Thursday, January 10, 2013

Elmer Gantry (1960) - Jean Simmons, Burt Lancaster, Shirley Jones All Sparkle

Jean Simmons and Burt Lancaster as Star-Crossed Lovers in "Elmer Gantry"

Film Poster Elmer Gantry 1960
"Elmer Gantry" (1960).

I've seen "Elmer Gantry" (1960), directed by Richard Brooks for Elmer Gantry Productions from a story by , numerous times over the years. I always draw something new from it. "Elmer Gantry" is an amazing drama that addresses adult themes that at first seem wildly out of place in a tale about Evangelists.It turns out, though, that those adult themes are perfectly suited for these characters. Burt Lancaster gives the performance of the decade as the title character Elmer Gantry, while Jean Simmons and Shirley Jones both turn in their best performances. "Elmer Gantry" also serves up Arthur Kennedy's finest role, and the same can be said for several of the minor characters (Edward Andrews as Babbitt, Dean Jagger as Morgan, Patti Page as Sister Rachel). This film never gets old, unlike several of the other top films of that year ("The Apartment" springs to mind).

Jean Simmons Elmer Gantry 1960
Jean Simmons rules this picture, it should have been named after her character instead of "Elmer Gantry."

Lancaster plays Gantry as "a man of the people," as he describes himself at one point, basically a con man who uses the Bible as a way to influence others. He is coarse and crude and vain, just like all those people he preaches to every week. Elmer Gantry is a complete extrovert who uses words to create a mood in the listener. This is shown to no better effect than at the very end of the film when, after enduring the greatest tragedy any man could endure, Elmer Gantry looks up from his huddled position on a bench, bedraggled and covered in dirt, then stands and uses his words and voice to raise the spirit of others. It is an astoundingly vivid moment, showing the inner strength of Elmer Gantry and all those who can rise above misfortune. Burt Lancaster's best scenes as Elmer Gantry are when he is shown preaching in vivid, energetic fashion, modelled after the sermons of former baseball player Billy Sunday. Richard Brooks easily could have made "Elmer Gantry" without showing any actual preaching, because that is secondary to the actual behind-the-scenes drama, but the preaching scenes provide depth to the characters of Sister Falconer and Elmer Gantry and provide a sense of the power of a preacher and the hold he can have on his audience.

Burt Lancaster Elmer Gantry 1960
Burt Lancaster gives some fiery, true-to-life sermons in "Elmer Gantry."

Jean Simmons is Sister Falconer, a successful travelling Evangelist who has continuing issues with local fire departments. She is sincere and dramatic in her preaching, though nobody could be as stirring as Gantry and anyone would suffer by comparison. Obviously based loosely on the very real Aimee Semple McPherson, she similarly is missing the experience of being a woman, a need Gantry is only too willing to fill. Simmons plays Falconer as a variation on her character Sergeant Sarah Brown five years earlier in "Guys and Dolls," and it is easy to see why Gantry sees her as a prize above and beyond worldly fame and success. As to why Simmons inexplicably wasn't nominated, a fairly sterile question, I personally think votes for her were split between her performance here and her astoundingly good role as Varinia in that year's Spartacus." I think her 1969 nomination for the dreadful film "The Happy Ending" really was belated recognition for the truly monumental work that Jean Simmons did in 1960 with "Spartacus" and "Elmer Gantry."

Jean Simmons Arthur Kennedy Elmer Gantry 1960
Reporter Jim Lefferts tries to warn Sister Falconer, but fails in "Elmer Gantry."

Shirley Jones is Lulu Baines, an old "friend" of Gantry's who pops up at a most inopportune time. I have a pet theory about this character. At one point, Gantry's past is mentioned to include being kicked out of a seminary for seducing the Pastor's daughter on Christmas. Lulu also seems to refer to this incident when she describes Gantry "ramming the fear of God" into her one Christmas Eve. It's a magnificent performance that goes completely against Shirley Jones' type.

Shirley Jones Elmer Gantry 1960
Shirley Jones going against type as a working girl in "Elmer Gantry."

There are so many scenes that stand out in "Elmer Gantry," but I will mention three favorites in particular and let it go at that. One is when Gantry takes Falconer out one night. They wind up on the shore, Falconer's new Church shining its light down on them. Gantry and Simmons just explode in this scene, with Gantry seducing the fearful Simmons into finally realizing her potential as a woman. It is a scene searing with romantic passion, Gantry pulling Simmons into the darkness as she weakly protests, "You know I've never...."

Jean Simmons Elmer Gantry 1960
Jean Simmons after a night of ecstasy in "Elmer Gantry."

The second "Elmer Gantry" scene is shortly after Lulu Bains has framed Elmer Gantry. The two were photographed by her cohort for blackmail purposes while Gantry was, quite against character, simply trying to assist an old friend rather than chalk up another conquest. Elmer Gantry later returns to her apartment, a broken man, only to find Lulu's photographer beating her. Gantry stops the man, looks at him and says, "Don't you know that hurts," throws him out, then lies next to Lulu and says "I'm sorry." Just an impressive scene that reveals another layer of the enigma that is Gantry, fundamentally the most decent man in the film.

Shirley Jones Burt Lancaster Elmer Gantry 1960
They should be smiling - both won Academy Awards for "Elmer Gantry."

The third "Elmer Gantry" scene is when Elmer Gantry is grilling the newspaperman Jim Lefferts, played by Kennedy. Putting Lefferts on the spot, Elmer Gantry probes in a philosophical manner, almost like a lawyer cross-examining an opposing witness. Elmer Gantry draws some amazing revelations out of the tough reporter that neither probably knew were there. It's rare to see such an intellectual scene in furtherance of a dramatic plot, but it works, and brilliantly. Each man, Elmer Gantry and Jim Lefferts, representing completely opposite points of view on faith versus reason, ultimately develops grudging admiration for the other, as they realize that they don't have answers and, in fact, there are no answers. They have to do the best they can to make their ways through life in uncertainty and using their best judgment.

Jean Simmons Elmer Gantry 1960
Jean Simmons facing her destruction in "Elmer Gantry."

Some might view "Elmer Gantry" as an attack on religion, and in a sense it is a condemnation of a certain type of hucksterism that pops up in the revival setting more often than it should. However, taken as a character study of people just being what they are regardless of the religious background, good, bad and indifferent, "Elmer Gantry" soars. I can't recommend this film of "Elmer Gantry" highly enough. Lancaster and Jones won Oscars, and Jean Simmons deserved one. Get the extended version that has more scenes of Jones in it and you will enjoy "Elmer Gantry" even more.


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