#41 — Elmer Gantry (Richard Brooks, 1960)
Though Elmer Gantry was released several years before the MPAA ratings system came into being, it was a bit of a trailblazer when it came to warning potential ticket-buyers of potentially challenging content. Well before filmmakers were concerned about whether their creations were to be labeled with a G, M, R or X (the initial alphabet soup created by the ratings board), the worry was that a film might receive a C from an entirely different body, the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency. That meant the body had condemned the film, a designation that could be a deathblow. So United Artists declared the film for “Adults Only” and added a explanatory crawl at the beginning which read, “We believe that certain aspects of Revivalism can bear examination, that the conduct of some Revivalists makes a mockery of the traditional beliefs and practices of organized Christianity. We believe that everyone has a right to worship according to his conscience. But freedom of religion is not a license to abuse the faith of the people. However, due to its highly controversial nature, we strong urge you to prevent impressionable children from seeing this film.” It was a hedge against upsetting the religious power structure, but if the ominous warning also piqued the interest of the public, setting them on the way to the theater to see what all the fuss was about, well, then all the better.
Burt Lancaster plays the title role, a toothsome salesman who signs on to the traveling evangelist show presided over by the gentle and beatific Sister Sharon Falconer, played radiantly by Jean Simmons. Before long, Elmer has taken on a role as a preacher with the group, bounding across tents packed with true believers, plying a suspect faith in the Lord as a tool to get whatever he wants. Lancaster was well into his film career by this point, and he had a well-established persona defined by exuberance, bonhomie and a barrel-chested strength and authority. It was an ideal piece of casting and Lancaster is ferociously engaging in the role, bursting from the pulpit like a firework destined to never burn out. He also knows exactly how to play a man who never quite turns off the manipulative charm, meeting those who doubt his sincerity with a booming laugh meant to short circuit the criticism before it can mount. The skeptics are right, of course. Elmer is in it for the handy prestige and the money that comes with it, thumping the bible as a drumbeat that helped him march straight to the whiskey bottle and the whorehouse.
Despite the opening caveat, the film is an obvious and inspired savaging of the manipulative mavens of religion, using Jesus as a conduit straight to the pocketbook. Director Richard Brooks is careful and cunning in his storytelling, never pressing his thesis when simple remaining true to the different scenarios will get the job done. Elmer Gantry is scathing enough, in fact, that it’s a little difficult to conceive of it being made today without more apologies to the devout built right into the actual text of the film, an interesting measure of the backwards progression in fealty to religious figures that’s been happening at least since the Moral Majority declared itself open for business back in 1979. It’s worth noting that the believers may be the victims of a con in the film, but they’re not the villains of the piece, not by a long shot. Instead, they’re largely well-meaning figures whose innocent belief has been stripped for parts, which is exactly the sort of illuminating commentary the likes of Jerry Falwell were guarding against from the comfort of their well-appointed homes. No wonder Elmer Gantry had that dismal class of individuals agitated enough that the filmmakers had to offer assurances that they meant no harm.