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I’m down at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College this weekend for a conference on . . . Billy Graham. The festivities opened last night with a screening of Oiltown USA, a 1954 production by Graham’s film company dramatizing the role that evangelical conversion could play in turning around an oil baron’s life. As it happened, a class I’m teaching on American religion in the 20th century was simultaneously watching the 1960 production of Elmer Gantry back on my own campus. To riff off what Luther allegedly said about music, why does the devil have all the good movies?
I hadn’t seen Elmer Gantry for a long time before I previewed it earlier this week, so I was surprised at how nuanced and even empathic the film is for its entire cast of characters, the titular huckster evangelist included. Maybe it’s the boffo performance turned in by Burt Lancaster in the lead role, a performance well meriting the Oscar for best actor it won him. Gantry in the film, as in Sinclair Lewis’s original novel, is an obvious con man, leaving behind himself a long string of jilted lovers and bogus salesmanship. The man even lies to his mother on Christmas day. Still, his message of love and redemption, beginning as yet another con, takes him over until he seems infused with its power. There’s something noble, needful, hovering around him. Enough to convince even the female evangelist (played by Jean Simmons) who is a stand-in for Aimee Semple MacPherson. Sister comes off in the film with full respect and full humanity—bringing deliverance on stage but understandably brushing off plaintiffs and stalkers with her demand to be allowed to sleep on the train to the next gig. The skeptical journalist is cleverly commandeered to prayer, as are the sophomoric college students come to haze Sister at her rally. The barking yokel who’s got the Spirit, in turn, is calmed down by Sister’s word. The only character craven beyond redemption is George Babbitt, hypocritical business booster.
Then we get to Oiltown USA, intended to be an evangelistic tool, one commentator explained last night, both for the redemption of the independent oilmen Graham was cultivating at the time, and for the redemption of the free-market economy that they represented—and that Graham extolled. As the film unrolled I was wrested back to those stock-piece stories that used to fill my Sunday School papers in junior high, and the “religious” novel I had to read on Sunday afternoon before I was allowed to get to the Hardy Boys story that was my real interest. Moralistic, sentimental, abjectly predictable; artificial in dialogue, mechanical in motivation, with stereotypical sins decried and stereotypical conversion supplied by the good girl who loves Jesus best. Not a shade of complexity in any character, nor ambivalence in aims or context. By far the most convincing—and the only passionate—performance in the film is provided by Graham himself in an sermon that gets from sin to salvation, as well as past, present, and future, in eight minutes, with vivid language, energetic body language, and spot-on delivery.
Beyond that, the real points of interest in the film are subliminal. When the oilman, stricken with guilt and remorse, enters a church to repent, the only concrete symbols in view are an American flag (no cross) and an empty pulpit (no font, altar, or table). The key agent in the oilman’s salvation is his college-age daughter, all Douglas Sirk lush with richly colored wardrobe frequently changed. Their relationship, another commentator said last night, proceeds precisely along the stock convention of Hollywood romance, with daughter’s physical resemblance to Dead Mama (not to mention Daddy’s gushing oil derricks) adding to the creepiness. I was mentally paging Dr. Freud all night long.
The film production of Sinclair Lewis’s novel could easily have followed the pat formulas of the village skeptic. It didn’t. The conversion tale promoted by Billy Graham could have convincingly portrayed (not just talked about) sin, guilt, and the miracle that is grace. It didn’t either. Later movies—Hollywood movies—in this vein have; Tender Mercies and The Apostle come to mind. So maybe the moral of the story is sphere sovereignty: let your art be art and your evangelism be evangelism. Graham’s own preaching was certainly a work of art itself, heartfelt, informed, authentic. Art that treats religion with intelligence will open the door to faith for those who are ready. Confusing the two just makes a mess that should have been left on the cutting-room floor.