Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.
USA, 1960. Elmer Gantry Productions. Screenplay by Richard Brooks, based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis. Cinematography by John Alton. Produced by Bernard Smith. Music by Andre Previn. Production Design by Edward Carrere. Costume Design by Dorothy Jeakins. Film Editing by Marjorie Fowler. Academy Awards 1960. Golden Globe Awards 1960. National Board of Review Awards 1960. New York Film Critics Award 1960.
In an Oscar-winning role, Burt Lancaster is lively as a booze-guzzling, dame-playing con man who can make an easy buck in a myriad of ways. He sees the perfect opportunity to cash in when he discovers that temple-revivalism has become the new opium of the Depression-era masses, and decides to impersonate a preacher and hit the road. He meets a religious leader of Aimee Semple MacPherson proportions (Jean Simmons), who is at first skeptical of his unorthodox style but eventually decides to keep him on when he proves popular with the crowd. Like Lancaster, Shirley Jones also won an Academy Award as the prostitute from Gantry’s past who decides to tear down the self-righteous image that has brought him so much fame. All the performances are excellent, most especially a mesmerizing Simmons, who manages to steal the film right out from its much-lauded star’s nose. Her tough-talking, no-nonsense religious instructor and savvy businesswoman is so exciting that it’s a huge disappointment when, as in most movies, she falls in love and becomes a boring sap who no longer needs to be smart, savvy or in business. Jones is also great, especially in tearing down her wholesome Rodgers and Hammerstein image, but the part itself is a throwaway evil hooker who grows a heart of gold (I guess Dorothy Malone was busy). Richard Brooks’ excellent screenplay and direction rightly criticize the shortcomings of organized religion while paying just tribute to the beautiful heartfelt devotion that draws people to it. The downside is that the film is too long, and staring at all of Lancaster’s shiny teeth soon gets wearing.