By Lara Gabrielle Fowler
Today’s star of the day on TCM is the ever-popular Shirley Jones, a talented and versatile performer who made a name for herself in movie musicals and ultimately went on to steal America’s heart as Mrs. Partridge on the 1970’s television series “The Partridge Family.” As a musical star, Jones starred on Broadway and in several Broadway-to-film adaptations, including Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma (1955) and Carousel (1956), and later in the role of Marian Paroo in Meredith Willson’s The Music Man (1962).
Jones in Oklahoma.
But before the public could write Shirley Jones off as the virginal singing girl next door, we got a view of just how much Shirley Jones could do. In 1960, Jones signed on to play the role of Lulu Bains, the cunning, vengeful prostitute who frames a traveling preacher and exposes him as a fraud in Elmer Gantry. In this role, we see Shirley Jones as a conniving, spiteful woman who serves Gantry exactly what he deserves, and the audience is not sure whether to love her or hate her.
Elmer Gantry tells the story of a young drifter by the same name (played by Burt Lancaster), a salesman of used household appliances who is captivated by a poster of Sister Sharon Falconer, a traveling evangelical preacher. With the ultimate intent of seducing Sharon, he tells her that he has been inspired to bring sinners back to God with his own story of moral disintegration and redemption. Sharon believes him, and they form a successful traveling evangelical ministry. When Sharon and Gantry travel to a town in the Midwest called Zenith, prostitute Lulu Bains reads about them and remembers Gantry as the man who got her kicked out of the house for “ramming the fear of God into me so fast I couldn’t hear my old man’s footsteps.” One night in Zenith Gantry leads a raid on a brothel for publicity, but recognizes Lulu as one of the arrested and orders the girls let go. Lulu invites Gantry back to her hotel room, where she has organized a scheme with her pimp to photograph Gantry in an embrace with her, exposing him as a fraud. But when she seduces him and Gantry responds to her sweetly, she turns off the light so the photograph cannot be taken. Gantry’s love for Sharon causes him to refuse her, and in her anger, she turns the light back on for the photograph to be taken.
The photographs are sent to Sharon, who offers to pay Lulu for the negatives so that the press will not see the pictures and turn the public against them. Spiteful Lulu refuses the money, and sends the pictures to the press. The city of Zenith, angered at Gantry and Sharon, shows up at the tent and a riot erupts. Lulu sees what she has done and her softer side comes through. She runs from the church and back at her hotel room, her pimp beats her for refusing Sharon’s hush money. Gantry has followed her and stops the pimp, then holds Lulu in his arms to comfort her. Lulu reports to the press that she falsified the photographs.
Though his reputation has been restored, Gantry disappears for a few days, much to Sharon’s distress. When Sharon prepares to give her biggest sermon ever, he appears at the front of the church asking Sharon to run away with him. Though she loves Gantry, she is devoted only to her mission, and refuses him. During the sermon Sharon “cures” a deaf man–and just then, the church is ignited by a fallen cigarette. The audience flees, while Sharon tries to encourage them to stay and trust God. Sharon dies in the burning church, and following her death, Gantry was asked to continue her mission. But he declines, quoting the Bible: “When I became a man, I put away childish things.”
The movie was a very daring one for 1960. The production code was still alive, and blatant denouncing of religion as well as sexual content could be censored. The loophole in this rule allowed for those situations that were necessary for keeping the otherwise acceptable story intact, and as Elmer Gantry was based on a book written in 1927, this is exactly how the movie got away with all the content offensive to the censors.
Elmer Gantry is an exceptionally introspective, intelligent film, one of the highlights of 1960 and one of my personal favorites. There are endless good things to say about this movie, but foremost among them is that Shirley Jones’ performance stands out as the highlight of this entire masterpiece of a film. Elmer Gantry was named Best Picture at the Oscars, and for her role as Lulu, Jones was awarded the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1960.
Shirley Jones accepting her Oscar.
As it happens, I am currently on the bus to Los Angeles. I will be covering Cinecon beginning tomorrow, and one of the special guests is…drumroll please….none other than TCM’s star of the day, Shirley Jones! I can’t wait to hear what she has to say, and I will be sure to include all of her discussions in my coverage of Cinecon, starting tomorrow.
Please be sure to watch TCM today for Elmer Gantry, showing at 3:00 EST, and the rest of the wonderful Shirley Jones movies playing today.
See you soon for Cinecon!