Sunday, November 06, 2005

ELMER GANTRY (1960) - Richard Brooks

The fact that Elmer Gantry existed both in novel and movie form for all to see or read prior to the televangelist scandals of the 1980s makes me find those televangelist preachers and their followers even dumber than I ever thought before.

The story’s a two-pronged cautionary tale targeting these type of religious outfits. For those who would follow, it pulls back the curtain on the people that generally gravitate to the evangelical profession (namely charlatans and hucksters knee-deep in the sin they accuse their own flocks of), making a clear case why you shouldn’t give them your hard-earned money. And for those who would lead (i.e. the Jim Bakers, Jimmy Swaggarts, Jerry Fallwells etc.), the point couldn’t be sharper -- if you’re going to con people of their money on the basis that you’re a shining example of God’s light, then you better damn well make sure your closet is clean of prostitutes, accounting scandals etc.

Yet the Bakers, the Swaggarts, the Fallwells still made the same mistakes as Elmer Gantry some sixty odd years later. Pretty stupid. All they had to do was take their noses out of their Good Books for a moment and read the Elmer Gantry Cliff Notes. But I guess there’s no money in that.

As you can guess, I really don’t have much respect for televangelists to begin with. When I was growing up in Virginia, they were all over the TV set every Sunday morning (“Satan Be Gone!”) as the 1-800 donation number flashed insistently on the screen. These shows were good for a few laughs but mainly an annoyance as I was waiting for the more important smack-downs in the show to follow…Sunday morning WWF wrestling.

Elmer Gantry took me back to those Sunday mornings, not spent in church but watching the tube. If there were someone as charismatically crazed as Burt Lancaster is in this movie up in the pulpit, then -- hell -- I actually might have enjoyed going to those stale Methodist services I was occasionally dragged to as a child. Lancaster is so “on” it’s scary -- truly scary. That loud, ebullient laugh he forces on so many people throughout the movie is going to give me nightmares for weeks.

Gantry (Lancaster) starts out as a traveling salesman who loves booze, broads, and gambling. Upon catching a revivalist tent act, he realizes his true potential lies in hawking religion instead of vacuum cleaners. How he ingratiates himself onto Jean Simmons’ already established revivalist organization (and eventually into her knickers) is both disturbing to watch and entirely convincing. Gantry soon becomes the main attraction under the tent, taking the show to bigger and bigger venues for larger and larger profits. But eventually the tent must come crashing down (literally) when word leaks out of his past by way of prostitute (Shirley Jones). Surprisingly enough, Gantry steps up here for once as a human being, unlike some of those televangelists who suffered the same fates. He quotes Paul on his departure from the organization: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

I wholeheartedly agree. Put away those childish things…so we can get back to more wrestling.

1 comment:

Jordan Hoffman said...

Elmer Gantry (1960), Richard Brooks, A
I saw this, or most of it, many years ago. . .but it had kinda melded with Wise Blood, A Face in the Crowd and All the King's Men in my brain. All of these films are great -- the huckster's rise and fall story usually is. Burt Lancaster is just fantastic here -- some of his acting may be a little hammy today, but remembering when he did the bulk of his work, he really is a great link in the chain of naturalistic film acting. Anyway I'd like to see a "promise keeper" modernization of this one.