Yes, this is a story about revivalism and whether it is good or bad, real or fake. But more than that, it is the story of love. As Gantry says and even gets others saying before the movie is over: "Love, what is love? Love is the morning and the evening star." In short, love is everything! It is God's greatest message to us all. But, as Elmer notes, he is not talking about carnal love. At the beginning, the carnal love is what Elmer is all about. The opening words are: "Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk." Gambling, drinking, sex, and money---these were the baser motivators for Elmer Gantry. He is eloquent, outrageous, clever, crafty, manipulative, and charming to some (to the gullible and the naive). Elmer is a memorable character from the beginning to the end. Early on we are intrigued by him and as his character takes on more nuances we are pulled further into wondering what Elmer is going to do next. We know from the beginning that he is a tough and resilient person. He fights on the boxcar, leaps off, and finds his way to a simple, sincere, and powerful small black church. This is what worshipping God is all about. The genuineness that is there is palpable. Genuineness is what Elmer knows only when he puts it on as a façade. Real genuineness is unknown to Elmer.
But then Elmer falls in love and talks his way into the Sister Sharon Falconer tent revival entourage. When he is applying for the job he boasts about how great a salesman he is, but then you see him dramatically change from the boastful to the honest Elmer Gantry. The façade slips and we see who is really behind the curtain. We will see this shift several more times throughout the movie. Another time is when Elmer enters Sharon's bedroom with a flower and we all know that he is seeking that old carnal love. But when he sees her asleep, as she is dead tired, he changes, and he simply lies the flower down and departs. He is feeling genuine emotions here, not ones that he has to pretend. We see this change in him with Lula Baines where he is tempted but does not give in to the temptation and genuinely says to her at the second meeting where she has been beaten up by her pimp: "I'm sorry Lula. I'm sorry for everything." He is saying this to a person who has just done her best to destroy him; but Elmer realizes that he is the one who is responsible for all the calamities of his life.
As we see the Elmer Gantry character unfold we see that he really does have great potential, that he does love people, loves God, loves Sister Sharon. But, he still struggles with his values and with being real. At the end he just wants to leave it all behind, to go off with Sharon and raise kids and live a normal life. He knows that being on the stage tends to bring out both the best and worst in him. (As Lord Acton said years ago: Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.) He is a showman and wonderfully skilled at presenting the word of God to others; but he also gets carried away with what he is doing. He just wants to raise a family, to live a meaningful but normal life. The story is about balance. Balance is essential if you are going to be a lover of life, a lover in the fullest meaning of that word. The early Elmer is unbalanced in terms of being too habitually involved in his baser motives of greed and lust. The revivalist Elmer has gone too far the other way. When he says to Sharon that they should leave all of this and go live normal lives, he is saying that they need to find a balanced life together.
Sharon rejects this, sees omens in a shooting star, and heals a deaf man. You can see in Elmer's expressions while she is doing this that he feels that she has gone too far. The wages of fanaticism is death. Sharon dies. But Elmer has evolved, outgrown childish things (I Corinthians 13:11). In the final scene he is offered the opportunity to take over where Sharon left off but rejects it. He has the people sing the same song that the parishioners were singing at the start of the movie in the black church and he heads off.
Where does Elmer go? We are not told. However, if we were guessing and basing our guess on what we have learned about Elmer Gantry, then we would have to assume that he does NOT go back to his old ways. Elmer is more in touch with his better more loving motivations. He will get married, raise kids, go to church on Sunday, dance, and enjoy a more balanced life.
Footnotes: Brooks, the director of this film also wrote the screenplay for which he won the Academy Award. He was married to Jean Simmons. He was educated at Temple University in Philadelphia and started out his career as a sports reporter for a Philadelphia newspaper---which would help explain why the reporter in the story is such an interesting character. He passed away in 1992 at the age of 80.
Simmons was born in London and was 17 years younger than Brooks. Her film career began when she was only 14 years old. She became an established star after she was selected by Laurence Olivier to play Ophelia in Hamlet in 1948 at the age of 19 (she was nominated for an Academy Award for that performance). She married Brooks in 1960 and divorced him in 1977. She was previously married to movie star Stewart Granger.
Burt Lancaster (1913-1994) was born one year after Brooks (1912-1992). "The son of a postal clerk, he grew up in the tough East Harlem section of Manhattan's Upper East Side. Excelling in basketball and other high school sports, he enrolled at NYU on an athletic scholarship but soon after quit college to form the Lang and Cravat acrobatic team with his pint-sized childhood friend Nick Cravat. For several years they toured with circuses and appeared in vaudeville and nightclubs" (Film Encyclopedia, p. 781). When he couldn't earn a living at this, he became a salesman and then a refrigerator repairman. He served in the armed forces in World War II and then acted in a Broadway play that only lasted three weeks. He was noticed and given a role in a Hollywood movie in 1946 called The Killers and his film career took off. "Immediately established as a star, Lancaster rapidly revealed a sensitive interior beneath his athletic prowess. As early as 1948 he was among the first film actors to become an independent producer, forming the Hecht-Lancaster company with his agent, Harold Hecht….In the 50s, Lancaster alternated acrobatic portrayals in adventure films and sensitive, sincere performances…despite quadruple bypass open-heart surgery in 1983" he continue to make movies until 1990 when he was hospitalized for a stroke (Film Encyclopedia, p. 783).
Arthur Kennedy, like Brooks and Lancaster, came in and departed life around the same time. He was born in 1914 in Massachusetts and died in 1990. He was a dentist's son and was educated at the Carnegie Institute of Technology. He began his acting career in 1934 and had a long and very successful career both on the stage and in films and was nominated for Academy Awards five times. The role I feel is his finest is as the reporter in Elmer Gantry, however, he also contributed to such fine films as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in Some Came Running (1958).
The point I am making in giving you a little background on the principles of this film is that they were all seasoned performers when they came together in 1960 to make Elmer Gantry. They were intelligent, experienced, interesting people in their own right and brought everything they had to offer, which was considerable, to the project. In short, the end product, the movie, is a collaborative endeavor. Its quality or lack thereof is related to what all the collaborators bring to the effort. In this case, they had much to give and produced a great and lasting film---in fact, because they were as good as they were, they were able to create a movie that was greater than the novel from which it was taken! So what is the message in all of these footnotes for you? Be cautious about who you work with and relate to in life. They can help you and enhance your opportunity to be great, or they can undermine what it is that you want to do with your life.