Great War was spirituality. As the traditional Church did nothing to protect them from the devastation, they followed right along with the ideology of Modernism and felt the need to reinvent Christianity. In the same way that metropolitan people gave into the excess of the Roaring Twenties, rural folk succumbed to a new type of Jesus, one that would excite and titillate them with the handsome charisma of preachers with promises of mystic healing and untold wealth. Capitalism takes many forms, and it found its way into the sacred, turning it profane.
Gantry is a terrifying figure when preaching, so loud & bombastic that you feel assaulted but then segueing into a smooth smile and soothing voice to balance out the mood in the tent. Extremes of emotion are what keep the flock under Gantry’s sway, terror & pleasure intertwined. Gantry becomes the friendly condemn-er of souls while Falconer offers the virginal hand of an angel. This act proves so successful that investors line up wanting to attach their church or their real estate company to the operation.
The kind of charm that Gantry exudes is violent & aggressive. You feel that he’s going to win you over to his side even if he has to pin you down and forcibly take your endorsement. He’s also genuinely taken by the purity of Falconer, who believes she is in direct connection with God. He’s a dark soul who is drawn to her saving grace, but we must question if he seeks salvation or instead wants to take on the challenge of polluting her soul. In the second act and menacing scene reveals he has a complicated view of their relationship, and he assists in helping Falconer give into her weaknesses.
The film culminates in a scene that reminded me a lot of Day of the Locust’s finale. It’s a mob scene, apocalyptic and straight out of the Bible. The hubris of those who believe they are one with God comes to fruition brutally and terrifyingly. The final remarks of Gantry before the credits roll stayed with me, leaving me wondering if he was never honestly caught up in the emotions and fervor the whole time, merely selling his grift like a master con-man. In an age of demagogues who use religion to prey on those in need, a film like Elmer Gantry feels like a horrific prophecy in the same vein as A Face in the Crowd.