Elmer Gantry: What's it About? What's Good and Bad About it?

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Bright light. Bright light. Uh oh.


OK MoFos, you know I love this flick, and I'd really like to get into a discussion about it. I'm not going to write up some big post here because I'd love for others to carry the conversation and I'd like to respond to them. I think this is a good time because several members have seen it now, and Yoda just recently watched it. So what do you guys say? Do you have any questions? I hope that most people enjoyed it but this is the thread where you get to complain about what you think its weak points are if that's what you want to do.
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Glad you started this thread, Mark, because I'm very conflicted about this movie, and knowing your penchant for filmic insight in general and your love for this film, in particular, I'm sure you can straighten things out for me a bit.

To each question in turn:

What's It About?
Ostensibly, it's about a roving preacher whose bombastic style segues nicely into the big-tent rivalism of the 1920s. He is exciting, energetic, and a philandering louse, all at the same time. He teams up with Sister Sharon Falconer and the two of them set out to save souls en masse, though other religious leaders have misgivings about their methods.


What's Good About It?
The acting. I love the acting in Elmer Gantry. Lancaster is just fabulous, and the degree of difficulty is way up there. It wouldn't be enough to merely be a good actor in this role; you have to be a good speaker, too. Lancaster has to speak with the same conviction and eloquence as a real revivalist preacher, and he does. It's a very visceral thing, and not many people can do it convincingly.



Jean Simmons is quite good as Sharon, as well. She hung around a convent in Black Narcissus, and it took her 13 more years to graduate to full-fledged disciple. Still, this is Lancaster's show, both in the film and on the stages therein.

I also like the way it's shot; it feels like we have a front-row seat for each of Gantry's sermons, and it properly conveys the size of the growing crowds. I particularly liked the opening scene in the bar, where the camera follows Gantry around the room as he reels off a lovely speech about love, before taking up donations from his poker buddies and fellow drunkards. Best scene in the film, iffin' you ask me.


What's Bad About It?
Probably not much to those who have studied it more than I have, but I felt a little adrift while watching it. I felt as if it was building towards some kind of real resolution that never real came, and tip-toed around larger ideas than it bothered to explore (that always bugs me). I enjoy a nuanced film that allows us to explore its themes and doesn't, forgive the pun, preach to us too much, but Elmer Gantry contains so much that I could have used a sturdier message to hang onto.

Other than that, I found it to be a bit long, I suppose, and I thought Gantry's slow seduction of Sharon was a little less than totally convincing. Mostly, though, I don't actively dislike anything about the film; I just find myself strangely detached from it. I have few specific complaints about it; I like plenty of the dialogue in isolation, I love Lancaster's performance, and I love the opening scene. But the middle of the film just feels rudderless, and I suppose I would have appreciated a bit more context on the religious disputes. Granted, I'm already 40 years past the 40 years of distance it had between its release and the time it depicts, and I think that might date it slightly.


Elmer and E.F.

You'll notice The Apostle is on my Favorite Movies list, for some of the same reasons I admire Lancaster's performance. The two films are fairly alike, as well, though I doubt I'm the first person to make this connection. Both are about deeply flawed advocates for God (are there any other kind?); Sonny being the other. Both characters believe what they're saying in their bones, but can't always live it. And both Gantry and Sonny are womanizers, and both respond to the consequences of their actions by simply picking up and moving somewhere else.

Perhaps the difference is one of scope; at the end of his film, Gantry simply moves on, leaving a fair amount of destruction behind him. Sonny's move comes earlier, and we get to see him put his roots down in a new place afterwards. I kinda like to think that The Apostle is about what might have happened to someone like Elmer Gantry next.



Thinking about The Apostle helps me understand what Elmer Gantry might really be about, actually. The two characters are deeply passionate, and perhaps both films are telling us that passionate people cannot compartmentalize their lives in any meaningful way. Every thing -- be it God or women -- must be advocated or pursued with the utmost force. True passion defies moderation, and their flame inevitably consumes the people around them, who are drawn to it like moths. Eventually, they burn everything down (in one case, literally), and they have no choice but to find new things to consume.

I suppose, if I had to think about Elmer Gantry as a whole, my frustration comes in part because I want it to be about more than just the man, but I'm starting to think that it's not. It touches on the conflict between various religious factions of the day and other fairly large, important ideas, but the film starts to look a lot more sensible when simply viewed as the unbiased portrait of a single man. Maybe, deep down, I wanted the film to ultimately either condemn or absolve Gantry, rather than merely depict him, even though this is not an entirely reasonable desire. If anything, one could give it credit for creating a character so vivid that I actively wanted the film itself to take a stance on him, one way or another.

Anyway, this is all pretty free form. Would love to hear Mark's thoughts on all this, or anyone else who's seen the film.
__________________



OK MoFos, you know I love this flick, and I'd really like to get into a discussion about it. I'm not going to write up some big post here because I'd love for others to carry the conversation and I'd like to respond to them. I think this is a good time because several members have seen it now, and Yoda just recently watched it. So what do you guys say? Do you have any questions? I hope that most people enjoyed it but this is the thread where you get to complain about what you think its weak points are if that's what you want to do.
What this film is about is giving Lancaster his absolutely best role ever and he knocked it out of the park with an award-winning performance! I know this will shock you, Mark, but it's one of my favorite films, too.

More precisely, the film is based on a best-selling novel that has more sex, more religious turmoil and questioning of Christain beliefs and ethics, and more sin than could be put on the screen at that time, which is likely why Yoda felt the film didn't have a message to hang onto since back then Hollywood had to tiptoe around things like sex, religion and real sin.

It helps too if one knows something about the history of the evangelical movement and of tent revivals in the prohibition era. The scene where Lancaster as Gantry is talking about how Jesus could have captained any modern sports team and demonstrates that "slide for salvation" like a ballplayer coming into base is straight out of the very real Billy Sunday, a former professional baseball player who turned tent-show evangelist and later had a popular--and profitable--radio program. But there was also a darker side in the book that doesn't show up in the film, a touch of Father Coughlin, a Catholic priest who had a radio program in the 1930s that was more than a little anti-Semitic and rationalized fascism under Hitler.

Of course, Jean Simmons' role as Sister Sharon was a direct steal from Aimee Semple McPherson who founded the Pentecostal Christian denomination of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel in 1927 (As a young man, Anthony Quinn was employed by her to preach sermons). But instead of a fire, she was brought down by scandal--seems she disappeared while swimming at a beach then showed up some days later down near the Mexican border with a story about being kidnapped by bootleggers. But as the story and her picture were spread over front pages across the nation, witnesses came forward to say they had seen her with a man who turned out to be one of her employees (a bookkeeper?) in what turned out to be a romantic interlude. Seems like he may have been married.

Anyway, there are elements of all of that, more especially in the book but toned down in the film. Still, basically it's about religion as entertainment and as a commodity to be sold for a profit. Author Sinclair Lewis wrote books that exposed corruption. This was his expose on evangelists for sale. One of the most telling scenes in the film is when a local preacher of a denominated church complains about tent-show evangilists coming in and "winning souls" with all their glitz and glamour and "miracle hearings" but never stick around to administer to those souls, to provde the additionl guidance and support they may need, resulting in a quick and high percentage of back-sliders.

My reading of the film differs from Yoda's on one main point: In comparing Elmer Gantry with The Apostle, he says, "Both characters believe what they're saying in their bones, but can't always live it." That's true of Duval's character in The Apostle, but I don't think Lancaster's Gantry ever means a single word he says. He's just the slick-tongued salesman. He can use his gift of gab for good or for evil, but for him it's all the same--making the sale. I think he does find something special in Sister Sharon, but he tries to bring her down to his level, knowing he can never come up to hers--and really doesn't want to be like her. There's a sincerity in Duval's character in The Apostle that never manifests itself in Gantry. I think Lancaster's Gantry is more like the evangelical showman that Steve Martin once played. At the end of the movie you still don't know if either is speaking from the heart or emitting sounds "as the tinkling brass."

The way I see Gantry, he's self-centered, self-satisfied, and out for a good time. He's not malicious but he's careless, and so he hurts people in the process without meaning to, as with the preacher's daughter turned prostitute. He feels bad when he sees what happened to her, he'd like to help her, but given the chance, he'd go for the "good time" all over again. Anyone who gets close to him will have a party but runs the risk of getting hurt in the process.

The worst I can say about the film is that Hollywood whitewashed the book, but that was the norm in those times, just as today's norm is to reproduce all the dark tones of comic books.



Bright light. Bright light. Uh oh.
Great post, Yoda. I think I understand where you're coming from and most of your problems with the film. I have two other ways you should look at the film. One is from the film itself and one is from another film you recently watched, Citizen Kane.



First off, you seem fixated on the fact that the movie is mostly all about the title character, but Elmer Gantry is full of characters which you haven't even mentioned, and the two main characters you did mention you didn't really go that deep into who they "are" and what they represent. I'll be the first to admit that I love Elmer Gantry because I honestly believe that word-for-word, it contains the smartest, wittiest dialogue I've ever heard in a movie. But the characters all represent different sides of what's going on in Middle America during the 1920s. Since you've mentioned Gantry and Sister Sharon Falconer, let's start with those two. Gantry is obviously a fast-talking huckster (being a traveling salesman by profession) but when he's in the moment, he does seem to truly believe in what he's preaching about. Gantry first hooks up with Sister Sharon for his own sexual desire for her, but what is it about Gantry which Sharon finds appealing? Is Sharon a serious preacher or a sham? How would you compare Gantry and Sharon on some level of honesty, faith and a desire to truly "save" someone? One other question about these two. Who's responsible for what happens during the fiery finale of Elmer Gantry? Why did Sharon seem to tempt God into saving her at the end? Gantry was in the middle of trying to settle down and marry Sharon when she saw that shooting star at the end, and from that moment, she seemed to feel truly touched by God. Then she performed a miracle cure and was sure that she was an instrument of God. Did Sharon lose all sense of reality because she truly thought ehe was going to usher in a new era of evangelism or was it more a reaction against Gantry trying to "domesticate" her? There's a lot more to be said but that's a start on those two and their relationship.



The agnostic reporter Jim Lefferts (Arthur Kennedy) is a strong character who's covering Sister Sharon for his big-city newspaper, and he presents what may be seen as the "rational", non-religious side to what they have to offer. Lefferts is a really likable character, but once again, he has an agenda. Now, is that to just make fun of them and publish innuendo that they're making a tax-free living by bilking the rubes or is it to honestly warn people about wolves in sheep's clothing? Lefferts is always there for Sharon and Gantry throughout all their ups and downs, even after he publishes his big article which brings out Gantry's old ghost of Lulu Baines (Shirley Jones), the deacon's daughter whom Gantry seduced on a Christmas day when he was younger. Well, Lulu is a prostitute now and has a grievance to settle with Gantry, and she also seems to be a bit jealous of Gantry's attentions of his new "Bible Broad".



Bill Morgan (Dean Jagger) is Sister Sharon's business partner and initially campaigns against Gantry becoming part of their revival. What do you think of Morgan? Is he supposed to have any religious beliefs or is he just trying to earn a buck and protect Sharon? If so, is he somehow involved in a business which he isn't sincere about? Morgan is another very-likable character, much more so I'd say that Zenith's businessman par excellence, George F. Babbitt (Edward Andrews), who tries to get the revival into his metropoli of Zenith to help pump up the church's declining numbers but isn't above trying to use it to help his own various business ventures.

My point is that all these characters are in the film to help put Gantry and the reality of revivalism into context. I know that some people will be scared off from Gantry just because it deals seriously and in your face with issues of religion, theatricality and hypocrites, but of course, that's why I love the film. To me, it's not dated at all because whether one believes that we've gotten far more sophisticated than the simple people of the 1920s, these kinds of things still happen today. If you look at the various "religious" programs on TV you'll see preaching and incidents which make those in Gantry seem subdued and documentaryish. Believe it or not, there are still traveling revival tents put up in big cities for a day or two (even here in Orange County). The question remains. What's more important? The message or the messenger? I know some people will say both are rubbish in this case. If that's true, does this film depict that? Or does it depict both as being important and healthy for people who try to stretch their "spiritual" growth by whatever means is made available to them? In other words, when is a film too complex for its own good, and do Elmer Gantry and Citizen Kane qualify as films which make it difficult for a viewer to rap one's head around them?

So, Yoda, I know that you love Citizen Kane, but what makes it easier for you to find a message and a rudder to guide you through it more than Elmer Gantry? Is it just that Kane is a bonafide phenomenon and Gantry is a film which has somewhat been forgotten over time? I don't feel the need to get into specific questions here. I just read your comments here in the "What's Bad About It?" section and those at the Kane Movie Club thread. They may not contradict each other, but they seem to be traveling in close to opposite directions.



With reference to The Apostle, as well as Steve Martin's Leap of Faith, those films do seem to be inspired by Elmer Gantry or at least, the themes inherent in the film and novel Elmer Gantry. If you feel as if Gantry seemed to poop out at the conclusion, I've certainly heard that before although I find the climax to put an exclamaton point on the entire film. However, you may be happy to learn that your feelings are certainly not without legitimacy since the film adaptation only dealt with a section in the middle of the novel. In the book, Gantry's earlier life was presented in present tense, long before he met Sister Sharon, and after he "puts away childish things" at the end of the film, he continues on to have many more adventures involving many more supporting characters.



Bright light. Bright light. Uh oh.
Hi, ruffy! As far as the book being whitewashed, you may be correct to an extent, but Sinclair Lewis himself wanted his protege Richard Brooks (In Cold Blood, The Professionals) to write and direct the film of Elmer Gantry, and Lewis got his wish although he didn't live to see it. Although they obviously couldn't show nudity and on-screen sex, the film's dialogue and staging leaves little to the imagination. If anything, I thought they made the film more complex than the novel because the novel definitely painted Gantry as in the black end of black and white, while the film places him squarely into a shade of gray which fluctuates as the film progresses.



More precisely, the film is based on a best-selling novel that has more sex, more religious turmoil and questioning of Christain beliefs and ethics, and more sin than could be put on the screen at that time, which is likely why Yoda felt the film didn't have a message to hang onto since back then Hollywood had to tiptoe around things like sex, religion and real sin.
That certainly makes a good deal of sense. If the debauchery had been a bit more explicit, I'd probably find myself sympathizing with Gantry a bit less, and thus wouldn't have felt any uncertainty about what it might have been trying to say.

My reading of the film differs from Yoda's on one main point: In comparing Elmer Gantry with The Apostle, he says, "Both characters believe what they're saying in their bones, but can't always live it." That's true of Duval's character in The Apostle, but I don't think Lancaster's Gantry ever means a single word he says. He's just the slick-tongued salesman. He can use his gift of gab for good or for evil, but for him it's all the same--making the sale. I think he does find something special in Sister Sharon, but he tries to bring her down to his level, knowing he can never come up to hers--and really doesn't want to be like her. There's a sincerity in Duval's character in The Apostle that never manifests itself in Gantry. I think Lancaster's Gantry is more like the evangelical showman that Steve Martin once played. At the end of the movie you still don't know if either is speaking from the heart or emitting sounds "as the tinkling brass."
This is interesting, because the first few scenes in the film left me with a different impression that, it seems, probably colored my view of the rest of the film. In the opening scene Gantry doesn't really gain anything out of the little collection he takes up in the bar, apart from perhaps some kind of salesman's high for its own sake. In the next few scenes, we see him stopping at a random church and shoveling some coal for them, all the while spouting off Bible verses. I think they give him a sandwich, though I don't recall offhand if he even accepts it. Neither of these things make him a good person, but they did make me feel at the time -- right or wrong -- that he believed in the principles he preaches about, even if he has no hope of really living them out.

Granted, I've seen the film just once, a couple of months ago, and haven't read the book or ruminated in great detail on the film, so it's entirely possible I'm way off-base, though I hope it's intriguing to hear this perspective all the same. I did know that the book was fairly controversial and that the film toned things down, which leaves me wondering whether or not we can use the book to determine exactly what the film is trying to say, or whether it's its own entity that takes a slightly different tack. Or, even if it's trying to convey the same message, whether or not it does so adequately.



Bright light. Bright light. Uh oh.
Yes, in the movie after the "Christmas Sermon", Gantry picks up a woman at the bar and sleeps with her. Then he calls his Mom to wish her Merry Christmas. He hops a rattler [train] and gets off after a fist fight when the other bums try to steal his shoes. He comes upon an all-Black church and joins them in singing an old spiritual (awesome scene), and then he shovels some ashes in return for a plate of black-eyed peas. It all sets up Gantry as being both Angel and Devil from the get-go.



First off, you seem fixated on the fact that the movie is mostly all about the title character, but Elmer Gantry is full of characters which you haven't even mentioned, and the two main characters you did mention you didn't really go that deep into who they "are" and what they represent. I'll be the first to admit that I love Elmer Gantry because I honestly believe that word-for-word, it contains the smartest, wittiest dialogue I've ever heard in a movie.
True on both counts, though please don't take either to mean much beyond "this post is getting long and is only meant as a jumping off point for further discussion." I did appreciate Lefferts' character and found him fairly intriguing, and like you I did quite enjoy most of the dialogue, and I spent a lot of time thinking about Gantry, specifically, though I admit that probably doesn't seem to be the case if judging the situation only from my first post in the thread.

But the characters all represent different sides of what's going on in Middle America during the 1920s. Since you've mentioned Gantry and Sister Sharon Falconer, let's start with those two. Gantry is obviously a fast-talking huckster (being a traveling salesman by profession) but when he's in the moment, he does seem to truly believe in what he's preaching about.
Right. Whether or not this indicates a true belief is a sticky question, I think, but I imagine the best salesmen find a way to make themselves believe what they're saying in some fashion.

Ironically, my gripes might simply be an illustration of just how good Lancaster's performance is. Perhaps I, even as a viewer, was duped by the force of Gantry's charisma into thinking he really believed what he was saying on some level!

Gantry first hooks up with Sister Sharon for his own sexual desire for her, but what is it about Gantry which Sharon finds appealing?
I actually found myself asking that same thing ("what is it about Gantry that Sharon finds appealing?"), as I didn't find that part of the film entirely convincing. Then again, perhaps that's the point: she didn't fall head-over-heels for Gantry, he just sort of wore her down. Would've liked to see more of that, either way.

Re: the other questions:

"Is Sharon a serious preacher or a sham?"
I think she's a serious preacher.


"How would you compare Gantry and Sharon on some level of honesty, faith and a desire to truly "save" someone?"
I'd say Sharon's committed to it, honestly and faithfully, and Gantry only thinks he is. I think he mistakes the fervor of the moment for real religious faith (or doesn't care to think about it seriously at all).


"One other question about these two. Who's responsible for what happens during the fiery finale of Elmer Gantry?"
I really like this question. I think they both are, though in different ways. Obviously Gantry prodded her and encouraged her to think of herself in a way that probably isn't wise, but she buys into it. Ultimately, it's on her to make her own choices and the downfall is her own, though Gantry's hands certainly aren't clean here, either.


Why did Sharon seem to tempt God into saving her at the end? Gantry was in the middle of trying to settle down and marry Sharon when she saw that shooting star at the end, and from that moment, she seemed to feel truly touched by God. Then she performed a miracle cure and was sure that she was an instrument of God. Did Sharon lose all sense of reality because she truly thought ehe was going to usher in a new era of evangelism or was it more a reaction against Gantry trying to "domesticate" her? There's a lot more to be said but that's a start on those two and their relationship.
Oh, certainly. I think she finally bought into the praise she was always being showered with, and fell as a result. I like to think that the burning of the church is a bit like Jesus turning over the tables of the collectors inside the temple.


The agnostic reporter Jim Lefferts (Arthur Kennedy) is a strong character who's covering Sister Sharon for his big-city newspaper, and he presents what may be seen as the "rational", non-religious side to what they have to offer. Lefferts is a really likable character, but once again, he has an agenda. Now, is that to just make fun of them and publish innuendo that they're making a tax-free living by bilking the rubes or is it to honestly warn people about wolves in sheep's clothing?
I wonder if we really learn enough about Lefferts to know this for sure. I suppose, if I had to come down on one side or the other, I'd say he's meant to be portrayed as rational, level-headed, and therefore his writings are intended to be seen as honest warnings against dishonest men. But you're right, he has a stake in what he does, whether he believes it or not. He's not unlike Gantry in that respect. I suppose this could be an attempt to illustrate just how difficult it is to tell who really believes in what they're saying and doing, or perhaps merely a suggestion that it isn't possible.

Bill Morgan (Dean Jagger) is Sister Sharon's business partner and initially campaigns against Gantry becoming part of their revival. What do you think of Morgan? Is he supposed to have any religious beliefs or is he just trying to earn a buck and protect Sharon? If so, is he somehow involved in a business which he isn't sincere about? Morgan is another very-likable character, much more so I'd say that Zenith's businessman par excellence, George F. Babbitt (Edward Andrews), who tries to get the revival into his metropoli of Zenith to help pump up the church's declining numbers but isn't above trying to use it to help his own various business ventures.
I feel like I'd be guessing here, a bit, which is actually something that bugs me about the film. I wish there'd been more elaboration on the conflict between the various religious leaders, as well as characters like Morgan. Babbitt is clearly a fraud of sorts, though I wasn't entirely clear on whether or not Morgan and some of the others were different, or just more subtle about it.

Again, if I have to come down one way or another...I'd say Morgan believes in what he's doing and is worried about seeing it hijacked. And, as such, he's somewhat complicit because he allows himself to be taken along for the ride, just as Sister Sharon does. And, again, perhaps this is the idea: even the well-meaning people don't come out looking entirely clean. They either facilitate the problem, or implicitly tolerate it.


My point is that all these characters are in the film to help put Gantry and the reality of revivalism into context. I know that some people will be scared off from Gantry just because it deals seriously and in your face with issues of religion, theatricality and hypocrites, but of course, that's why I love the film. To me, it's not dated at all because whether one believes that we've gotten far more sophisticated than the simple people of the 1920s, these kinds of things still happen today. If you look at the various "religious" programs on TV you'll see preaching and incidents which make those in Gantry seem subdued and documentaryish. Believe it or not, there are still traveling revival tents put up in big cities for a day or two (even here in Orange County). The question remains. What's more important? The message or the messenger? I know some people will say both are rubbish in this case. If that's true, does this film depict that? Or does it depict both as being important and healthy for people who try to stretch their "spiritual" growth by whatever means is made available to them? In other words, when is a film too complex for its own good, and do Elmer Gantry and Citizen Kane qualify as films which make it difficult for a viewer to rap one's head around them?
"What's more important? The message or the messenger?" That's really the essence of the whole thing, isn't it? I don't think I have an answer to this in regards to the film, or life in general. I lean towards "the message," because a thing is true or not regardless of how flawed its source, though that's more cold "if a, then b" logic than anything.

That said, the messenger may not matter much in an isolated sense, but in the sense that a flawed leader will inevitably go further and further astray, the distinction may be meaningless. I don't necessarily need whoever's helping me or leading me to be a particularly good person, but if they're not, I tend to think they won't be much help (or much of a leader) for long.

So, Yoda, I know that you love Citizen Kane, but what makes it easier for you to find a message and a rudder to guide you through it more than Elmer Gantry? Is it just that Kane is a bonafide phenomenon and Gantry is a film which has somewhat been forgotten over time? I don't feel the need to get into specific questions here. I just read your comments here in the "What's Bad About It?" section and those at the Kane Movie Club thread. They may not contradict each other, but they seem to be traveling in close to opposite directions.
A very fair question. I think the biggest difference is that the enigma of the titular character, and the question of whether or not you can really understand a man's life, was the entire point of Citizen Kane. Not being able to wrap my head around the fictional man is a part of what the film is trying to say, so it bothers me less. In Elmer Gantry, I didn't get this sense. Whether that was from my own failure to understand what it was saying, or its own failure to convey the same, I'm not as sure, but I think that explains why I might have a different reaction to two films about two complicated characters.

That said, I did give Elmer Gantry
(though I confess I thought about making it a bit lower), so I wouldn't say there's a huge discrepancy in terms of quality. The things I like about Elmer Gantry I like very much; if it seems like I'm criticizing it a great deal, it's mainly just because a) the things I disliked are the things that gnaw on me a bit, as a viewer, and b) the discussion is far more interesting when we focus on things we see a bit differently.


I wonder...is this cover deliberately made so that it looks like people are not only walking into the tent, but out of the church?

With reference to The Apostle, as well as Steve Martin's Leap of Faith, those films do seem to be inspired by Elmer Gantry or at least, the themes inherent in the film and novel Elmer Gantry. If you feel as if Gantry seemed to poop out at the conclusion, I've certainly heard that before although I find the climax to put an exclamaton point on the entire film. However, you may be happy to learn that your feelings are certainly not without legitimacy since the film adaptation only dealt with a section in the middle of the novel. In the book, Gantry's earlier life was presented in present tense, long before he met Sister Sharon, and after he "puts away childish things" at the end of the film, he continues on to have many more adventures involving many more supporting characters.
Interesting. For the record, though, I actually quite liked the ending.



Yes, in the movie after the "Christmas Sermon", Gantry picks up a woman at the bar and sleeps with her. Then he calls his Mom to wish her Merry Christmas. He hops a rattler [train] and gets off after a fist fight when the other bums try to steal his shoes. He comes upon an all-Black church and joins them in singing an old spiritual (awesome scene), and then he shovels some ashes in return for a plate of black-eyed peas. It all sets up Gantry as being both Angel and Devil from the get-go.
Ah yes. I remember the scene where he calls his mother, but for some reason, in my head, I had that a bit later in the chronology. Agree completely about the singing; loved that scene.

I think these scenes, because they're the first we see of Gantry, set the tone for the rest of the film, and had a tremendous amount to do with what I ultimately thought about the character. As you say, we see him doing some fairly decent things, and some fairly debauched ones, too. At this point I sort of decided he was a real believer who just couldn't help himself.



Bright light. Bright light. Uh oh.
&feature=related

The thing about Elmer Gantry for me is that it just presents a total package of entertainment and thought-provoking subject matter rolled into what's probably the funniest melodrama ever made. It's big, it's loud, it's in-your-face, but underneath it all, it presents very real, flawed human characters. It might take a few viewings though to realize just how witty the visuals and the script are because the film rarely gives you a chance to breathe since it's so full of incident and dialogue. For example, there's a scene where Gantry announces to a crowd that he got some "French postcards" from a "man with a black beard". It leads up to Gantry's wonderful speech about sending booze to hell. Well, when Gantry holds up the postcards, Babbitt and some of Zenith's other civic leaders all get up and take very close looks at them. Then, when Gantry says that booze is what causes women to become victims of white slave traders [prostitutes], there's a reaction shot of the crowd cheering and applauding. I laugh my head off, but I wonder how many people even take notice.

Social satire is ingrained into almost every second of Gantry which isn't actually an honest sharing between characters in the film. This may be one of your problems with it, Yoda. It takes a story about a complex subject, which very few films ever dare to discuss, and it sends out a central character who's also very complex to try to push your buttons a certain way. Apparently you feel the need to approach this movie differently from many others because of the subject matter. I can understand that, but I can't totally relate to it anymore. I watched Elmer Gantry the first time on TV around 1975, and it was back when the local station would play the same movie every night for a week, so I watched Gantry five times that one week.

So, back to not totally understanding the motives of all the characters (and I think I do understand them)... I'm wondering Yoda if you're having a problem differentiating the "honest" exchanges (and there are many) with the "pitchman's talk"? One of the main points of Gantry is that it's important to decide who you can trust and what you invest your heart and soul into. The film even begins with a foreward where the filmmakers claim that revivalism is a scourge of the nation and takes advantage of gullible people to fleece them out of their money. This is the angle from which the film begins, even if what's shown on screen doesn't completely tie in to that warning. It's true that Lefferts and the college crowd think that revivals are dangerous and that religion in general is questionable, but maybe some revivals are better than others. Sister Sharon always saw her revival as a stepping stone to the tabernacle she was building in Zenith, so maybe in a sense she never really considers herself other than a preacher in search of a church.

I'd say that Gantry is a believer. He was the shining star at his theological seminary but fell from grace when he seduced ("rammed the fear of God into") Lulu Baines. He was forced to leave and in the novel, he actually becomes a lawyer before reverting to occasional preaching and sales positions. I only mention this to show differences between the novel and the film. Gantry does seem very interested in the sins of the flesh, but he always perks up when there's anything religious close by. While attempting to make a sale, he notices a flyer about Sister Sharon's revival and decides to attend. When she enters the tent you can see on Gantry's face that he's strongly moved by her and does what he can to get closer to her. This even means seducing Rachel (Patti Page), the leader of the revival choir, who gives him some history about Sharon which makes it easier for Gantry to be able to talk to her on a train. ("I busted him one for the Lord!" "It was a glorious riot!")

I hate to just stop in the middle of something, but, well, I'm rambling so I'm taking a time out, but I'll return soon enough.

P.S. Yoda, you're dead-on in your interpretation of the cover of the novel Elmer Gantry.



In the opening scene Gantry doesn't really gain anything out of the little collection he takes up in the bar, apart from perhaps some kind of salesman's high for its own sake. In the next few scenes, we see him stopping at a random church and shoveling some coal for them, all the while spouting off Bible verses. . . . they did make me feel at the time -- right or wrong -- that he believed in the principles he preaches about, even if he has no hope of really living them out.
What I see in that scene is a man who is a competitor, who enjoys being the center of attention. The Salvation Army (or whatever) ladies come in meekly seeking donations and of course get no where in that hard bunch of hard-drinking sinners--until Gantry takes center stage to prove he the sinner can succeed where the forces of goodness fail. He holds the room spellbound, especially the woman at the bar who later takes him home (so he does get his reward after all). His "What is love? Love is the morning and the evening star ..." speech is a set-piece, a line that has worked for him before, especially with the women. One man puts his hand on his change to keep it, but Gantry continues his spiel, lifts his hand and takes the money anyway, winning that competition. Then he gallantly and with much show--and some air of superiority--hands it over to the thankful ladies. But notice he makes no donation himself! He'll fleece his buddies, but he's not falling for that goodness and mercy and turn the other cheek BS. All his buddies get a big laugh, tell him what a great guy he is (music to his ears), and then he turns his charm on his next conquest at the bar. All through that scene, I can almost hear Gantry thinking to himself, "Ah, if the staff at the seminary could only see me now! Kick me out, will they! Why, even half-drunk, I can preach a sermon that brings home more bacon than the holy ever could."

By the way, in that scene he uses some of the PR and propaganda ploys that we talked about in another thread--the use of religion and authority to bolster his cause as he reminds the barroom that it's the Christmas season and cocks his head skyward and says, "You didn't think we'd miss Your birthday, did You, Jesus?" Like Topol in Fiddler on the Roof, Gantry talks to God on a personal basis all through the film. But while Topol speaks to God as an old friend with whom he's had many serious conversations, usually when the two are alone, Gantry's conversations with God are always in public when he's the center of attention and always--to me, anyway--has a "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" quality to them. Example, he makes sure everybody else doesn't forget Jesus' birthday, but he just collects and delivers the donations he's squeezed out of them.

I don't remember the shoveling coal scene, but Gantry quotes scripture on various occasions, which reminds me of an old Sunday School lesson--"even the Devil can quote scripture to his purpose."

Obviously, as often happens in really good films, there are a couple of different ways to interpret Lancaster's Gantry--a basically good man who sometimes backslides to the bad, or a bad or at least careless man who sometimes has fun pretending to be good.

Me, I always suspect that Gantry, a conman dirtied and tarnished by Big City life has a country cousin--also a conman but not as tarnished--named Starbuck out pretending to sell rain to baked-dry farmers in Oklahoma.

I did know that the book was fairly controversial and that the film toned things down, which leaves me wondering whether or not we can use the book to determine exactly what the film is trying to say, or whether it's it's own entity that takes a slightly different tack. Or, even if it's trying to convey the same message, whether or not it does so adequately.
Well, the book was banned in Boston, as were many others, and one evangelical (maybe Billy Sunday?) said Sinclair Lewis should go to prison for at least 5 years. I think Lewis also got death threats and some evangelicals are against the book even today.

The movie, on the other hand, is chiefly entertainment and Lancaster's Gantry is chiefly likeable as was his Birdman of Alcatraz instead of the sick and dangerous old pervert Straud really was. Both would have been more realistic if Lancaster had played them more like his dispicable character in Room at the Top or the disloyal, self-centered gunman in Vera Cruz. The film doesn't really attack evangelical religions or even faith healing--in a key scene the Sister apparently heals a man who had been deaf for years, thus validating her work, then dies in a fire before that miracle can be addressed. (Wonder if the healed man survived? What kind of "gift" would that be, to get your hearing back and the last thing you hear is yourself and others screaming as they die in a fire?)

Lewis's books were attacks on the mendacity of middle America of his (and our) time. In the book, Gantry goes on to other adventures after Sister Sharon's demise, causes more hurt, and ends up married and preaching at a local church in a Middle American town, as I recall, with as much show as ever but still no true devotion or dedication, the Babbitt of religion. It's just what he does.



The thing about Elmer Gantry for me is that it just presents a total package of entertainment and thought-provoking subject matter rolled into what's probably the funniest melodrama ever made. It's big, it's loud, it's in-your-face, but underneath it all, it presents very real, flawed human characters. It might take a few viewings though to realize just how witty the visuals and the script are because the film rarely gives you a chance to breathe since it's so full of incident and dialogue. For example, there's a scene where Gantry announces to a crowd that he got some "French postcards" from a "man with a black beard". It leads up to Gantry's wonderful speech about sending booze to hell. Well, when Gantry holds up the postcards, Babbitt and some of Zenith's other civic leaders all get up and take very close looks at them. Then, when Gantry says that booze is what causes women to become victims of white slave traders [prostitutes], there's a reaction shot of the crowd cheering and applauding. I laugh my head off, but I wonder how many people even take notice.
I don't remember the reaction shot. Ore are you saying it's funny because it sounds like they're applauding for the thing he's describing, rather than in simple agreement?

Anyway, I hear what you're saying about the little touches and the dialogue, and I do like that it deals with serious themes. That's simultaneously something I admire and dislike about it: I like that it touches on these things, but I wish it'd delved in a bit deeper.


Social satire is ingrained into almost every second of Gantry which isn't actually an honest sharing between characters in the film. This may be one of your problems with it, Yoda. It takes a story about a complex subject, which very few films ever dare to discuss, and it sends out a central character who's also very complex to try to push your buttons a certain way. Apparently you feel the need to approach this movie differently from many others because of the subject matter. I can understand that, but I can't totally relate to it anymore. I watched Elmer Gantry the first time on TV around 1975, and it was back when the local station would play the same movie every night for a week, so I watched Gantry five times that one week.

So, back to not totally understanding the motives of all the characters (and I think I do understand them)... I'm wondering Yoda if you're having a problem differentiating the "honest" exchanges (and there are many) with the "pitchman's talk"?
That certainly could be. Are there any noteworthy examples to illustrate what you mean by this?


One of the main points of Gantry is that it's important to decide who you can trust and what you invest your heart and soul into. The film even begins with a foreward where the filmmakers claim that revivalism is a scourge of the nation and takes advantage of gullible people to fleece them out of their money. This is the angle from which the film begins, even if what's shown on screen doesn't completely tie in to that warning. It's true that Lefferts and the college crowd think that revivals are dangerous and that religion in general is questionable, but maybe some revivals are better than others. Sister Sharon always saw her revival as a stepping stone to the tabernacle she was building in Zenith, so maybe in a sense she never really considers herself other than a preacher in search of a church.
That's how I saw her, as well. Even the subtlest and most nuanced films do have a way of giving certain characters at certain points of time an air of authority or genuineness that indicate to us that we're supposed to trust them, or like them, etc., and I certainly got that from Sister Sharon early in the film.

There is one interesting little exception, though: the way she works around some of the zoning issues in one of the towns they set up in, just as Gantry is trying to introduce himself for the first time. Looking back, that feels like a bit of foreshadowing. It shows us that she can be pretty slick and practical, too, and therefore perhaps vulnerable to admiring someone like Gantry, who is both in spades. Just a random thing which occurred to me as I was writing this.

I'd say that Gantry is a believer. He was the shining star at his theological seminary but fell from grace when he seduced ("rammed the fear of God into") Lulu Baines. He was forced to leave and in the novel, he actually becomes a lawyer before reverting to occasional preaching and sales positions. I only mention this to show differences between the novel and the film. Gantry does seem very interested in the sins of the flesh, but he always perks up when there's anything religious close by. While attempting to make a sale, he notices a flyer about Sister Sharon's revival and decides to attend. When she enters the tent you can see on Gantry's face that he's strongly moved by her and does what he can to get closer to her. This even means seducing Rachel (Patti Page), the leader of the revival choir, who gives him some history about Sharon which makes it easier for Gantry to be able to talk to her on a train. ("I busted him one for the Lord!" "It was a glorious riot!")
Yeah, there are definite reaction shots here and there where he seems genuine even though nobody's looking. The only remaining question, then, is whether or not he's really talked himself into the idea that his brand of faith is superior because it seems to work so well in the moment, or if he himself has failed to "put away childish things" and still has a very shallow view of what it means to be devout. In other words, has he thought about all this and come to the wrong conclusion, or does he approach real faith casually and not even bother thinking about it? I'm not really sure.

P.S. Yoda, you're dead-on in your interpretation of the cover of the novel Elmer Gantry.
Woohoo, I got something right.



What I see in that scene is a man who is a competitor, who enjoys being the center of attention. The Salvation Army (or whatever) ladies come in meekly seeking donations and of course get no where in that hard bunch of hard-drinking sinners--until Gantry takes center stage to prove he the sinner can succeed where the forces of goodness fail. He holds the room spellbound, especially the woman at the bar who later takes him home (so he does get his reward after all). His "What is love? Love is the morning and the evening star ..." speech is a set-piece, a line that has worked for him before, especially with the women. One man puts his hand on his change to keep it, but Gantry continues his spiel, lifts his hand and takes the money anyway, winning that competition. Then he gallantly and with much show--and some air of superiority--hands it over to the thankful ladies. But notice he makes no donation himself! He'll fleece his buddies, but he's not falling for that goodness and mercy and turn the other cheek BS. All his buddies get a big laugh, tell him what a great guy he is (music to his ears), and then he turns his charm on his next conquest at the bar. All through that scene, I can almost hear Gantry thinking to himself, "Ah, if the staff at the seminary could only see me now! Kick me out, will they! Why, even half-drunk, I can preach a sermon that brings home more bacon than the holy ever could."
All true, though this seems, to me, to be a reason he might not believe it. Obviously we can say that anything he does which seems genuine can be dismissed as self-serving simply because he's a salesman and loves getting that "yes." But there are moments, as Mark was saying a bit earlier, where he seems to have genuinely profound reactions in situations where they don't stand to influence anyone much. The scene in the church where he volunteers both his voice and his labor for a short while seems like a good example of this, too (at least, with the latter).

By the way, in that scene he uses some of the PR and propaganda ploys that we talked about in another thread--the use of religion and authority to bolster his cause as he reminds the barroom that it's the Christmas season and cocks his head skyward and says, "You didn't think we'd miss Your birthday, did You, Jesus?" Like Topol in Fiddler on the Roof, Gantry talks to God on a personal basis all through the film. But while Topol speaks to God as an old friend with whom he's had many serious conversations, usually when the two are alone, Gantry's conversations with God are always in public when he's the center of attention and always--to me, anyway--has a "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" quality to them. Example, he makes sure everybody else doesn't forget Jesus' birthday, but he just collects and delivers the donations he's squeezed out of them.
Certainly, though to me all that simply leads to this question: is it that he's a fake, or that he just has a very simplistic, shallow view of God and belief? I guess I tend to lean towards the latter. But as you say, in any good film there will be questions like this, and in any great film there will be plenty to suggest more than one interpretation.

I don't remember the shoveling coal scene, but Gantry quotes scripture on various occasions, which reminds me of an old Sunday School lesson--"even the Devil can quote scripture to his purpose."
Always loved that line. Very true.



For example, there's a scene where Gantry announces to a crowd that he got some "French postcards" from a "man with a black beard".
Not only did the pornographer have a black beard but I think Gantry also described him as "a foreigner," in a manner whereby he almosts spits the word, speaking to a very Middle America audience of fairly affluent middle-class people. Is that black-bearded foreigner a "short-hand" symbol for Jew? Or maybe for swarthy Catholic foreigners from Italy and Eastern Europe? Remember, the 1920s was the heyday for the revitalized Ku Klux Klan that spread out of the South and into Midwest and Western America as membership in the "secret empire" reached its peak. I've always thought that brief scene gives the audience just a quick peek at Gantry's truly dark side and a quick look at some of the ugly things that went on inside some of the evangilists tents back then.

As for the motives of the various characters in the book and film, I always see Sister Sharon as an ambitious businesswoman whose business just happens to be religion--sort of the flip-side of the same coin as James Dean's ma who runs a bar/whorehouse in East of Eden but is willing to bankroll what she sees as a good investment in beans.

Sharon's basically a Christian but the type of Christian that was prevalent in the booming 1920s (and at times since) that still maintained the old Puritan belief that God rewarded the righteous with prosperity and high social standing in this life as well as imortality in the next. Gantry makes the point that Jesus could have run any top team of modern professional athletes; there were also books written back then that claimed Jesus' methods and teachings could successfully run any major corporation, He being the ultimate CEO. Sharon expected to profit from her good work so she could build her temple and bring yet more people to the Lord and make more money in the process. She did not see one as being out of step with the other. Nor did her business manager, played by Dean Jagger, who I've always viewed as the most truly religious of them all in that he's the one who worries most about whether they're getting the money the right way and putting at least some of it back into practicing what Sister Sharon and Gantry are preaching. At first he correctly sees Gantry as a con-man who could tarnish Sharon's good work. But Gantry accomplishes things the manager can't and he talks a good line and eventually wins the manager over because he is bringing in more money.

Arthur Kennedy's newspaperman is less clear cut. He claims to be a skeptic, but not too skeptical. He believes that, like fairies, decent evangelists exist somewhere, but he just hasn't managed to find one yet.

Still, Mark, your opposite reading on Gantry has given me an idea. The next time I watch the movie, I'm gonna try to look at Gantry as a true but weak and slightly fallen believer, try to see his manipulations in that light, and see how that changes the story. Should be an interesting experiment.



will.15's Avatar
Semper Fooey
I think, Yoda, you picked up without knowing it, apparently, the movie has considerably watered down Elmer Gantry from the novel. He is an unambiguous rotter in the original. Trying to make him a more sympathetic character, director/writer Brooks was unable to get Sinclair Lewis' Gantry to totally merge with Brooks' nicer Gantry. Despite that, I like the movie better than the book. Another possible problem may be Lancaster's refusal to explore his darker side even when he was playing villains. In The Island of Dr. Moreau his mad scientist neither seems very mad or bad. Even when what he does at the end is reprehensible, Lancaster is playing him way too nice.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elmer_Gantry

http://www.angelfire.com/oh2/writer/elmergantry.html



Bright light. Bright light. Uh oh.
One more thing Yoda. I'm getting The Apostle this weekend so we can do a compare/contrast of it with Elmer Gantry. Now, I realize that you love that movie much more than Gantry, so just be prepared to discuss why. I also know that you thought that Gantry was overlong, but it's only 12 minutes longer than The Apostle. Any comments about that?



Bright light. Bright light. Uh oh.
I think, Yoda, you picked up without knowing it, apparently, the movie has considerably watered down Elmer Gantry from the novel. He is an unambiguous rotter in the original. Trying to make him a more sympathetic character, director/writer Brooks was unable to get Sinclair Lewis' Gantry to totally merge with Brooks' nicer Gantry. Despite that, I like the movie better than the book. Another possible problem may be Lancaster's refusal to explore his darker side even when he was playing villains. In The Island of Dr. Moreau his mad scientist neither seems very mad or bad. Even when what he does at the end is reprehensible, Lancaster is playing him way too nice.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elmer_Gantry

http://www.angelfire.com/oh2/writer/elmergantry.html

That's an interesting comment about Lancaster not wanting to be too villainous. I can see that in Judgment at Nuremburg too. I guess you can say he tries to repent of arranging the murder of his wife in Sorry, Wrong Number, but that's at far too late a time. On the other hand, he does come across very scummy as both J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success and as the General who attempts a military coup of the U.S. in Seven Days in May.

It's interesting that Lancaster seems to play Gantry in a much-more positive light than the novel, considering that he was a "devout" atheist. You'd think that he'd enjoy it better playing Gantry as written in the novel, but instead he played him as written in the script and undoubtedly helped to fashion that script. As I mentioned earlier in the thread, Richard Brooks was a friend of Sinclair Lewis who was probably Brooks' most-positive critic when the younger man published his novel The Brick Foxhole in 1945. Brooks' novel was a heady melodrama about American soldiers returning from WWII imbued with race hatred as well as hatred for homosexuals, and Lewis loved how it told a fast-paced melodrama combined with social commentary of contemporary societal ills. Without Brooks' involvement, his novel was turned into the movie Crossfire with the homosexual subplot deleted, and that movie earned a Best Picture nomination. Lewis discussed his idea with Brooks of adapting Elmer Gantry for the screen and eventually (and fortuitously), it happened.

I was able to talk to Richard Brooks in 1975 at a pre-release screening of Bite the Bullet which was showing at UCLA for a film class hosted by L.A. Times film critic Charles Champlin. It was after the showing that I was able to ask Brooks a couple of questions about Elmer Gantry although I wished I had more time to talk with him to better understand his answers. Maybe I'll share what he said later on...



That's an interesting comment about Lancaster not wanting to be too villainous. I can see that in Judgment at Nuremburg too. I guess you can say he tries to repent of arranging the murder of his wife in Sorry, Wrong Number, but that's at far too late a time. On the other hand, he does come across very scummy as both J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success and as the General who attempts a military coup of the U.S. in Seven Days in May.

It's interesting that Lancaster seems to play Gantry in a much-more positive light than the novel, considering that he was a "devout" atheist. You'd think that he'd enjoy it better playing Gantry as written in the novel, but instead he played him as written in the script and undoubtedly helped to fashion that script. As I mentioned earlier in the thread, Richard Brooks was a friend of Sinclair Lewis who was probably Brooks' most-positive critic when the younger man published his novel The Brick Foxhole in 1945. Brooks' novel was a heady melodrama about American soldiers returning from WWII imbued with race hatred as well as hatred for homosexuals, and Lewis loved how it told a fast-paced melodrama combined with social commentary of contemporary societal ills. Without Brooks' involvement, his novel was turned into the movie Crossfire with the homosexual subplot deleted, and that movie earned a Best Picture nomination. Lewis discussed his idea with Brooks of adapting Elmer Gantry for the screen and eventually (and fortuitously), it happened.

I was able to talk to Richard Brooks in 1975 at a pre-release screening of Bite the Bullet which was showing at UCLA for a film class hosted by L.A. Times film critic Charles Champlin. It was after the showing that I was able to ask Brooks a couple of questions about Elmer Gantry although I wished I had more time to talk with him to better understand his answers. Maybe I'll share what he said later on...
I wonder what part the production front office and Hollywood's self-imposed censorship played in toning down Gantry on film. In 1960, it wasn't good box office to have a popular star like Lancaster play an unredeemed SOB. Lord, the front office almost had a cow when it learned too late that Gregory Peck was sporting a period-correct mustache in The Gunfighter. I think the Hunsecker role came later; I'm pretty sure Seven Days in May did too, when anti-heros were more acceptable to the movie public. Even so, Lancaster's General Chief of Staff is not played as an evil man, simply as a super-patriot trying to save his country from what he sees as a criminally dangerous presidential decision on a treaty with the USSR. Lancaster's general even had a real-life model--Gen. George McClellan, popular as "Little Mac" to the US Army of the Republic that he essentially built in the early years of the Civil War. McClellan had utter contempt for President Lincoln and considered him a fool and a handicap to him in fighting the war. His contempt was so great that one night when he returned to his Washington home from an out-of-town trip and was told that Lincoln had been waiting in McClellan's living room for hours to see the general upon his return, McClellan passed in full view of the waiting Lincoln without even acknowledging his presence, went upstairs, and went to bed. Truman dressed down MacArthur for lesser snubs than that.



One more thing Yoda. I'm getting The Apostle this weekend so we can do a compare/contrast of it with Elmer Gantry. Now, I realize that you love that movie much more than Gantry, so just be prepared to discuss why. I also know that you thought that Gantry was overlong, but it's only 12 minutes longer than The Apostle. Any comments about that?
It would be interesting if you compared Gantry not only with The Apostle but also with Leap of Faith.