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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 is also a 2007 opera adaptation composed 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:

  • Actually Pretty Funny: In the film, both Elmer and Jim take the various personal attacks made on them by the other in surprisingly good stride.
  • 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.
    • 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, (The Hays Code prohibited negative depictions of clergy) 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.
  • Contrived Coincidence: In the film, a girl whom Elmer seduced years ago when they were both living somewhere that implied to be a decent distance from Zenith turns up there as a hooker, and Elmer just so happens to pick the brothel she works at to raid during his Torches and Pitchforks crusade, and they just so happen to be brought face-to-face and recognise each other during said raid.
  • 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.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Much of what both Sister Sharon and Elmer (as well as most other ministers) preach revolves around very hardline "Christian" values including upholding the prohibition of alcohol and the supposed evils of gambling, "obscene" pictures, immigration, and jazz music.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Played almost for laughs in the film. Jim Lefferts publishes one damning article about revivalism in general and especially on Sister Sharon and Elmer's practices and humiliates Sharon when she confronts him about it. In retaliation, Elmer manages to (somehow) humiliate Jim by getting him to publicly out himself as an atheist, get a printed apology for the article from the paper Jim works for, and get himself a 30 minute radio broadcast once a week for the foreseeable future...which he uses to regularly demonise Jim. Even Jim's editor briefly complains how overboard this is. For his part, Jim just laughs all this off.
  • 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.
  • Everyone Has Standards: In the film, Jim is perfectly happy to write an article that all but outright accuses Elmer and Sister Sharon - as well as most of the other ministers in Zenith - of fraud, but he absolutely refuses to be in any way complicit in the blackmail attempt against Elmer and is even willing to get into a fight with members of an angry mob in order to defend him.
    • When Lulu witnesses first-hand just how low Elmer has been brought by her scheme, she promptly goes to the press and admits the whole thing was a set-up.
  • 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.
    • In the film, George Babbitt is arguably even worse than Elmer, preaching prohibition and publicly supporting the outlawing of gambling and prostitution and generally seeming to be a hardline Christian...all while owning several buildings home to speakeasies, gambling dens and brothels and is implied to be supporting Sister Sharon purely for the sake of the money she collects.
  • 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.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The entire climax of the film comes across as this. First Sister Sharon appears to genuinely cure a man who recently lost his hearing through nothing more than the power of prayer, with Elmer, Jim and Bill all appearing notably perturbed by this turn of events. Given that she burns to death in the fire that destroys her new church immediately following this (though the fire was set up by someone tossing away a lit cigarette onto some rags), it's led to more than one interpretation of the ending being that the whole thing was a genuine punishment from God for her hubris.
  • 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.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Jean Simmons as Sister Sharon tries for an American accent occasionally but for the most part she uses her own natural English accent.
  • 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.
  • Unusual Euphemism: When Lulu tells her coworkers how Gantry seduced her, she describes their sex as him "[ramming] the fear of God into [her]."
  • Verbal Tic: In the film, Elmer has a habit of addressing male acquaintances (especially Jim) by tagging "-boy" onto the end of their names.
    • George Babbitt is also prone to pronouncing "correct" as "keerect".
  • Villain Protagonist: "Villain" might be a bit strong, but Elmer is decidedly not a good guy (morally speaking) despite his charm.