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Elmer Gantry

review by Anthony D.

Studio: MGM

Running Time: 147 minutes

Starring Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons, Arthur Kennedy, Patti Page, Shirley Jones, Dean Jagger

Written by Richard Brooks
From the novel by Sinclair Lewis

Directed by Richard Brooks

Retail Price: $19.98

Features: Theatrical Trailer

Specs: 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital Mono, French Mono Spanish Mono, English Closed Captioning, French Subtitles, Spanish Subtitles, Chapter Search

It is a strange day indeed, that while viewing a film made in the early 1960's, which in turn was adapted from a novel written in the 1920's, to witness a course of events which could very easily be taking place in the present day. Strip away our computers, our technology, our televisions, and yes, even our alcohol, and we are transported to the easily recognizable America of Richard Brooks' vintage classic "Elmer Gantry." It is not really that much of a leap of faith to take viewers into this dark view of religion - - not organized, but true Revival religion. Once there, it is easy to spot the many similarities of the church of Sharon Falconer and that of that delightful deposed duo of Jim and Tammy Faye. When Sinclair Lewis created Sharon Falconer with the stroke of his pen in the Roaring Twenties, he was basing her on an infamous figure then currently making headlines across the United States: Aimee Semple McPherson. Aimee had a notorious disappearance which prompted a nationwide search for her, and which ultimately cost her many of her followers when it was discovered that her time out of the public eye was engaged in an non-marital affair. Aimee was also featured prominently in another Great American Novel of the 1920's: "The Day of the Locust," which was brought to the screen in the 1970's, and portrayed by the late Geraldine Page; and the disappearance tale was also retold for television with Faye Dunaway as the evangelist. More to the point though, it requires a GREAT actress to inhabit the role, and the robes, of this particular woman of the cloth.

Burt Lancaster may be portraying the title character, and winning an Academy Award for his brilliance, but the driving force of Richard Brooks' 1960 film is his Sharon Falconer, Jean Simmons. Miss Simmons delivers a performance which should have garnered her the Academy Award, especially if one recalls that the winner that year was none other than Elizabeth Taylor for her lackluster performance in the highly forgettable "Butterfield-8," and seeing that two of her co-stars DID win for their performances. (More on those two later).

Sharon Falconer is an evangelist, that is to say, she is a train-and-tent-touring minister in the Prohibition-ridden Bible Belt of the 1920's. When her path crosses that of two-bit salesman/con-man, Elmer Gantry, they form an unlikely alliance which can only end with redemption. Ganty becomes a significant part of Sharon's traveling carnival-like revival tour. Gantry may be all bluster and fire-and-brimstone - - a far cry from the soft-spoken, Scripture-inspired sermons of Sister Sharon - - but his charisma reaches the throngs in a way that Sharon only dreams of. Her dreams include that of "playing" the big town of Zenith (memorably created by Sinclair Lewis in "Babbit") an establishing a tabernacle. Gantry himself dreams of bedding any pretty female who happens to fall for his line: "Love is the morning and the evening star...," a line which Sharon does NOT immediately fall for. Sharon's choirmaster, however, is one of the victims of Elmer's charms, and Richard Brooks chose the non-actorly Patti Page, who, adds to the strength of the film with choice gestures and mannerisms. Brooks' casting is inspired the whole way around. Jean Simmons' Sharon truly believes that she is touched by God, and his messenger on earth - - there are no doubts in her mind, and only an actress of Simmons' caliber could pull of Sharon's sincerity without becoming maudlin, or a cliche. Lancaster was born to play Gantry, even if it is a near-carbon copy of his con man Starbuck in "The Rainmaker." The biggest casting coup, however, and most interesting surely, is that of Richard Rodgers' protegee, Shirley Jones as vengeful prostitute Lulu Bains, who will stop at nothing to see Gantry fall from grace. This is the same Shirley Jones known for her stunning soprano turns in the hit film versions of "Oklahoma!" and "Carousel" and much later, the beloved mother of television's "The Partridge Family." What may have been seen as stunt casting in 1960, would seem even more so to baby boomers only familiar with Shirley's work on "The Partridge Family IF Shirley weren't so damned good at her craft. This is not the stereotypical hooker with a heart of gold, but a flesh and blood woman who was once burned by Gantry, and Gantry's Hell hath no fury as this woman scorned.

"Elmer Gantry" is one of those rarities wherein everything works - - script, direction and most of all, an ensemble of actors who imbue their roles with the proper panache.

The presentation of "Elmer Gantry" is far from perfect; cigarette burns at reel changes, occasional speckling as well as age-related artifacts pop up here and there. Not anamorphically-enhanced, "Elmer Gantry" is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The near-faded hues of the print's Eastman Color however, though not nearly robust, present picture which looks every bit a film from the 1960's. Flesh tones change radically from reel to reel, most noticably with Gantry's "Clean Up This Town" speech in Chapter 11. Given the inconsistencies of the print used, contrast levels are quite good and shadow delineation is above average. Even throughout the film's darkest scenes, I spotted little, if no grain at all. Surely this film deserves a better presentation, or has "Elmer Gantry" the film fallen from grace, and unworthy of a redemptive restoration.

To be honest, I was very wary once the picture began, and the tones of Andre Previn's jazz-influenced score wobbled under the credits! It's a momentary failure which doesn't affect the remainder of the film. The Dolby Digital Mono track more than serves the presentation. Following MGM's highly boosted logo, the sound settles in for a non-problematic listen. There are, however, a couple of instances where a word or two in a dialogue scene are mastered at a louder level than usual; I believe that these instances are a result of re-dubbing for censorship reasons - - after all, upon its release, "Elmer Gantry" was very racy material. These problems might not be as apparent should one chose the French or Spanish language tracks, both in mono. With subtitles provided in Spanish and French, and English Closed Captioning provided for the hearing impaired, "Elmer Gantry" can be enjoyed by the most discriminating viewer.

The sole bonus feature on this Vintage Classic disc is the full-frame trailer, desperately showing the ravages of time. The trailer itself is a very good representation of the film itself, and unlike today's trailers, doesn't give away the film's best sequences.

Given its stars, and Award-winning performances, "Elmer Gantry" is a must-see film. Although MGM's presentation is far from reference quality, the film itself stands tall with a timeliness even Sinclair Lewis could not have predicted. In an age of Jim (and Tammy Faye) Bakker, the P.T.L and old-standby Billy Graham, the message of "Elmer Gantry" is as worthy of receiving as it was when Richard Brooks created his cinematic classic. With its very low price tag, "Elmer Gantry" should be welcomed into the libraries of film fans everywhere.

(4/5 - NOT included in final score)




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