You’re all sinners!

As the Florentine mounts the Midwest premiere of Elmer Gantry (the opera), we look at the Sinclair Lewis novel and the 1960 film version.
March 19th, 2010 |
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gantrybookSinclair Lewis shook Christian values when he wrote Elmer Gantry.

Published in 1927, Gantry is a satiric and scathing look not only at revivalism, but the different sects of Christianity and the seemingly devout men and women who lead them.

The film (released in 1960, starring Burt Lancaster, winning 3 Oscars) is less acidic. It focuses entirely on Elmer Gantry’s relationship with revivalist Sharon Falconer, which is one episode in the novel, and largely ignores the rest of Gantry’s story. Lewis takes his time detailing Elmer’s education, conversion to Christianity and move from Methodism to the Baptist pulpit before he meets Falconer, and his fall after her death and his “rebirth” as a Methodist minister with skeletons in his closet.

Filmmaker Robert Brooks altered several of the novel’s characters. Jim Lefferts is Elmer’s college friend and a fierce critic of religion. In the movie, he becomes a newspaperman covering Falconer’s evangelistic journey across rural America. In the book, Lefferts is a fierce opponent of Elmer’s conversion to Christianity. He is well-educated, snide, and takes pride in his occasional drunkenness and depravity. In the film, Lefferts is a crack newspaper reporter who tries to rip holes in Falconer’s message. He enjoys the occasional sip of whiskey.

In the film, Lefferts is Falconer’s sole detractor. The book is rife with doubters. From common folk merely asking questions to conflicted church leaders, hardly anyone believes wholeheartedly. Gantry is a fraud. He comes to the ministry to gain power and prestige. Falconer saves souls for exorbitant sums of money; professors at Bible college are actually atheists; men who preach piety publicly privately indulge in women and booze. Lewis focuses on hypocrisy, doubt and ignorance.

Burt Lancaster as Elmer Gantry.

Burt Lancaster as Elmer Gantry from the 1960 United Artists film version.

The film character of Lulu Bains  also departs from Lewis’ vision. In the film she is a painted woman, condemned to prostitution after Gantry seduces her and she is banished from her father’s home. She is proud; she flaunts her sexuality and blackmails Gantry, smearing him in the press as revenge for their sordid history. Lewis’ Lulu is simple, innocent, and hardly destroyed.

Different, too, is the character of Sharon Falconer. Played by Jean Simmons, she is a beautiful, faithful servant to her cause. She denies Gantry her affections until nearly the end, and she is shown to have complete faith in her message.The novelist’s Falconer is moody, spoiled, and affectionate. She sees religion first as a business, and she takes as much money from the pot as she can without detection. She is at once angelic, childish and strange.

At one point in the novel, she reveals an altar in her home where she worships not only the Christian God, but also Eastern and Pagan gods, and longs to eventually preach the message that each God is the same. She compares herself to Joan of Arc and suggests that she is her reincarnation. She boasts about being the female Messiah. She takes up with Elmer almost immediately, utilizing him in whatever way she feels may benefit her most (as she has with many men before him). The angelic Falconer on film has little to do with the Falconer Lewis imagined.

Perhaps the most striking difference between the novel and the film lies in Elmer’s character and his journey. In the film, he seems to learn something. He yearns for a simpler life after Falconer’s death and walks away from the power and prestige he has inherited.

In the novel, he learns nothing. He moves from Baptist preaching to New Age lectures to the Methodist Church in an attempt to gain power, prestige and money. He marries a woman (poor thing) to gain wealth and status. He preaches against sin during the day and philanders at night. To the last page of the novel, Gantry remains Gantry: wild, impulsive, womanizing, and power-hungry.

The Florentine Opera will stage the Robert Aldridge/Herschel Garfein opera version of Elmer Gantry at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, March 19 and 21, at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. Tom Strini’s interviews with composer Aldridge, librettist Garfein and Florentine general director William Florescu are right here.

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