Elmer Gantry is a 1960 drama film about a con man and a female evangelist selling religion to small town America. Adapted by director Richard Brooks, the film is based on the 1927 novel of the same name by Sinclair Lewis and stars Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons, Arthur Kennedy and Shirley Jones and Patti Page.
Elmer Gantry was nominated for five Academy Awards in 1961, including Best Picture and Best Score. It won Best Actor for Lancaster, Best Supporting Actress for Jones, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
The movie presents fewer than 100 pages of the novel Elmer Gantry, deleting many characters and fundamentally changing the character and actions of female evangelist, Sister Sharon Falconer, as played by Simmons. The character of Sharon Falconer was loosely based on elements in the career of the Canadian-born American radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, who founded the Pentecostal Christian denomination known as the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel in 1927.
Elmer Gantry (Burt Lancaster) is a hard-drinking, fast-talking traveling salesman with a charismatic personality who infuses biblical passages and fervor into his pitches as a way to ease and collect money. He is drawn to the roadshow of Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons) and is immediately attracted to the saintly revivalist. As the troupe leaves town for Kansas, Gantry sweet talks her naive assistant, Sister Rachel (Patti Page), into telling him information regarding Falconer's past. He uses that information to con his way into Sister Sharon's good graces and joins the troupe preaching "Christ in commerce" and how he is a saved salesman.
Gantry and Falconer develop what her manager, Bill Morgan (Dean Jagger), calls a "good cop/bad cop" routine, with Gantry telling the audience members that they will burn in Hell for their sins and Sharon promising salvation if they repent. Because of Gantry's fire and brimstone sermons, the group comes to the attention of the church council in Zenith, Winnemac, a larger city. Though Morgan does not think Falconer is ready to preach outside of the smaller venues, Gantry convinces her to go to Zenith. They meet with the church leaders, most of whom are wary of turning religion into a spectacle as Gantry does, but he convinces them that the churches must earn money to stay open.
Travelling along with Falconer is the big-city reporter, Jim Lefferts (Arthur Kennedy). Lefferts is torn between his disgust for religious hucksterism and his genuine admiration for Gantry's charm and cunning. As Gantry's sermons bring Falconer's group to larger venues, Lefferts writes a series of articles labeling the revival a sham and reveals that neither Sharon nor Gantry has any credentials. Falconer eventually admits to Gantry that her real name is Katie Jones and that her origins are humbler than she publicly admits. Falconer also becomes Gantry's lover and loses her virginity to him.
The success of the Falconer-Gantry team comes to the attention of Lulu Baines (Shirley Jones), a former girlfriend of Elmer's who fell into disrepute and became a prostitute when her affair with Gantry ruined her standing in her minister father's eyes, and Gantry ditched her. Acting as a moralist, Gantry unwittingly invades the brothel where Lulu works, but sends the prostitutes out of town when he sees Lulu. When he meets Lulu privately after she phones him, Lulu wants revenge against Gantry for running out on her in Kansas. However, her love for Gantry returns when confronting him and they embrace. A hidden photographer planted by Lulu records their embrace but Gantry's love for Falconer prevents him from consummating with Lulu. Lulu proceeds to frame Gantry out of jealousy for his love for Falconer. Lulu blackmails him, and Falconer is asked to bring $25,000 ($348,906.61 in 2017 dollars). in exchange for the negatives of incriminating pictures. Falconer brings the money, but Lulu refuses to accept; the pictures are then printed in the front page of the town's newspaper.
Lulu had at first offered Lefferts the exclusive story of Gantry's supposed sexual indiscretion, but he refused, shrugging the pictures off as merely proof that Gantry is as human as anyone else. An angry mob ransacks the tent at the tent revival following the publication of the incriminating photos in another newspaper, and Lulu joins the congregation at this tent revival and is a witness to Gantry's humiliation. As she watches the mob curse Gantry and smear him with eggs and other produce, she is emotionally shaken and flees the scene. Lulu returns to the brothel, which is now in a dilapidated state from Gantry's publicity stunt. Her pimp is there to collect the $25,000, but when Lulu tells him she did not take Falconer's money, he beats her. Gantry comes to Lulu's rescue. He disposes of the pimp and apologizes to Lulu, who then publicly confesses to having framed Gantry.
Gantry returns to Sharon on the night her new tabernacle opens. Falconer declines Gantry's request to give up her soul-saving ventures, and insists that she and Elmer were brought together by God to do His work. Suddenly, a fire erupts at the tabernacle. Unable or unwilling to see past her own religious zeal when the place is engulfed in flames, Falconer dies. The next day, Gantry, saddened by Sharon Falconer's death, leads a spiritual with her followers. Morgan suggests that Gantry take up where Sister Sharon had left off and Gantry replies with (1 Corinthians 13:11), "When I was a child, I understood as a child and spake as a child. When I became a man, I put away childish things." His valise in one hand, Bible in the other, and a smile on his face, Gantry strides away.Burt Lancaster as Elmer Gantry
Jean Simmons as Sister Sharon Falconer
Arthur Kennedy as Jim Lefferts
Dean Jagger as William L. Morgan
Shirley Jones as Lulu Bains
Patti Page as Sister Rachel
Edward Andrews as George F. Babbitt
John McIntire as Rev. John Pengilly
Hugh Marlowe as Rev. Philip Garrison
Joe Maross as Pete
Dayton Lummis as Eddington, newspaper publisher
Harry Antrim as salesman in a speakeasy (uncredited)
Barbara Luna as a prostitute (uncredited)
Jean Willes as a prostitute (uncredited)
John Qualen as Sam, a storekeeper (uncredited)
A remastered and enhanced soundtrack was released on CD on August 25, 1998.
All compositions by André Previn.
Best Actor: Burt Lancaster
Best Supporting Actress: Shirley Jones
Best Writing (Screenplay--based on material from another medium): Richard Brooks
Best Motion Picture (lost to The Apartment)
Best Music Score, Dramatic or Comedy Picture: André Previn
- "Main Title" (1:45)
- "Long Distance" (1:38)
- "Mr. Babbitt" (3:15)
- "Lulu's Room" (2:49)
- "Do You Believe" (1:55)
- "Not As My Lover" (1:10)
- "Under the Pier" (3:14)
- "Shall We Gather At the River" (1:43)
- "Kiss Me Goodbye" (4:06)
- "Stand Up for Jesus" (1:16)
- "Elmer and Lulu" (1:25)
- "End Title" (1:35)
- "Orchestral Suite" (2:56)
- "Onward Christian Soldiers (Instrumental)"(1:25)
- "Shall We Gather At the River" (1:43)
- "Stand Up for Jesus" (1:15)
- "I'm On My Way" (Burt Lancaster – Vocal) (2:47)