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ELMER GANTRY (director/writer: Richard Brooks; screenwriter: from the novel by Sinclair Lewis; cinematographer: John Alton; editor: Marjorie Fowler; music: Andre Previn; cast: Burt Lancaster (Elmer Gantry), Jean Simmons (Sister Sharon Falconer), Arthur Kennedy (Jim Lefferts), Dean Jagger (William L. Morgan), Shirley Jones (Lulu Bains), Patti Page (Sister Rachel), Ed Andrews (George F. Babbitt), John McIntire (Rev. John Pengilly), Hugh Marlowe (Rev. Philip Garrison), Joe Maross (Pete), Philip Ober (Rev. Planck), Barry Kelley (Police Captain Holt), Wendell Holmes (Rev. Ulrich), Dayton Lummis (Mr. Eddington), Rex Ingram (Preacher); Runtime: 145; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Bernard Smith; MGM Home Entertainment; 1960)
“Greatly enhanced by the spirited Oscar performance by Burt Lancaster.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Writer-director Richard Brooks (“The Brothers Karamazov“/”In Cold Blood”/”Blackboard Jungle“) films thisBible-thumping adaption of the controversial 1927 novel by Sinclair Lewis, that’s greatly enhanced by the spirited Oscar performance by Burt Lancaster as the hustling evangelist preacher in the 1920s–a Billy Sunday type. Brooks captures the cynical tones the muckraker Lewis had toward religion, but ends the film at the book’s half-way point. It doesn’t show that the charlatan Gantryhas become an influential Methodist minister, who married and raised a family while still carrying on as a hedonist even while denouncing such carnal pleasures from the pulpit.

In the 1920s, Elmer Gantry (Burt Lancaster) is a struggling traveling salesman who loves to tell his colleagues off-color stories, have a good time partying and frequenting speakeasies. For kicks, he loves sometimes to give sermons while drunk. In one small town Gantry tries to approach the popular visiting evangelist Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons, married Brooks after the film was released)–she’s an Aimee Semple McPherson type–but is politely rebuffed. The cunning Gantry thereby manages to seduce one of her troupe, the naïve tabernacle soloist, Sister Rachel (Patti Page), and gets her to share the information about Sharon’s past appearances. Gantry, armed with this knowledge, then follows the troupe onto a train for Lincoln, Nebraska and, after diverting Sharon’s overprotective manager, William L. Morgan (Dean Jagger), he meets Sharon and claims to know her. Proving to Sharon he has the gift of gab, he joins forces with her on the circuit and worms his way into her heart while bedding down just about every woman he meets on the circuit. The duo become rich and famous, selling religion as easily as hot cakes.

The following supporting roles are worth noting: Jim Lefferts (Arthur Kennedy) as the cynical reporter who questions the sincerity of the evangelists. Shirley Jones as the revenge-minded impudent prostitute first violated by Gantry when she was a teenager. And Edward Andrews as the frustrated middle-class George Babbitt seeking success in the materialistic world.

A technically satisfying work and one that in its own Hollywood vulgar way questions the sincerity of Sister Sharon and shows Gantry as a scandalous preacher giving hypercritical ‘fire and brimstone’ sermons while still chasing after carnal pleasures and material comforts. Brooks’ satisfying but watered-down version of the book, taking away some of the author’s more troublesome serious intentions, nevertheless won him an Oscar for Best Screenplay. I never cared for Brooks as a director, and would have loved to have seen what someone like a Douglas Sirk would have done with such powerful material.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”