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Literature / Elmer Gantry

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"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."
Elmer Gantry

A novel written by Sinclair Lewis and 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 Academy Award along with co-star Shirley Jones (who played Lulu Bains) and Brooks' screenplay. Jean Simmons also starred as Sharon Falconer. There was also a 2007 opera adaptation by Robert Aldridge, with libretto by Herschel Garfein.

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?".
  • The Artifact: 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.
  • Blackmail:
    • 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.
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    • In the book, a woman deliberately seduces Elmer and then blackmails him with the threat to expose their affair.
  • Bowdlerize: Protestants declared Lewis' book as sacrilegious, and the Hays office would stop at nothing to appease them. Adding a written prologue saying in a nutshell "These characters don't represent Christians as a whole" wasn't enough. The film turns Gantry into a bible salesman instead of a minister, and Sister Sharon is modified to be the "good Christian" to counter the corrupt nature of Gantry. In addition Lefferts becomes a news reporter instead of a minister, which leads to a very odd scene. (See The Artifact above.)
  • 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. He's able to give up drinking and smoking, but not women. After a while, he always gets bored with his partner and seeks a new one, even though it always gets him in trouble.
  • Celebrity Paradox: In the novel, a character mentions Sinclair Lewis, and criticizes his earlier novel, Main Street.
  • Character Title
  • College Is "High School, Part 2": The novel hints at an unbuilt version: Elmer's alma mater, Terwillinger College, is a heavily religious football school which adheres to the in loco parentis model, so it doesn't quite resemble either a high school or a modern college — but the narration mentions that it has "a standard of scholarship equal to the best high-schools."
  • 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. Part of the reason he became a minister is that he wanted to make her proud. He admits to Sharon that she and his mother are the only women he's ever respected.
    • The second scene of the film has a hungover Elmer crawling out of bed to phone his mother on Christmas.
  • 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.
  • Hollywood Atheist: Averted in Lefferts. He's cynical and brusque, and seems to exist only to mock Gantry and his fellow believers...but once Gantry is disgraced, he's the one man to be fair and decent to him.
  • Hypocrite: Elmer is a supreme example. He works as a minister and says that his aim is to "save souls", even though he doesn't really believe in Christianity. He's a Dry Crusader, who actually loves drinking (though in the novel, he eventually manages to quit). He rails against sexual sins, while he cheats on his wife with a married woman.
  • Jesus Was Way Cool: Discussed. One of the supporting characters is Frank Shallard, a preacher who loses his faith entirely over the course of the novel. He has arguments with a fellow preacher Phil McGarry, who doesn't believe in church doctrine either, but thinks that the point of the church is to interpret "the unique personality and teachings of Jesus Christ". Frank counters that he thinks Jesus wasn't really so great: he's vain and praises himself, he throws tantrums when people don't recognize him as a great leader, his teachings are self-contradictory, and one could never build a functioning society on them.
  • Karma Houdini: Elmer, in the novel.
  • Moral Guardians: Elmer aims to be the supreme moral guardian of the whole United States.
  • 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.
  • No Communities Were Harmed: Because Sinclair Lewis received so much flak from the residents of the actual city of Sauk Centre, Minnesota who didn't like their town's presentation in his earlier book Main Street, Lewis sets the story in the fictional city of Zenith, Winnemac for this and all works he wrote after Main Street.
  • 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.
  • Running Gag: When Elmer first has to give a sermon, he can't think of anything to say. He ends up building it around some platitudes about love which he ironically stole from the famous agnostic and anti-religious writer Robert G. Ingersoll. The speech is such a success that Elmer keeps repeating the platitudes over the course of the novel.
  • Sinister Minister: Albeit one who's not really evil so much as slick and self-deluded.
  • Snake Oil Salesman: Elmer is a religious version. In the novel, at one point he has to resort to teaching people methods to get rich. Ironically, while he tells his audience surefire ways to make a million dollars, he can barely make a living.
  • 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. He sometimes does have twinges of guilt, but gets over them pretty quickly.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: In the film, Elmer leads a torch-wielding mob to wreck the speakeasies and brothels of Zenith.


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