Handsome. Opportunistic. Immoral. Traveling salesman Elmer Gantry (Burt Lancaster, Run Silent, Run Deep) is all this and more. So when he stumbles into a revival meeting and discovers that he can hustle money in a tent-show as easily as in a saloon, Gantry converts to evangelism. Joining forces with Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons, Spartacus), he delivers demon-bashing oratories that bring him fame and fortune. But when an old flame (Shirley Jones, TV s The Partridge Family) re-appears, Gantry is forced to confront demons of a more worldly order -- long-buried secrets that will make his saintly life a veritable Hell on Earth! Wonderfully directed by Richard Brooks (In Cold Blood) and based on the bestselling novel by Sinclair Lewis (Dodsworth). Winner of 3 Academy Awards® including Actor (Lancaster), Supporting Actress (Jones) and Adapted Screenplay (Brooks).
Before Jimmy Swaggart, before Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, even before Pat Robertson and Billy Graham, there was Elmer Gantry, a fictional prototype who personified a controversial movement that - much to many people's amazement - still flourishes today. Evangelism has survived despite decades of denouncement, scandals galore, charges of fraud, and countless caricatures, the first of which had to be Sinclair Lewis' bestselling novel, which was published in 1927, banned in Boston, and made its author the target of death threats. The story of an alcoholic traveling salesman whose chance encounter with a touring evangelist troupe leads to an unexpected career as a money-squeezing preacher, 'Elmer Gantry' explores grass-roots religion, the syndicate that runs it, and all the desperate, naive, and gullible souls who buy into manipulative, opportunistic miracle-mongering in the hope of achieving that most elusive of all spiritual goals - salvation. And though only a small portion of Lewis' book finds its way into writer-director Richard Brooks' 1960 screen adaptation, the gist of the tale and its bitingly cynical viewpoint remain. Brooks can't hide his disdain for such a racket and the titular character who exploits the system to a fare-thee-well, and his boisterous film is deliciously mean. It's also surprisingly sensitive and terrifically entertaining from start to finish.
Brooks won an Academy Award for his incisive script, which vilifies the zealots who prey upon a public anxious to lend their arduous lives meaning and purpose. Yet he also sympathizes with Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons), a rising star in the evangelist universe (modeled after Aimee Semple McPherson) who truly believes she's preaching the gospel and walking in the footsteps of the Lord. The headliner of a revivalist tent show that draws huge crowds but hasn't yet hit the big time, Sharon at first dismisses Elmer (Burt Lancaster), whom she astutely pigeonholes as a charlatan, but soon warms up to him when she witnesses how he stokes the passions of a congregation. Sharon hires Elmer as a warm-up act for her fire-and-brimstone sermons, and soon her inspirational show gains a substantial measure of renown, at last receiving a coveted invitation to set up shop in the lofty town of Zenith, where Sharon finally succumbs to Elmer's bewitching charms. Yet fate instantly tests their romance, as Elmer unexpectedly encounters a fellow preacher's daughter whom he deflowered years ago...in the church! Now a prostitute, Lulu Bains (Shirley Jones) sees an opportunity to exact revenge on Elmer for leading her down the proverbial primrose path, and with vindictive glee, she seeks to tear down his evangelist house of cards and destroy his reputation.
At 146 minutes, 'Elmer Gantry' is at once rousing, well-acted, overlong, and a bit over the top, but then again, so is evangelism. Brooks strikes just the right tone and keeps the narrative moving, thanks to a lively screenplay filled with snappy dialogue, intense exchanges, and enough emotional ambiguity to keep us invested in both the principals and the plot throughout the lengthy running time. A supremely gifted writer, Brooks adapted many challenging works over the course of his four-decade career, including Tennessee Williams' 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' and 'Sweet Bird of Youth,' Dostoevsky's 'The Brothers Karamazov,' and Truman Capote's 'In Cold Blood,' and his enviable grasp of character and story structure earned him five screenwriting and three directorial Oscar nominations. 'Elmer Gantry' is arguably his crowning achievement, and though television and radio have replaced mobile tents and makeshift tabernacles as the medium of choice for evangelical ministers, their influence remains just as potent today as it surely was almost a century ago. All of which makes 'Elmer Gantry' not only a searing study of a fringe movement that wields enough power to brainwash a disillusioned public, but also a cautionary tale of ego, arrogance, and delusion that's still highly relevant today.
Of the colorful role that won him an Oscar, Lancaster opined, "Some parts you fall into like an old glove. Elmer wasn't really acting; that was me." Whatever it was, it remains electrifying - brash, bold, showy, and marvelously exaggerated. Lancaster's blindingly broad smiles, twinkling eyes, and wildly unkempt hair make him an unstoppable force and galvanizing presence, at once ingratiating and annoying, brilliant and stupid, lusty and pious. It's the definition of overacting, and yet no other interpretation seems viable. The breathtakingly beautiful - and criminally underrated - Simmons, who would fall in love with Brooks during shooting and soon after marry him, makes a wonderful foil, handling a difficult role with aplomb.
Jones, however, is the real surprise. In a 180-degree turn, the sweet, goody-two-shoes star of such Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals as 'Oklahoma!' and 'Carousel' plays a vengeful hooker - fresh-faced, yes; but behind the girl-next-door façade, she's raw, bawdy, and slyly manipulative - and her captivating portrayal won her a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar, beating out favorite Janet Leigh in 'Psycho.' Casting Jones was both risky and inspired, and though the actress admits to feeling initially daunted by the role, she attacks it with gusto and makes an indelible impression.
Also nominated for Best Picture (it lost to Billy Wilder's 'The Apartment'), 'Elmer Gantry' is that rare period piece that still makes waves in our current society. Although its bite isn't as lethal as it surely was 54 years ago (a thick air of nostalgia now hangs over it), Brooks' film still paints a disturbing portrait of opportunists, swindlers, and scalawags who exploit religion for personal gain. Plenty of Elmer Gantrys still flood our airwaves and preach from the pulpit today, but this excellent movie reinforces the attitude that the gospel of any fanatic, especially one with a grin as big as Texas, should be taken with a few grains of salt and a heaping helping of suspicion.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Elmer Gantry' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
The 'Elmer Gantry' transfer is a mixed bag. Moments of stunning clarity are offset by patches where print damage is quite apparent. Colors can be bright and vibrant one minute, and dull and faded the next. On the plus side, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 rendering from Kino flaunts a pleasing grain structure that maintains the feeling of celluloid without overwhelming the image. Good contrast helps the picture achieve a fair degree of depth, and strong black levels add welcome density. Fleshtones, however, wander all over the map, yet stay within natural parameters, and close-ups range from highly detailed (Lancaster) to soft (Simmons). 'Elmer Gantry' stands as the final film credit for cinematographer John Alton (who won an Oscar for 'An American in Paris'), but one gets the distinct impression this transfer doesn't accurately represent his work. A full restoration would undoubtedly bring out the hues age has ravaged and clean up the marks that intermittently mar the frame. Happily, no digital issues, such as crush, noise, or banding, are present, and no artificial enhancements seem to have been applied. Though this Best Picture nominee deserves a spiffier Blu-ray treatment, fans should be satisfied with this transfer, which certaily improves upon previous home video releases of this title.
The DTS-HD Master Audio stereo track suffers from occasional instances of mild distortion, but otherwise outputs clear, serviceable sound. Not much fidelity or nuance distinguish the mix, and as a result, the audio sounds rather flat. Stereo separation is nonexistent and André Previn's Oscar-nominated music score often exhibits a grating shrillness. Dialogue, however, is well prioritized and always easy to comprehend, and any age-related imprefections, such as hiss, pops, and crackles, have been mercifully erased.
Just a couple of supplements flesh out this release.
Interview with Shirley Jones (HD, 12 minutes) - In this charming interview, the now 80-year-old actress (who still looks lovely) recalls her experiences making 'Elmer Gantry,' from her initial audition all the way up to her surprise victory on Oscar night. Jones talks about her long-standing fascination with Burt Lancaster and close relationship with him during shooting, recalls the reluctance of director Richard Brooks to cast her (he reportedly wanted Piper Laurie), and declares the role of Lulu Bains was the best thing that ever happened to her, as it revived her faltering career and paved the way for many future parts in film and television. Jones also relates Brooks' anger over not receiving the Oscar for Best Director, but the truth of the matter is he wasn't even nominated.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3 minutes) - Emphasizing the fire-and-brimstone aspects of the film, this trailer is interesting to watch, despite its horrendous condition. Print damage is rampant and the color is almost completely washed out, making this preview look as if it was produced in black-and-white.
Like its titular character, 'Elmer Gantry' is big, bloated, and blustery, but always entertaining. Richard Brooks' rousing adaptation of the classic Sinclair Lewis novel paints an appropriately cynical and, at times, disturbing portrait of barnstorming evangelists during the era of Prohibition, and features Oscar-winning performances from Burt Lancaster and Shirley Jones. Solid - but far from spectacular - video and audio transfers distinguish Kino's Blu-ray presentation, which also includes an enjoyable recent interview with Jones. Nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, 'Elmer Gantry' remains a blistering character study that still strikes a chord today. Recommended.