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Saturday Night Cinema: Elmer Gantry

7

Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema is Elmer Gantry, starring Burt Lancaster. It is a must-see for the blockbuster Oscar performance by Lancaster.

Elmer Gantry (1960) NY  Times Review by A.H. WEILER Published: July 8, 1960

SINCLAIR LEWIS’ “Elmer Gantry,” which shocked, amused, confounded, but rarely bored readers back in 1927, has been lifted from the pages of the justifiably controversial novel and impressively transformed into an exciting film. The briskly paced drama of a religious opportunist, his colleagues and his times utilizes the tools of the motion picture in expert fashion.

The result, as exposed in color and old-fashioned, small screen at the Capitol Theatre yesterday, is a tribute to the artistry of Richard Brooks, the scenarist-director, and a fine cast. They make this story of the devil-may-care revivalist a living, action-packed, provoking screen study, largely devoid of the novel’s polemics, that captures both the eye and mind.


[..]

The Gantry we see now is not ordained, Baptist, Methodist or any other sect. but an expert spieler and a lusty, ribald drummer who sees a good thing in Sister Sharon Falconer’s evangelical troupe and cons his way into her tent-tabernacle, her graces and her heart. And, in focusing only on this period in Gantry’s peripatetic career. Mr. Brooks has given point and action to the sprawling, contentious work that was the novel.

This is not to say that it has been transformed into a simple adventure. It is a complex story running nearly two and a half hours, but its length is hardly noticeable since its many vignettes, each sharply presented, are joined into a theme that somewhat changes Gantry, Sister Falconer, et al., from Lewis’ conception but has them shape up as forceful, and often memorable, individuals. Perhaps the sleaziness of some forms of evangelism is not too pressing an issue these days but in “Elmer Gantry” it is made authentic and engrossing.

As Gantry, Burt Lancaster has one of his fattest roles and one to which he gives outstanding service. As has been noted, he is not quite Lewis’ boy, but he is still the smirking, leering lecher who tells his fellow salesmen an off-color yarn with the same ease that he thumps the Good Book and shouts the name of Jesus with amazing frequency. If he is not completely redeemed at the film’s end, he indicates that his love for the ill-fated Sharon Falconer is real and not mere lust.

The character of Sister Falconer, as played by Jean Simmons, also has been subjected to change by Mr. Brooks. And for the better, too. On Miss Simmons’ finely etched portrayal of the evangelist, the erstwhile Katy Jones of Shantytown, is a truly devout preacher of the Gospel. Her love of Gantry and death in the climactic conflagration that destroys the Waters of the Jordan tabernacle is a pointed and poignant lesson. Completely altered, too, is the character of Jim Lefferts, no longer a seminary classmate of Gantry but now a cynical reporter who, as played in serious but restrained style by Arthur Kennedy, evolves as a three-dimensional realist and not a type.

Shirley Jones certainly is different from the sweet heroine of “Oklahoma!” as the blonde, brash prostitute first violated by Gantry. And, the success-conscious George Babbitt, as neatly played by Edward Andrews: Dean Jagger’s worried, but purposeful manager of Sister Falconer, and Patti Page, as the tabernacle’s choral soloist, add professional support to the principals.

Scenes in a brothel and a speakeasy and the salvation hungry faces of the tabernacle crowds strikingly illuminate the excitement, the follies, the tawdriness and the tragedy of the era. Now, the mustiness of the printed page of 1927 is gone. This “Elmer Gantry” makes the age and the people vividly come alive.

The Cast
ELMER GANTRY; screen play by Richard Brooks; from the novel by Sinclair Lewis; directed by Richard Brooks; produced by Bernard Smith and released by United Artists. At the Capitol. Broadway and Fiftieth Street. Running time: 146 minutes.
Elmer Gantry . . . . . Burt Lancaster
Sister Sharon Falconer . . . . . Jean Simmons
William L. Morgan . . . . . Dean Jagger
Jim Lefferts . . . . . Arthur Kennedy
Lulu Bains . . . . . Shirley Jones
Sister Rachel . . . . . Patti Page
George Babbitt . . . . . Edward Andrews
Reverend Pengilly . . . . . John McIntire
Pete . . . . . Joe Maross
Reverend Brown . . . . . Everett Glass
Reverend Phillips . . . . . Michael Whalen
Reverend Garrison . . . . . Hugh Marlowe
Reverend Planck . . . . . Philip Ober
Reverend Ulrich . . . . . Wendell Holmes
Captain Holt . . . . . Barry Kelly
Preacher . . . . . Rex Ingram

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