Elmer Gantry (1960): Starring Burt Lancaster and Shirley Jones in their Oscar-Winning Performances

Burt Lancaster gives one of his most memorable and splashiest performances in the title role, as the lustful, ambitious charlatan of Sinclair Lewis’ 1927 powerful novel of the same title, Elmer Gantry, for which he deservedly winning the Best Actor Oscar.

Sinclair Lewis conducted research for his novel by observing the work of preachers in Kansas City in his so-called “Sunday School” meetings on Wednesdays. He first worked with William L. “Big Bill” Stidger, pastor of the Linwood Boulevard Methodist Episcopal Church in Kansas City, Missouri. Stidger introduced Lewis to other clergymen, including Reverend Leon Milton Birkhead, a Unitarian and an agnostic. Other ministers Lewis interviewed included Burris Jenkins, Earl Blackman, I. M. Hargett, Bert Fiske, and Robert Nelson Horatio Spencer, who was rector of a large Episcopal parish, Grace and Holy Trinity Church.

Elmer Gantry (Lancaster) first appears on the screen drunk, trying to mooch drinks while selling his own distinctive take on scripture with his remarkable gift of gab. A narcissistic, womanizing college athlete, he abandoned his ambition to become a lawyer, because the legal profession did not suit his personality and lifestyle. A notorious and cynical alcoholic, Gantry is mistakenly ordained as a Baptist minister. He briefly acts as a “New Thought” evangelist, and later becomes a Methodist minister.

During his career, Gantry contributes to the downfall, injury, and death of key people around him, including minister Frank Shallard. Gantry marries well and obtains a large congregation in Lewis’s fictional Midwestern city of Zenith.

When he encounters Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons), a role inspired by the real-life Aimee Semple McPherson, he appeals to her vanity and joins her camp. Together, they become rich and famous enough for Sister Falconer to build her own huge seaside temple. He acts as manager for Sharon Falconer, an itinerant evangelist. Gantry becomes her lover but loses both her and his position when she is killed in a fire at her new tabernacle.

The character of Sharon Falconer was based on elements in the career of Aimee Semple McPherson, a Canadian-born American evangelist who founded the Pentecostal Christian denomination known as the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel in 1927.

Gantry, a womanizer who loves life and every femme he meets, then falls for Lulu Baines (cast against type Shirley Jones), once a preacher’s daughter and now a prostitute bent on revenge.

Writer-director Richard Brooks has made significant changes in adapting the novel to the screen. Brooks has turned Elmer Gantry into an “All-American Boy,” lusting after fame, money, and status. Hence, Gantry is no longer the ordained minister fallen from grace as depicted in the novel, but rather a traveling salesman for the Lord. Similarly, Jim Leffers (Arthur Kennedy), Elmer’s friend, is transformed from a seminary dropout in the novel into a cynical but savvy reporter.

Deservedly winning the Best Actor Oscar, Lancaster was born to play Gantry, a charismatic, handsome man who turns his life into a theatrical spectacle that needs and depends on live audience. Gantry loves wine, women, and music. Full of contradictions, his bawdy humor, self-love, opportunism, and energy are useful in gaining friends and positions, but he’s also driven by sincere love for others, and authentic wish to make life better for the whole world.

Nonetheless, the tone of the book is maintained in this overwrought version, resulting in a largely gripping chronicle, despite its shortcoming of being too ironic, vulgarized, and overlong (running time is 146 minutes).

Censorship and Changes

George Shurlock of the PCA administration considered the film’s first draft to be in violation of the Production Code.

In response, and in accordance with the age of Lancaster, who was 47, the writer-director Richard Brooks adapted the story to focus on Gantry’s middle years. He also changed Falconer into a sincerely religious figure, converted “Jim Lefferts” from a seminary student to an atheist reporter and, most importantly, portrayed Gantry as not an ordained minister. This change sidestepped Code restrictions disallowing ministers to be portrayed in a negative light. In a November 24, 1958 memo, Brooks noted that he retained the story’s 1920s setting in order to avoid any identification with contemporary religious leaders.

Oscar Nominations: 5

Picture, produced by Bernard Smith Screenplay (Adapted): Richard Brooks Actor: Burt Lancaster Supporting Actress: Shirley Jones Score (Drama or Comedy): Andre Previn

Oscar Awards: 3

Actor Supporting Actress Screenplay (Adapted)

Oscar Context

In 1960, a rather weak year, “Elmer Gantry” competed for the Best Picture Oscar with Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment,” which won, John Wayne’s “The Alamo,” the British drama “Sons and Lovers,” and Fred Zinnemann’s “The Sundowners.”

Director Richard Brooks was overlooked by his peers at the Directors Branch; he would be nominated in 1966 for “The Professionals.”

The winner of the Score Oscar was Ernest Gold for Preminger’s “Exodus.”


UA release of Burt Lancaster and Richard Brooks production