The bodies of deposed religious icons litter the landscape of pop culture. If ELMER GANTRY appears small-fry compared to Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Jim Jones, and Jimmy Swaggart (note a pattern here?) , he didn’t seem so in 1927 when Sinclair Lewis’ scathing indictment against religious corruption brought cries of “blasphemy” ringing around the globe.
Americans don’t take kindly to having their religion skewered on a literary spit, and ELMER GANTRY turned the handle. The book was banned in Boston and other cities and denounced from pulpits across the country. One cleric called for Lewis’ imprisonment and there were threats of physical violence against the author. The famous evangelist Billy Sunday called Lewis “Satan’s cohort”.
Elmer is juicy part for any actor. And by the time director Richard Brooks finally brought the novel to the screen in 1960, Burt Lancaster was the perfect choice to play the traveling salesman who “preaches” the word of God, while reveling in booze, gambling and seduction. Co-starring Jean Simmons as Sister Sarah and Shirley Jones as the prostitute, Lulu, the film focuses only on the first half of the novel.
Andre Previn’s Oscar-nominated score reflects the manic energy of the story’s Revivalism . Set against simple, stark graphics, the music begins with a brittle and unsettling main title sequence.
French horns blast out a forceful fanfare followed by a dissonant brass chord over stoic church bells. Indecision resides in the syncopation, while the melodic line desperately reaches for the heavens only to be followed by a swift descending fall from grace. Set on an angle, the stark graphicsof a cross mold into a wooden crucifix as the strings furiously rush through ascending scales underneath a malevolent brass melody. The effect on the eyes and ears is chilling.
Previn’s main title is unlike anything else in his film music canon. Harsh and unyielding, the music tilts us off-balance. Previn’s music strikes like the veritable hand of a dark and vengeful God. And we as listeners are all the richer for it.