The best thing about Elmer Gantry is Burt Lancaster's hair. His unruly locks vie for attention with his pearly whites but the coif wins hands down every time. This is Lancaster’s hobo hair. His hard drinking, whoring, boxcar-riding hair. But when he hooks up with the Bible thumpers his hair gets religion and calms down and sometime after that I lose interest. Okay, it’s not just the loss of his erratic mop that causes me to yawn. To be precise I go AWOL when Elmer first kisses Sister Sharon.
I blame Jean Simmons. Too pure and sweet for the part of Sister Sharon Falconer, Simmons simpers her way through the movie while Burt blazes. Shara (as Elmer calls her) needed some edge and Jean just didn’t have it. She was a well trained thespian, perfect as Ophelia opposite Olivier's Hamlet, sublime playing Ruth Gordon in The Actress and spot on as the helpless waif in So Long at the Fair. But I am always perplexed that she was cast twice opposite Marlon Brando while so many other actresses of the era would've been much better suited to play alongside the brooding star.
In Desiree she plays the title character to Brando's Napoleon and in Guys and Dolls she trills alongside his Sky Masterson. In the latter she is once again cast as a religious prude, and prude she could do; it was her melting-of-the-prude-in-the-arms-of-the-brute that I never found convincing. I couldn't understand the casting behind Gantry until I discovered that the director, Richard Brooks, was married to her at the time.
So who could have put some bite into this itinerant girl evangelist? The character was modeled after Aimee Semple MacPherson, the Canadian born traveling preacher whose mission it became to spread the Gospel worldwide in the 20s and 30s. McPherson famously disappeared for 35 days in 1920 and when she finally emerged (after having been presumed dead) she claimed to have been kidnapped. But all signs indicated that Aimee had been holed up with a married man in various hotels around the country. A song popularized by Pete Seeger at the time went: “The dents in the mattress fit Aimee’s caboose” and in 1976 a movie was made about that time in her life. Titled The Disappearance of Aimee it starred Faye Dunaway. Now that's good casting.
But who could have matched Burt’s passion and hair back in the late 50s when Lewis’ novel was being adapted for the screen? Katherine Hepburn would have been a good choice but Kate and Burt had already starred together in similar roles in The Rainmaker (1956) where he plays a fast talking con man (black cowboy hat covering hair) to Kate's shy virgin spinster.
I think Barbara Stanwyck would have been perfect for the lady preacher. And so did Frank Capra when, in 1931, he cast her to play a McPherson-inspired character in his movie The Miracle Woman.
So how about Susan Hayward? By 1960 Hayward had portrayed a number of hardcore characters – fiery, bad, rotten even – but always vulnerable. Smash-up: The Story of a Woman brought her the first of five Academy Award nominations. And when she gave real-life convicted murderer Barbara Gordon a heart in I Want to Live! she won the Academy Award for Best Actress. She’d have matched Burt’s fire just fine. And she had great hair.
It took me a few attempts before I finally watched Elmer Gantry all the way through. Rewrites and Hayward would have helped make it a better flick. Still, Burt is a joy to watch. He won an Academy Award for playing the Midwestern preacher/huckster in this sprawling wreck of a movie. He deserved it and so did his hair.