Elmer Gantry, a Flawed Preacher for the Ages Elmer Gantry, the traveling evangelist who loved whiskey, women and wealth, was conceived by Sinclair Lewis in a best-selling 1927 novel and continues to resonate with modern audiences.
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Elmer Gantry, a Flawed Preacher for the Ages

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Elmer Gantry, a Flawed Preacher for the Ages

Elmer Gantry, a Flawed Preacher for the Ages

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Before there was Jimmy Swaggart, before there was Jim Bakker, there was Elmer Gantry. Elmer Gantry was a fictional preacher, a rowdy evangelist with the taste for money and women.

He was created by the novelist Sinclair Lewis back in the 1920s, when fundamentalism was on the rise. The book was a best seller in 1927 and was turned into an Oscar-winning movie in 1960. Now, it's part of our In Character series.

NPR's Noah Adams brings Elmer Gantry to the radio.

NOAH ADAMS: Sinclair Lewis sat at his typewriter to start his novel - clean sheet of paper.

(Soundbite of typewriter typing)

ADAMS: He must have smiled because he wrote a great first sentence.

(Soundbite of typewriter typing)

ADAMS: Elmer Gantry was drunk - that's how the book begins, and...

(Soundbite of lions growling)

And that's how the movie starts, too, an open book, on screen, chapter 1, page one. Here's the second sentence. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk.

Now, that could've described Sinclair Lewis as well at times, and we'll have more about that later. But first, the voice. Gantry grew up sounding like a preacher. Lewis wrote, you remember that rousing baritone, welcoming as a brass band, uplifting as a cathedral organ. The actor Burt Lancaster sounded enough like Gantry to win an Academy Award.

(Soundbite of movie, "Elmer Gantry")

Mr. BURT LANCASTER (Actor): (As Elmer Gantry) What is religion? Religion is love, and love is the morning and the evening star; love, the eternal glorious music maker; love, not the carnal but the divine love. And where does this great love come from? It comes direct from God.

(Soundbite of crowd shouting)

ADAMS: Elmer Gantry in that scene mentioned carnal love and that, indeed, was one of his failings, along with whiskey. Did he wake up in a hotel room hung over with a woman in a red dress? You bet.

(Soundbite of movie, "Elmer Gantry")

ADAMS: Would Gantry lie to his mother on the telephone about why he didn't come home for Christmas?

(Soundbite of movie, "Elmer Gantry")

Mr. LANCASTER: (As Elmer Gantry) I know I promised, but I couldn't get away. I've been busy. Yeah, business. How did you like my present? You sure? Gee, that's funny. Well, maybe it got held up in the holiday rush.

ADAMS: And as a traveling salesman, would he tell a storekeeper a dirty joke, offer a drink, make grand promises about a vacuum cleaner?

(Soundbite of movie, "Elmer Gantry")

Mr. LANCASTER: (As Elmer Gantry) As the little devil, it's going clean up America.

Unidentified Man #1: (As Character) No. You've shown me nine of them vacuum cleaners last year. There they all are, all nine of them.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Glory, glory, hallelujah. His truth is marching on.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. JEAN SIMMONS (Actor): (As Sister Sharon Falconer) Tonight, I feel gloriously happy. We're going to sing together, laugh together, rejoice together like carefree children of a happy God. We're going to rejoice that inside of us lives the veritable spirit of the everlasting redeeming Christ Jesus.

ADAMS: A small town revival meeting lead by Sister Sharon Falconer. Sinclair Lewis' inspiration here was the popular evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson

(Soundbite of train whistle)

ADAMS: Elmer Gantry, on the road with his sample case, saw a poster about the tent revival and became enchanted. The revivalist is played by Jean Simmons, a vision in white.

(Soundbite of movie, "Elmer Gantry")

Mr. LANCASTER: (As Elmer Gantry) Sister Falconer, I must congratulate you again.

Ms. SIMMONS: (As Sister Sharon Falconer) Thank you.

Mr. LANCASTER: (As Elmer Gantry) You see, I'm a preacher myself so I know how inspired you must have been last night.

Ms. SIMMONS: (As Sister Sharon Falconer) Preacher? What church?

Mr. LANCASTER: (As Elmer Gantry) What church? Yes, well, at present, sister, I don't exactly have a church. I was...

Ms. SIMMONS: (As Sister Sharon Falconer) What is it this time, brother, booze or women?

(Soundbite of music)

ADAMS: It is hard to discourage Elmer Gantry and soon, one night, in the tent after service, there is a kiss. Sister Falconer is dubious, but attracted. This young man is handsome and talented. He will join the traveling revival. He will testify about being a salesman and finding God.

Soon, Gantry has the crowd shouting and flocks of people coming forward to be saved. That remains true even after Sister Falconer is confronted by her snippy business manager, who's been doing some checking.

(Soundbite of movie, "Elmer Gantry")

Unidentified Man #2: (As character) In 1917, Mr. Gantry was expelled from a theological seminary in Kansas for seducing the deacon's daughter in the church where he had that day delivered a Christmas sermon.

(Soundbite of cheers)

ADAMS: The Sister Falconer show rolls in to the big city of Zenith. And because this is a movie, that very same deacon's daughter turns up in a house of prostitution. Lulu Baines is her name. She's played by Shirley Jones, another Academy Award. Lulu and her co-workers had seen Gantry's picture in the paper. And she tells the story of her salvation.

(Soundbite of movie, "Elmer Gantry")

Ms. SHIRLEY JONES (Actor): (As Lulu Baines) Oh, he gave me special instructions back of the pulpit, Christmas Eve. And I got to moaning, save me, save me. And the first thing I knew, he rammed the fear of God into me so fast I never heard my old man's footsteps. The next thing I knew ...

(Soundbite of music)

ADAMS: And that plot twist kicks the movie into high Hollywood melodrama. Threats, extortion, violence and a fiery finish. Sister Falconer dies. Gantry gets on a train, his future unclear.

And for 80 years since the book and almost 50 since the movie, Elmer Gantry has been out in the world, his name occasionally rising alongside the downfall of misbehaving preachers.

Unidentified Man #3: Well, what we've got to realize is that there's an Elmer Gantry in every one of our hearts.

Unidentified Man #4: Exactly right.

ADAMS: I wanted to see what young people have to say about Gantry - graduate students who will soon be dealing with these issues. And I went off to Louisville, to the campus of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Ms. JENNY CLARK(ph): Well, my name is Jenny Clark. I'm from Phoenix, Arizona. I did my undergraduate at the University of Arizona.

Mr. PHILIP BETANCOURT(ph): Philip Betancourt from Houston, Texas. I did my undergraduate at Texas A&M.

Mr. ROBERT SAGERS(ph): Robert Sagers from Portland, Oregon. Did my undergraduate work at Pepperdine University.

ADAMS: We had some pizza, turned down the lights and watched "Elmer Gantry" on a big screen. In all, there were five students in the room - only one had ever even heard of Elmer Gantry. They do pay attention to today's evangelists, especially the ones who preach a gospel that promises prosperity and good health. Jenny Clark says it's a message that followers find easy to hear.

Ms. CLARK: It's inspiring, it's encouraging. They feel love. They feel refreshed when they hear it. Yet, most of it isn't actually scriptural, and most of the times what's missing is the actual call to repentance. It's not just God loves you. It's that you have sinned and that you need a savior. And that's what's missing.

Mr. BETANCOURT: There are people taking the good truths of the gospel and using them for their own gain. I think it comes down to the fact that is there Elmer Gantry out there, preaching on television and the Internet today? The answer is yes.

ADAMS: Philip Betancourt and Jenny Clark. Robby Sagers agrees that it's clear that Elmer Gantry never had a genuine call to preach, and he never was saved. Sager says there will be people in hell who can recite entire books of the Bible.

Could there be somebody on campus in that category?

Mr. SAGERS: Of course. People get saved here all the time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAGERS: They come and they've, you know, it could have been something like Elmer Gantry. They're a great speaker. They had a - they grew up in a Christian home. They never really made that personal profession of faith. They were baptized very young. They were asked to teach a Sunday school class. They had three old ladies come up afterwards, pat them on the back and say, you ought to be a preacher someday, and they say, I am the next Billy Graham. I really could be the next one. And they really begin to believe these things about themselves, having never repented of their sin and placing their faith and trust in Christ.

ADAMS: Students talking with us at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Sinclair Lewis, in the decade of the 1920s, published five best-selling novels, ironic, sarcastic books: "Main Street," "Babbitt," "Gantry," "Arrowsmith" and "Dodsworth." In 1930, they gave him the Nobel Prize for literature.

He kept on writing and kept on drinking. His friend, H.L. Menken, told him that he liked what Lewis called the preacher book except the last 30,000 words, which you wrote in the state of liquor. In January of 1951, Sinclair Lewis was buried in his Minnesota hometown. A young writer named Frederick Manfred delivered the eulogy, and we have asked Freya Manfred to read from the last page of her father's graveside tribute to the man known to friends as Red Lewis.

Ms. FREYA MANFRED: I like to think that he wrote what he did because somewhere, some time, there leaped into focus in Red two simultaneous visions or knowledges or insights one, of the way things ought to be; two, of the way things were.

Red Lewis was an honest man and a man who loved justice. Thus, when he saw the vast, the awful gulf that lay between the two knowledges, he was outraged. And a fire started in him that never went out, that harried him until he gave into it, and he had to take a pen and paper.

ADAMS: Freya Manfred with her father Frederick's words, from his eulogy for Sinclair Lewis.

Noah Adams, NPR News.

BLOCK: And to watch a scene from the new "Elmer Gantry" opera, visit npr.org

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