The screen has never known a man like ELMER GANTRY! (movie tagline)
At the opening, we meet Elmer Gantry (Burt Lancaster), a travelling salesman in a dusty little town in Prohibition era Midwest. He drinks and tells stories at a rowdy bar on Christmas Eve. All the while, he keeps an eye on the red-suited blonde in the corner. (Women are one of his weaknesses.) Some men comment that he “talks like a preacher” after Elmer convinces them to give money to women representing the Salvation Army. At the end of the night, he takes home the blonde. Well, it’s not really his home- it’s a tacky hotel room.
Something seems to shift in Elmer’s mind (and maybe his heart) when he goes to a tent revival and sees a beautiful, Evangelical preacher called Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons). Earlier, he’d seen her posters; she’s kind of celebrity in small Midwestern towns. When he briefly speaks to her, he realizes that she’s a no-nonsense gal. Elmer is even more intrigued, so he cozies up to the group’s choir leader, Sister Rachel (Patti Page), to learn more about Sharon. Rachel gets a huge crush on Elmer and invites him to join their entourage. Never one to shy away from dramatics, Elmer hops onto the train at the last minute.
Aboard the train, Elmer gets a seat by Sharon. She finds him interesting; he’s a far cry from the “sanctimonious prigs” she usually meets. Elmer also meets Jim Lefferts (Arthur Kennedy), a jaded Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who’s been travelling w/ these Evangelicals and reporting on their movement. Jim believes in evolution, not God. Both Sharon and Jim quickly realize that Elmer is not a “true believer” in any cause (except maybe himself).
In no time, Elmer takes center stage at revivals, “warming-up” crowds for Sharon. Her sober-minded manager doesn’t like the new direction. But Sharon points out that Elmer’s “theatrics” are bringing in more lost souls yearning to be saved. (Of course, some just want to be entertained.) As Elmer (who was kicked out of his seminary) gains popularity, it appears that he’s finally found his calling- selling salvation. Sharon starts to get close to him, too. But wait, this isn’t the end of the story!
Elmer Gantry explores some big issues: ambition, corruption (moral/political), faith, freedom of speech, forgiveness, hypocrisy, etc. Even before this Oscar-winning film (based on a novel) was released, it was controversial. Initially, no studio wanted to finance it. Director (Richard Brooks) didn’t want Shirley Jones (pic above) in the role of Lulu, the young woman who unlocks Elmer’s past, but Burt Lancaster insisted.
Though some viewers called his portrayal over-the-top, that is precisely what the character demanded! Elmer is a bundle of energy, confidence (false or real), and words. Not only does Lancaster make Elmer likeable, he makes him very fun to watch. (There are MANY laughs in this film!) But my fave scene is the one out in the woods where Elmer confronts Sharon about what men and women REALLY want from each other. Elmer is not w/o redeeming qualities. But does he deserve to be saved? Watch this multi-layered film and decide for yourself!