By Sarah Griswold
Sarah Griswold is a senior double majoring in Mathematics and Religious Studies. She spends her “free time” analyzing her favorite shows on Netflix, which of course winds up ruining them. The following was written for REL 360: Popular Culture/Public Humanities.
“Elmer Gantry was drunk,” begins Sinclair Lewis’s 1927 novel. That’s how the movie Elmer Gantry begins too. The story is of Elmer Gantry who loves women and whiskey more than just about anything else. A fast-talking salesman, Gantry has an incredibly charismatic personality that convinces people to give him money for anything from helping out a nun to selling vacuum cleaners. After being drawn to Sister Sharon Falconer’s travelling revival tent, he finds himself immediately attracted to her and finds a way to convince her to allow him to join her in the show. The story goes on to follow Gantry and Falconer as the travel around the country selling their religion to any and everyone who will listen.
Watching the film, you are immersed in two and a half hours of 1960s humor and absurdity beyond the absurdity of the story itself. The protagonist Gantry is quite the character. Fast-talking and clearly extroverted, Gantry seems to be able to weasel his way into just about anything he wants. However, one of the many questions we are left with at the end of the film is whether Gantry ever actually knows what he wants. He seems to change throughout the film to become more genuine in his actions. While definitely interesting and meriting further discussion, I’d like to turn my focus to something else entirely. What I truly found fascinating about the film was the race politics. During the 1960s, overt racism was widespread and generally considered to be normal. While the film didn’t contain plot lines that were overtly racist, there were two particular images that stood out to me as indicative of the way the film’s director and producers imagined the world.
The first image that stood out to me was this scene in which Gantry wanders into a black church. During the scene, the congregation sings a gospel hymn when Gantry comes in. As they begin to realize that an outsider – a white man – is among them, they stop singing one by one and turn to stare. As the music dies, Gantry picks up where they left off and continues the hymn. The congregation slowly begins to join back in and Gantry begins to solo with the congregation acting as back up singers. The scene ends with the end of the hymn and a young girl who is still staring at Gantry. The solo serves the purpose of highlighting Gantry’s comprehensive familiarity with various types of hymns and church settings. But I cannot help but to think that the choice to include the solo carries an undertone of stereotypical 1960s racism. The young girl’s continued suspicion of Gantry coupled with the setting reflects an attitude (likely from the director and/or producers) of essential difference between black and white. To reinforce my suspicions, a comparable image appears towards the end of the film.
The other image that stood out to me was during the scene toward the end of the film when Sister Sharon’s church is burning down. Outside of the church is a large cross that is adorned with light bulbs. While brief, there is a shot of that cross going up in flames. In context and like the scene in the black church, it makes perfect sense for this cross to burn with the rest of the church. However, considering the context of the 1960s and the oppressive presence of the Ku Klux Klan at the time, it is near impossible to separate the image from association with the KKK. The image of a burning cross was (and arguably remains) a threat in and of itself. So while the image put into context makes perfect sense and the image carries no further explanation in the film, it is not devoid of the meaning associated in this particular way. Between this shot and the scene from the beginning of the film, Elmer Gantry carries undertones indicative of 1960s racism.
The film lacks any African Americans beyond the scene discussed earlier. This further highlights the racist undertones of the 1960s. Of course, these are only a couple of tiny pieces of the two and a half hour-long film, which as far as I could tell said nothing more about race. Instead, the film in its entirety produces an interesting exploration of revivalism and outrageous personalities, while providing intriguing entertainment. So one could read into these two particular aspects of the film as I have done, or one could choose to ignore them entirely and enjoy the film. Or just dissect a different part entirely.