Friday, March 11, 2016

Richard Brooks | Elmer Gantry

another opening, another show
by Douglas Messerli

Richard Brooks (screenplay, based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis) and director Elmer Gantry
/ 1960

Based partly on Sinclair Lewis sprawling denunciation of revivalist religions, Richard Brooks film, Elmer Gantry tries to have its religion and mock too—and almost succeeds in creating a confection that looks good enough to eat.

Yes, Gantry (brilliantly performed by Burt Lancaster) is a lying scoundrel who sees religion as a better way to make a living than his previous career as a salesman. But he’s such a handsome, smiling charmer, that you can’t blame anyone, female or male, for falling for him. The saintly self-deluded Sister Sharon Falconer (a character based on Pentecostalist Aimee Semple McPherson), played by Jean Simmons, has little resistance when it comes to Gantry, not only allowing him to pair up as a hell-and-damnation warm-up speaker to her more gentle calls for spiritual salvation, but to join her in the sack. And even the cynical newspaperman, Jim Lefferts (Arthur Kennedy), despite his newspaper revelations of Gantry’s sham, clearly admires the man. A former beau, Lulu Bains (Shirley Jones), who after Gantry abandoned her, was forced into prostitution, is still in love with him enough to jealously seek revenge. Gantry is able even to sweet-talk the Zenith—Lewis’ mythical Midwestern city—preachers into allowing him to take his unconventional religious circus into their own territory.

     In fact, in Gantry’s encounter with the Babbitt’s and the reverends of that prosperous city, we perceive them to be greedier that he or Falconer is.. At least the revivalists work hard for their money.

     Falconer seems convinced that she is truly battling for the souls of the townsfolk. And Gantry, while proselytizing through the closure of a whorehouse, still has the sensitivity, once he spots Lulu in the midst, to simply ask them to leave town instead of having them arrested. Later, he saves Lulu from a brutal beating with her pimp. Indeed, by the end of this movie, after the fiery death of Falconer, the audience can only admire this man, much in the way we admire the sham salesman Harold Hill in another Midwestern tale, The Music Man. Gantry himself seems to have grown into a more respectable adulthood, giving up, as 1 Corinthians preaches, “childish things,” to, presumably, return to an honest life.
      Certainly Lancaster’s Gantry, if nothing else, has shown us a right good time in his childish behavior. But by painting his hero-villain with such pastel colors, we can only wonder, in the end, what Brooks’ film was all about. What were we supposed to think about his fling with faith? And what was all the fuss about? Why have the newspaperman trail him, and reveal and that Gantry and Falconer were, after all, just human folk?

      In short, by allowing him such a winning personality and a deep commitment to love (as Gantry quotes: “Love is the morning and the evening star.”) Brooks has eviscerated his story. By presenting Gantry as simply a failed human being in need of salvation, the director has removed the devil from his sin. Despite the preacher’s hissing declarations—Sin, sin, sin! You're all sinners! You're all doomed to perdition.”—everyone in this film except the Zenith city leaders seem pretty ordinary and blameless. 
      If we might has begun by imagining that this film might be a denunciation or even a satire of the revivalist tradition—a fascinating idea for a film that has yet to be made—we come out of this picture by being quite amused by the whole tradition, as if it were all a good joke. As a “clean-up man” muses, late in the film: 

                   Mister, I've been converted five times. Billy Sunday, 
                   Reverend Biederwolf, Gypsy Smith, and twice by 
                   Sister Falconer. I get terrible drunk, and then I get 
                   good and saved. Both of them done me a powerful 
                   lot of good—gettin' drunk and gettin' saved. Well, 
                   good night.

The only thing Brooks reveals is that the revival business is simply “another opening, another show.” Today it has even infected politics: take another look at Donald Trump.

Los Angeles, March 10, 2016

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