“Elmer Gantry” (1960), “Inherit the Wind” (1960) and Hollywood’s Clash with Fundamentalism

Elmer Gantry preaches.

Henry Drummond challenges creationism in “Inherit the Wind.”

The year 1960 marks a significant turning point in the study of film history. With the threat of McCarthy no longer looming over the Hollywood horizon, the studio system nearly chafed into oblivion, and producers less restricted by the dying production code, we begin to see a wave of controversial and complex films emerging out of a new, more liberated Hollywood. Though one might argue that this era began in the mid-1950s (the James Dean movies, to cite three notable examples, were all controversial for their time), it was not until the 1960s that topics such as sex, drugs, and religious fanaticism became routinely discussed in American cinema. The concept of religious fanaticism is especially interesting to note, as though the production code was indeed dying, its very foundation was in religious fundamentalism and the censors took great pain to keep the questioning of religion under control.

In view of this fact, the idea that the dominance of religion over rational thought takes center stage in two seminal films of 1960–Elmer Gantry, the tale of a wandering con man turned revivalist preacher and Inherit the Wind, Stanley Kramer’s dramatization of the Scopes Monkey Trial, is a testament to the breaking of boundaries that were beginning to take precedence over a respect for the previously held rules of Hollywood filmmaking. Each film examines the impact of religion on small, rural communities, and situation that shake the very foundation of their faith.

The title character of Elmer Gantry (Burt Lancaster) is a fast-talking salesman with a charismatic personality and a penchant for liquor and women. Captivated by a revival ad featuring young female evangelist Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons), Gantry attends the meeting in the hope of wooing her with his charm. Upon meeting the dark-haired beauty, he cons her into thinking they had known each other before, and convinces her to hire him as a member of the revivalist troupe. Despite a lack of any previous training, Gantry and Sister Sharon form a “duo” act, as Gantry preached about damnation and hellfire while Sharon preached salvation. The ministries become wildly popular, and they play to packed tents throughout the Midwest. With their increasing popularity, it became clear that neither had any popularity, and their notoriety spread due to a newspaper outing the act as a sham. One of those aware of their notoriety was prostitute Lulu Bains (Shirley Jones), who as a teenager had been kicked out of her parents’ house house for having a fling with Gantry, in which he “rammed the fear of God into me so fast I never heard my old man’s footsteps.”

Shirley Jones in the scene in which we are introduced to Lulu. Jones won an Academy Award for her raw and unabashed performance as the cunning and cutthroat prostitute.

After a raid of Lulu’s brothel in which Gantry recognizes the young prostitute, she invites him up to her room where she has secretly invited a photographer to capture Gantry seducing her. She blackmails Sharon with a threat to publicize the photos, and despite Sharon’s willingness to pay, Lulu refuses her money and gives the pictures to the newspaper out of spite. A riot erupts at the revival following the publication, and Gantry returns to the brothel to find a distraught Lulu abused by her pimp for not accepting the money. He throws the pimp out and comforts Lulu, who publicly apologizes for the frame-up.

Gantry returns to Sharon and proposes that they give up preaching and live as normal people. Sharon, unable to give up her life as a preacher, continues with the revival and turns Gantry down. As Sharon preaches at the revival that evening, a lit cigarette is tossed onto a bale of hay, and the surroundings slowly become engulfed in flames. Attendees run for their lives, but Sharon remains, screaming salvation over the flames as the building collapses around her.
In the wake of Sharon’s death, Gantry gives up preaching, citing the Bible: “When I was a child, I understood as a child and spake as a child. When I became a man, I put away childish things.” He reaches a moral awakening as the movie ends, with a chorus of the spiritual “I’m On My Way to Canaan’s Land.”

The final scene.

The symbolism of the church going up in flames is particularly disturbing to watch, and if there were any question prior to this scene as to the intentions of the filmmakers, this makes it perfectly clear. This is the destruction of fundamentalism, the collapse of a social structure that indeed “burned in its own hell,” if we are to take the irony of the scene and apply it to the teachings of the church. The burning of the church and the death of Sharon opens a door for Gantry to do his own repenting, and find his own way.

Inherit the Wind is by any standard a tighter treatment of religion, framing it in the context of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. Though the names were changed in the screenplay (as in the play on which it was based by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee), it takes the circumstances of the actual trial and repeats them nearly exactly as they occurred. Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy), an astute legal mind from the North, comes into a small southern town to represent a science teacher on trial for teaching evolution in a science class, contrary to state law. His adversary is Matthew Brady (Fredric March), a noted biblical scholar and staunch defendant of creationism who also happens to be an old friend. The majority of the film takes place in the courtroom, with each side defending his case with equal fervor. Eventually, Drummond resorts to putting Brady himself on the stand, in a scene that rocks the courthouse and is one of the key scenes of the film.

Inherit the Wind is known to be a parable for McCarthyism. When the play was written in 1955, McCarthy was still a very real threat. Hollywood was a favorite target of his, and outward questioning of his beliefs was almost certain career suicide for all involved with the film in question. McCarthy’s death in 1957 freed Hollywood to explore plays that had been far braver in its treatment of McCarthyism, and the equation of religious fundamentalism to McCarthy is especially indicative of the change that Hollywood was undergoing at the beginning of the 1960s.

In the wake of all of this, it must not be forgotten that the code was still alive, grasping at straws to maintain religious purity in Hollywood. A prime example of the hold that the code was desperately trying to keep on the industry is reflected in the bizarre opening message that the censors inserted into the beginning of Elmer Gantry. Note that the punctuation is all just as it appears on the screen:

“We believe that certain aspects of Revivalism can bear examination- that the conduct of some revivalists makes a mockery of the traditional beliefs and practices of organized Christianity! We believe that everyone has a right to worship according to his conscience, but- Freedom of Religion is not license to abuse the faith of the people! However, due to the highly controversial nature of this film, we strongly urge you to prevent impressionable children from seeing it!”

Until next time, readers!

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