Elmer Gantry (1960)

Elmer Gantry (1960)

“You’re amusing — and you smell like a real man.”

When smooth-talking salesman Elmer Gantry (Burt Lancaster) falls for a beautiful evangelist (Jean Simmons), he quickly finagles his way into a job with her revivalist group, which is being covered by a skeptical journalist (Arthur Kennedy) — but will Gantry’s past relationship with a prostitute (Shirley Jones) impede his chances at success with Sister Sharon (Simmons)?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Arthur Kennedy Films
  • Blackmail
  • Burt Lancaster Films
  • Dean Jagger Films
  • Hugh Marlowe Films
  • Jean Simmons Films
  • John McIntire Films
  • Journalists
  • Missionaries and Revivalists
  • Prostitutes and Gigolos
  • Richard Brooks Films
  • Shirley Jones Films

Peary doesn’t review this adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s 1927 satirical novel in his GFTFF, but he discusses the lead performances in Alternate Oscars, where he names Simmons Best Actress of the Year. In describing Lancaster’s Oscar-winning title role, Peary notes that with his “booming voice, toothy grin, boundless energy, dauntless spirit, exaggerated gestures, two-fisted masculinity, the slickness of a snake-oil salesman, the showmanship of the Mighty Barnum…, and strong doses of tenderness and intelligence”, Lancaster “gave a bravura performance” worthy of acclaim (though Peary hands the actual Alternate Oscars award to Anthony Perkins in Psycho). Regarding Simmons, Peary laments her (relative) career-long lack of recognition by Hollywood in terms of awards, and notes that she’d “been impressive since the mid-forties” but “peaked in Elmer Gantry, giving her most self-assured performance in her most difficult role” as a character based on Aimee Semple McPherson.

Peary writes that “it is the hard, naughty edge Simmons gives her character that makes her exciting”: while “Sharon’s a good person” (she’s a true believer, not a con-artist), “she’s no goody-goody, and no prude”; indeed, “she has as much fight in her as Gantry.” Simmons is indeed luminous and refreshingly tough — and is well-matched by finely cast Lancaster, who apparently stated, “Some parts you fall into like a glove. Elmer really wasn’t acting. It was me.” I’m less a fan of Shirley Jones’s Oscar-winning supporting performance as a blackmailing prostitute (Jones is trying a tad too hard to throw off her peaches-and-cream starring roles in Oklahoma! and Carousel):

… but I appreciate Arthur Kennedy’s convincing portrayal as a journalist who finds himself more deeply involved in his story than he anticipated. Meanwhile, John Alton’s cinematography is beautiful, vividly bringing this specific era of American history to life.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Burt Lancaster as Elmer Gantry
  • Jean Simmons as Sister Sharon
  • Arthur Kennedy as Jim Lefferts
  • John Alton’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, once, for the lead performances. Nominated as one of the Best Pictures of the Year Alternate Oscars.


  • Noteworthy Performance(s)
  • Oscar Winner or Nominee


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