"I have here in my pocket - and thank heaven you can't see them - lewd, dirty, obscene, and I'm ashamed to say this: French postcards. They were sold to me in front of your own innocent high school by a man with a black beard... a foreigner."
A 1926 novel by Sinclair Lewis (written in 1926, first published in 1927), Elmer Gantry
was brought to the screen by Director and Writer Richard Brooks in 1960. The title role was played by Burt Lancaster
, who won an Oscar along with co-star Shirley Jones and Brooks' screenplay.
Elmer Gantry was once a college athlete who decided to go into the legal profession. He ditches the legal profession and becomes a traveling salesman. During his travels, he "decides" his true calling is in the ministry and becomes a preacher. However, his actions do much more harm than good.
The novel and and its adaptations feature examples of:
- Armor-Piercing Question: In the film, Sharon is rattled when Lefferts asks her "What gives you the right to speak for God?".
- In the film, Elmer gets George Babbitt to back Sister Sharon's campaign by threatening to expose all his illegal businesses. Then Lulu the hooker gets into a scheme to blackmail Elmer, but changes her mind.
- In the book, a woman deliberately seduces Elmer and then blackmails him with the threat to expose their affair.
- Broken Ace: Sharon Falconer, in the novel. Elmer discovers that much of her personal story is a meticulously constructed fiction.
- The Cameo: George Babbitt, the protagonist of Sinclair Lewis's novel Babbitt, is mentioned in passing in the novel. In the movie he is a somewhat larger character, being the main businessman in Zenith who supports Sister Sharon's ministry.
- The Casanova: In book and film, Elmer really has an eye for the ladies.
- Content Warnings:
- Read The Fine Print at the bottom of the movie poster page pic, and you'll see that it says "FOR ADULTS ONLY. No Children Under 16 Admitted Unless Accompanied By An Adult".
- The actual film opens with a nervous disclaimer saying that it is not making a statement about religion as a whole.
- Corrupt Church
- Cute and Psycho: Sharon, in the novel. While her public persona is that of a charming preacher, she's deeply disturbed beneath the surface. In one scene from the novel, Elmer struggles to get Sharon ready to preach while she's in the throes of psychosis, talking like a small child and throwing a tantrum.
- Her film counterpart isn't much better.
- Dry Crusader: Gantry pretends to be this publicly.
- Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: In the novel, Elmer speaks very warmly of his mother. He admits to Sharon that she and his mother are the only women he's ever respected.
- Good Cop/Bad Cop: In the film, an observer compares Sister Sharon and Elmer to this, with Sharon's talk of the love of Jesus and Elmer's warning of hellfire and damnation.
- High Heel-Face Turn: In the film, Lulu the hooker participates in a plot to lure Elmer to her room and get compromising photos, but it turns out she still has feelings for him. She goes to the press and admits to the blackmail scheme.
- Karma Houdini: Elmer, in the novel.
- Mythology Gag:
- In the movie, Elmer cites Sinclair Lewis as one of the atheistic influences on reporter Jim Lefferts.
- In the book, two characters agree that the Sinclair Lewis novel Main Street is very boring.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Sharon Falconer is loosely based on Aimee Semple McPherson, while Elmer was patterned on Billy Sunday.
- Pragmatic Adaptation:
- The movie adapts less than 100 pages of the novel and makes several changes to the story. Lefferts, Elmer's cynical college roommate in the novel, is changed to a cynical reporter. In the book, Elmer is actually an ordained Baptist minister, while in the movie he's a traveling salesman on the edge of vagrancy who seizes on the opportunity to join Sister Sharon's entourage.
- The scene in the film where Elmer badgers Lefferts the reporter into admitting that he doesn't accept the divinity of Christ is taken from a scene in the novel where Elmer does the same with a rival minister. This explains to some degree the rather odd tone in the scene in the movie, where Lefferts' denial of Christ is inexplicably treated as a shocking moment. In the book, it is a shocking moment, as the person denying Christ is a minister.
- Sinister Minister: Although one who is slick and self-deluded.
- Snake Oil Salesman
- The Sociopath: In the novel, Elmer is devoid of empathy and cares only about his immediate self-interest and appetites. His destructive actions create heartache for many of the people he comes into contact with.
- Torches and Pitchforks: In the film, Elmer leads a torch-wielding mob to wreck the speakeasies and brothels of Zenith.