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Elmer Gantry

In 1927, Sinclair Lewis's scathing anti-revivalist novel Elmer Gantry was condemned for maligning religious leaders. In 1960, writer/director Richard Brooks (whom Lewis had defended in 1946 when the U.S. Marine Corp threatened to sue Brooks over The Brick Foxhole, his book about a gay marine) took on the controversy associated with the book and released his film adaptation of Lewis's story, focusing the film on the first half of the novel about Gantry's life. Said Brooks of his protagonist, "Elmer Gantry is a man who wants what everyone is supposed to want — money, sex, and religion. He's the All-American Boy." Brooks cast Burt Lancaster as Gantry, a role that garnered Lancaster the 1960 Best Actor Oscar. Quipped Lancaster, "Some parts you fall into like an old glove. Elmer really wasn't acting — that was me." The film opens in the midst of Gantry's life as a traveling salesman — a man full of lust, outrageous behavior, and the gift of persuasion. Elmer is a drunk, a womanizer, and a gambler, but with a penchant for old-time Christianity. He is a complex character who embodies the ironic American dichotomy of Puritanism and hedonism. When he meets Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons), Elmer sees the opportunity to combine all his talents to achieve fame and fortune by partnering with Sister Falconer (a character based on the evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson) in her traveling revivalist tent show. The show is a hit in small Midwest towns, but when the revivalists arrive in the city, they encounter obstacles created by some of the more cynical urban residents. Brooks uses this platform to explore issues of faith, religion as business, religion as entertainment, and the growing awareness of Darwinism (and it is interesting to note that Stanley Kramer's Inherit the Wind, based on the Scopes "Monkey Trial," was released this same year.) Forty years later, Elmer Gantry is still gripping despite its nearly two-and-a-half hour running time. The supporting cast members are superb and include Shirley Jones, who also won an Oscar for her performance as the deacon's daughter turned prostitute who credits her fall from grace to Gantry's seduction of her at an early age. (When she reappears in his life at the height of his evangelical fame, his past history with her nearly destroys them both.) Arthur Kennedy as the restrained, observant newspaperman, Edward Andrews as the bumbling George Babbitt, and Jean Simmons as Sister Falconer are all outstanding as well. But ultimately, this movie belongs to Lancaster, who gives a mesmerizing performance with a finely crafted characterization of Gantry as a man full of flaws, ambitions, and grand passions, layered with complex, intricate feelings that make him simultaneously repulsive and sympathetic. Gantry's outrageousness is balanced by Lancaster in subdued scenes where he lets the emotions play subtly across his face. True to the depth of his personality, when Gantry eventually realizes his true love for Sister Falconer he is a changed man, but still only marginally so. Shunning the sort of sweeping emotional transformation that Hollywood so loves, Lancaster instead suggests merely a small shift in the character's perceptions, the kind of shift that happens in real life. The film still carries an air of controversy along with an intriguing glimpse into a slice of American social history. MGM's DVD edition of Elmer Gantry is presented in 1.66:1 widescreen with audio in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. Theatrical trailer, keep-case.
—Kerry Fall



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