I'm afraid I have not read the book, but it appears it is more cynical than the film, particularly in its ending where Gantry
marries well and lives a prosperous life, confirming the author's conviction that God and moral justice may not exist.
Sinclair Lewis is even mentioned in the film script as "one of those atheists like Sinclair Lewis"!
The film, however, does a fine job in calling in to question the motives and validity of those evangelists who toured America's Bible-belt
in the 1920s.
Elmer Gantry is a salesman, a man with a chequered past (kicked out of a seminary due to unseemly conduct) who oozes charm, shows conviction, makes a convincing pitch by taking personal interest in his customers and makes no small use of humour.
is eloquent, charming and friendly, and his
purpose is to separate his
clients from their money.
Touring evangelists or revivalists try to convince the faithful of the worth of God and the Church, bring hope and solace through personal interest, display conviction, sincerity and charm while offering inspiration.
They also wish to collect money from their "flock".
Essentially, both Gantry
and the evangelists are selling a service.
offers a product while trying to make his
customers feel good, and the evangelists encourage people to contribute to their works by way of financial gifts in exchange for fortification of the soul.
Both are in a form of show business, but while true believers and evangelists may be acting sincerely, show business benefits from professionals.
In many ways, the essence of the film is encapsulated in the opening scenes.
We are in a bar where the atmosphere is merry and we meet Gantry
(Burt Lancaster) who appears to be something of a hedonist willing to seize each moment.
Enter the Salvation Army
trying to raise money for their causes, a request that falls on deaf ears until Gantry
seizes their collection bucket and drums up contributions by making a stirring (and apparently heart-felt) speech about Jesus, strength and fighting for a cause.
These may be just words and a pitch to him, but the others in the bar are inspired and make (forced) contributions.
This inspirational behaviour is immediately contrasted with his
conduct with a girl he
picks up in the bar, and then steals some money from her
goes on to behave like a hobo, hitching a ride on a train and fighting off (quite convincingly) attempts to steal his
things by other hoboes.
We then see him charm his
way into a church meeting, singing hymns with verve and helping out in return for food.
We also discover he
is a failed gambler, a drinker and an adulterer.
Life changes for Gantry
comes across Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons) and her
falls for Sharon in a big way, not just physically but spiritually as well - he
sees a kindred spirit and admires the way she
audience, rousing their religious fervour and instantly combining this with the need to contribute financially to God's work and her
is quite genuine in her
desire to "spread the word", but she
combines this masterfully with a recognition of the hard realities of business.
way into Sharon's business and her
heart, joining her
tour, "preaching", and using the same skills of manipulation he
applies to his
preaching to make business deals with local towns and churches that will benefit financially from their presence.
This culminates in Gantry's outrageous and high-handed condemnation of "immorality" and he
leads attacks on various "dens of iniquity", during which he
discovers one Lulu Bains, now a prostitute, on whose life he
had a profound and detrimental effect when he
attended the seminary.
In short, it is because of Gantry
is where she
is today, and she
sets out to gain revenge, revealing the "truth" (a set of incriminating photos) which destroys Gantry's image and life, leading to a dramatic and tragic end.
The viewer is involved as we share the "truth" about Gantry
and share in his
schemes while admiring and enjoying his