The Bully at the Pulpit: ‘Elmer Gantry’

Richard Brooks's adaptation of Elmer Gantry lives and dies on Burt Lancaster's strangest, most unforgettable performance.

Performance—the crucial skill of the title character in Sinclair Lewis’s satirical novel Elmer Gantry—is at the heart of its film adaptation, which remains today less a coherent adaptation of the far wider-ranging text than a work that twists and throttles Lewis’s concerns into an altogether different shape. Despite the blistering, disgusted tone of the writing, Gantry as a novel afforded plenty of empathy to its monstrous protagonist, charting a clear path from his time as an insecure college man to his alarmingly high seat in the hierarchy of American religious politics.

The film, then, was met with the challenge of adapting a narrative that covered practically the whole swath of male adulthood and the first decades of the twentieth century, a perverse open secret of a history, a project that could easily take on the scope of a Ben-Hur. And perhaps it would be too alarming to present the full Gantry character onscreen, complete with Lewis’s uncomfortably clear-eyed understanding of how such a despotic pundit could come to be, and to thrive.

At least one of the decisions made by writer-director Richard Brooks (no stranger to the task of adaptation, having helmed the Elizabeth Taylor-starring Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and the iconic film of In Cold Blood still to come) must surely rank among the most brilliant solutions to a literary adaptation in history: he cast Burt Lancaster. Known in the late ‘50s not only as one of the reigning leading men in Hollywood but as a savvy studio player with HHL (Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, founded with producer-agent Harold Hecht and writer James Hill, which won a Best Picture Oscar for Marty), Lancaster was capable of dominating even the most assured material (see 1957’s shadow-drenched noir Sweet Smell of Success), and Brooks kept well out of the way.

In a period when the old, studio-driven model of filmmaking was in decline in Hollywood and independent producers were allowed to flourish along with still-marketable holdovers from the star system’s Golden Age, casting Burt Lancaster could be considered the equivalent of attaching a Brad Pitt or George Clooney today—a move to pre-empt a mass audience’s natural discomfort with the material, which took aim squarely at the structure and means of spreading evangelical Christianity. But the singular strangeness of Lancaster’s Gantry, his feral, unsettling affinity for gladhanding and the rhythms of sermonizing, did more than qualify the production for marquee status. He gave a struggling adaptation life.

Lancaster’s astonishing command of the screen in Elmer Gantry, which won him the Academy Award, highlights some of the film’s flaws. Chiefly, its screenplay takes too long to begin turning the screws, with a second act that stretches out lethargically over the course of an hour and seems surprised when Shirley Jones enters to introduce an actual conflict. As well, the performer who should be the closest match for Gantry is the film’s weakest point: Jean Simmons, as the wildly popular evangelist Sharon Falconer, whose growing movement inspires Gantry to take the pulpit once more. Struggling with an American accent throughout, Simmons demands the audience’s attention with the sternness of a schoolteacher, and the same level of authority.

Lest all the credit for the film’s impressive sense of itself go to Lancaster, it’s worth noting that that the heavy pruning of Lewis’s text by Brooks helps to accent this remarkable performance even further. Basically a triptych, Gantry the novel begins with its protagonist as a simple-minded university man pressured into religious life and eventually to his first ill-fated assignments as a Baptist pastor, concluding in his expulsion from his post; it continues with his time in the service of Sharon Falconer and their love affair; and it concludes with his joining the Methodist church and rapidly ascending to a position of great influence, where Lewis ends the novel.

Brooks dumped the first and final sections almost completely, so that Lancaster’s Gantry appears in the opening scene (introduced with an intertitle of the novel’s first line, “Elmer Gantry was drunk”) fully formed, with no origin story to speak of. This is where Lancaster first shakes off his romantic self-image, slurring his words and stumbling like a shameful lout around a dive. He falls in with Falconer after a brief overture and the film sticks to their story rather faithfully. One passage from the novel, in which the two stay for a weekend at her childhood home and conduct a bizarre pagan ritual, is excised.

To impose a third act on the rather slack narrative, Brooks borrowed from Lewis’s final pages a brief plot in which a mistress of Gantry’s has them photographed and blackmails the ascendant minister. In Brooks’s version, the mistress is actually Lulu Bains (Shirley Jones), a preacher’s daughter who appears in the opening act of the novel but introduced late in the film, having already been led astray years before by Gantry.

The quick and tidy resolution of this plot shows it to be little more than a diversion for the film, which has other interests in mind. Arthur Kennedy gives perhaps the crucial supporting performance as Jim Lefferts, a reporter who engages in long dialogues with Gantry and other characters about the value of religion. He alone seems to be operating from a place of sincere inquiry, grounding the sensational material and serving as a surrogate, supposedly, for Brooks and for the audience.

Bringing blackmail into the story makes the Lefferts role more crucial, but it also further underscores that Brooks has hedged his bets on adapting Lewis’s satire. Critics can argue back and forth about whether this adaptation choice was necessary, but making the Lefferts character a reasonable moderate cripples the graphic tone of the material. The newsroom scenes briefly turn Gantry into a message picture, which is something altogether different—and less vital—in form and function than the novel Lewis wrote.

You could actually sum up every criticism in this review with the observation that the film flags whenever Lancaster leaves the screen, and that says something. As in the violent, unpredictable climax, Elmer Gantry lives and dies on a kind of roiling energy, a reaction that seems to be happening over and over again behind the eyes of its leading man, in his cracking knuckles, his throbbing neck. Gantry’s swift exit at the end of the picture leads no clue as to what his next steps in life will be. Brooks’s film makes him a kind of ghoul, one who crackles onto the screen in its opening shots, wreaks havoc on the lives of those he encounters, and glides away at the end. Coherence is not the strong suit of this adaptation, or even of Lancaster’s performance. Where the film grasps at something of Lewis’s conception of evangelism’s insidious power, though, is in making the character so watchable. You believe that when he returns, he’ll have everyone’s attention just as soon as he clears his throat.

Kino Lorber’s Blu-Ray release of Elmer Gantry contains only a brief interview with Shirley Jones along with the film’s theatrical trailer, though it does also boast a fine replication of the original poster artwork on the package’s cover.

RATING 6 / 10