Directed by Richard Brooks
Written by Richard Brooks from the novel by Sinclair Lewis
Elmer Gantry Productions
First viewing/Netflix rental
This film’s failure to decide what it wants to be drags it out to an interminable 2 1/2 hours.
The story is set in the Prohibition-era Midwest. As it begins, Elmer Gantry (Burt Lancaster) is a hard-drinking extroverted traveling salesmen. We learn early on that he was expelled from theology school. While continuing to entertain fellow barflies with dirty jokes, he has not lost his fascination with religion. He spots the beautiful evangelist Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons) at a camp meeting and proceeds to follow her. She repels his advances but the secretly down-to-earth believer comes to like him.
One night, Gantry takes the pulpit at a revival and mesmerizes the crowd. He becomes a popular mainstay of Sister Sharon’s meetings. These, so far, have taken place in the hinterlands. The ambitious Gantry sets his sights on urban Zenith (Lewis’s stand-in for Chicago). The traveling evangelists may have bitten off more than they can chew. With Dean Jagger as Sister Sharon’s manager; Arthur Kennedy as an H.L. Menken-style journalist; and Shirley Jones as a former lover and current prostitute.
Clearly I am in the minority but I can’t get behind this movie. What starts out as a critique of evangelism in general and Elmer Gantry’s type of evangelist in particular, devolves into something much more sympathetic to the character. All this is evident in the many sudden shifts in the point of view of the journalist. Then we get the whole love story aspect and end with a special effects conflagration. I have not read the source novel but cannot imagine that it was so uneven in tone or contained so many climaxes. I was dizzy from the amount of times I expected “The End” to appear on screen.
I love Burt Lancanster much of the time but when he does this kind of bigger-than-life showman, I just get exhausted. Jones is excellent playing against type.
Elmer Gantry won Academy Awards in the categories of Best Actor; Best Supporting Actress (Jones); and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from another Medium. It was nominated in the categories of Best Picture and Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture.