Saturday, March 03, 2007

This Ain't Yer Grandma's Elmer Gantry

Last week I posted a review of the novel "Elmer Gantry" by Sinclair Lewis. I think I pretty much summed up the principle theme: Christian priests cannot live up to the high standards expected of them, so the only priests who thrive in such an environment are sneaky, ambitious, destructive, hypocritical jerks like Elmer Gantry.

Having just finished watching the 1960 movie adaptation of the novel I present a top-secret, exclusive transcript of the first planning meeting between writer/director Richard Brooks and producer Bernard Smith:

BERNARD: Hey Rich! How're you doing? I LOVED what you did with "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

RICHARD: Thanks!

BERNARD: And that Elizabeth Tailor...MEOW!

RICHARD: (explosively) HA HA HA!

BERNARD: Say, do you remember that Charles Dickens book called "Oliver Gantry?"

RICHARD: You mean "Elmer Gantry?"

BERNARD: Yeah, whatever.

RICHARD: Written in the '20s, wasn't it? I think I read it, or maybe I read a review of it. Something about a preacher named...ummm...

BERNARD: I think his name was Elmer Gantry. Yeah, and there was another preacher named Sharon Falconer, and some girl called Lulu, and I seem to remember a Jim Lefferts somewhere in there. And a big fire at the end.

RICHARD: For the life of me I don't recall the details.

BERNARD: That's okay, nobody else does either! We want you to write and direct a movie adaptation.

RICHARD: Golly, I'd better read the book then.

BERNARD: Don't bother! What we want is a slam-bang Hollywood flick with lovable characters.

RICHARD: But Bernard...were ANY of the characters in the novel lovable? I seem to remember that Elmer Gantry was a womanizing, hard-drinking, greedy, stupid bastard, and Sharon Falconer was a con artist who believed she was the reincarnation of Joan of Arc.

BERNARD: Oh, we can't have that. It's too depressing! Make them both sincere people who just want to help others, but they occasionally get carried away in their zeal.

RICHARD: So...turn ALL of their character traits from the BOOK into easily-surmountable, sidelined tragic flaws?

BERNARD: Folks'll LOVE it! And that Lulu Bains, make her a hooker with a heart of gold.

RICHARD: There were no hookers in the book, Bernie old boy.

BERNARD: And don't forget the fire!

RICHARD: So...considering the book was bascially an extended treatise on human corruption and greed, what should the moral of the MOVIE be?

BERNARD: I dunno. Don't include one, I guess. Just a love story will be fine.

RICHARD: A love story, even though Elmer only loved Sharon because she was unattainable, and she only tolerated him because he was a useful ally in her quest for money and power?

BERNARD: Just a love story, Bernard. And a big fire. And hey, make Sharon ACTUALLY HEAL somebody at the end!

RICHARD: Why? How can I reconcile that with anything?

BERNARD: Don't forget the fire.

RICHARD: I'm on it!

BERNARD: And since we've got Burt Lancaster lined up as the leading man, why not make him laugh in that weird, forced, explosive way you did at the beginning of our dialog.


BERNARD: Like that! And we must include a prostitute-slapping scene that is somehow inadvertantly hilarious. You know, "slap! slap! slap! slap! slap!"

RICHARD: HA HA HA! Leave it to me. I'll write a screenplay that is EXACTLY like the book, except that it has nothing to do with the book whatsoever.

BERNARD: That's what we want! But keep the names the same.

And the rest is history. The movie is a weird, inside-out version of the book, where the bad people are characterized as good and the one good person is characterized as bad (with a heart of gold). It's an audacious switcharoo akin to Disney's most twisted reinterpretations. Shame on you, Richard "Hack" Brooks! Shame!


Anonymous said...

Far be it from me to defend "Elmer Gantry" the movie. You are spot on in your hypothetical conversation--only the person Brooks was talking to was Lancaster himself. Supposedly it took three years of work on the script, some of it between Brooks and Lancaster, before they filmed it. What are the reasons are the changes?

1) Production Code. It had been weakened, but was still in force as far as distribution went. Any attack on religion, however mild, was verboten, which is why the movie has such a weird disclaimer at the beginning. (Don't let your kiddies see this.) The production team was afraid that even a topsy-turvy adaptation would not be permitted.

2) Stars. Lancaster, although he would go on to play deeply flawed characters in Stanley Kramer's "Judgment at Nuremberg" and in Visconti's "The Leopard," would not allow himself to be cast in the role of an unredeemable hypocrite. And Jean Simmons would marry Brooks.

I know--no excuse. But even when I first saw it when it came out, I knew there was something schizo about it. And that two-facedness is evidenced in Andre Previn's score. The plot of the movie seems to indicate that love will redeem you--standard Hollywood romanticism. But listen to Previn's score when Gantry and Falconer kiss and then retreat into the shadows to consummate their love. It is full of dissonances that proclaim, "This is wrong! Danger! Puritanic code being breached!" So Falconer--and not Gantry--must be punished by the earthly flames of hellfire, and Gantry--like the Little Tramp--walks off into the sun a different man.

Right--phooey on that hooey.

And as far Mr. Brooks--he is a writer-turned director, like the infinitely greater Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges, and should know better. He saw Hollywood's ways when his early novel about a gay soldier murdered for his homosexuality was turned into the story of a Jewish man killed by an anti-Semitic soldier in "Crossfire." (Still it's decent little movie.) And later on he did an excellent adaptation of "In Cold Blood," and also one of my favorite Westerns, "The Professionals," with its immortal exchange:

"You son-of-a-bitch!"

"In my case, an accident of birth. But you, sir, are a self-made man."

So I wouldn't call him a life-long hack, but he certainly was for "Elmer Gantry."

Anonymous said...

Oops! No sig! Well, as you can guess, it's that obdurate bullhead again.


Adam Thornton said...

I'd assumed the production code had something to do with the neutering of the plot, thanks to that (yes) very weird warning at the beginning. But I had no idea that the script went through so many twists and turns, or that Burt "The Hair" Lancaster was involved.

I was totally thrown by the "kiss" music's a happy scene, they melt into the darkness, and then this fire-and-brimstone discordance, and a young man yelling "Sharon, where are you!"

It didn't seem to me that Sharon was punished for her relationship with Elmer. The sense I got was that she was punished (yes, by God) for going beyond preaching and entering the realm of mystical faith-healer, and also for putting religion above marriage. While she's trying to heal the deaf man, you see Elmer looking more and more disturbed, as though he thinks she's "going too far" (though earlier in the film we saw him get a man to "bark for Jesus").

Also significant, I think, was the source of the fire. In the book it was started by crass workmen, the sorts of people that Sharon was supposed to care for but never did (all her "charities" were lies). In the movie it was started by a church attendee who was ashamed of smoking in front of Sharon.

But what does all this mean? You're right, it's two-faced and weird. The script can't decide what the characters SHOULD be doing.