Thursday, May 21, 2009

Faith: A Matter of Conviction

The Miracle Woman
Elmer Gantry
The Night of the Iguana

Let me begin by saying that I believe there is a Supreme Being and that he or she is known by many different names and worshiped in many different ways. My wife also believes in God but is convinced that the Supreme Being is a man because she says a woman wouldn’t put up with the mess that mankind has made of “Her” garden that we call Earth. As a child, I attended an Episcopal church in New York and a Baptist church in North Carolina when I visited by grandmother during the summer; my wife was raised a Catholic. And while we both believe that Christ did exist and his teachings are words that we all should live by, we are very critical of religion – although I am more tolerant of churchgoers because I enjoy the feeling of community I get while sitting in a pew.

However, we both have a problem with religion – a problem that stems from all the pain, suffering, intolerance and violence that have been sanctioned by the different religions in the name of their God. Also, we have seen more than a few self-righteous religious hypocrites who preach piety and then engage in what they themselves claim are sinful acts.

This inability of messengers of God to practice what they preach and their inner conflicts caused by their shortcomings are what I will examine in this posting’s triple feature – The Miracle Woman (released in 1931 in black and white), Elmer Gantry (1960, color) and The Night of the Iguana (1964, b&w).

Florence Fallon, the main character in The Miracle Woman, is the daughter of a reverend who has died after learning that his congregation is having him replaced. Florence blames her father’s death on the congregation and tells them so during what was supposed to be her father’s last sermon, pointing out their scandalous behavior and emptying the church with her ranting. However, one person, a man passing through the town named Hornsby, stays behind and talks Florence into using her knowledge of the Bible to become an evangelical. Thus, Sister Fallon is born.

They establish a tabernacle that employs a band and college cheerleader-like choir that opens the show, which has the feeling of a circus and draws standing-room crowds to listen to Sister Fallon preach and watch her cure the ailments and deformities of people in her audience with her touch and her prayers. These invalids, however, are just shills paid to pretend that they have been healed. The show really begins with Sister Florence entering a cage filled with lions and asking someone from the audience to join her. But the shill has fallen asleep in the front row and no one else seems willing to enter the cage with the lions until a blind man named John Carson stands. John was an aviator during World War I, when he was wounded and lost his sight. He was brought to the tabernacle by his landlady, is amused by the theatrics and agrees to join Sister Fallon in the lions’ cage so that the show can continue. Although John is not cured by the evangelical, the crowd loves it – and so does Hornsby, who is Sister Fallon’s manager.

After her performances, however, Hornsby tries to keep a tight rein on Sister Fallon. His reasoning for this is that he is concerned that she is might do something that would damage her reputation. However, he and his staff spend the rest of the night partying – and Hornsby, who wants to be more that just her partner, asks Sister Fallon to join him in the revelry. She declines.

But wanting to get some fresh air, Sister Fallon leaves the tabernacle and runs into John, who has been waiting for her at the back door. Sister Fallon offers to take John home in her chauffer-driven car and then goes upstairs with him to his apartment, where he entertains her with some toys – including a puppet named Al. Sister Fallon enjoys the visit but is confronted by an angry Hornsby when she returns to the tabernacle. Hornsby, who is responsible for the death of a shill who had threatened to go to the police with evidence of embezzlement of funds supposedly collected to improve the tabernacle, says he will see that Sister Fallon takes the fall for the murder. Nevertheless, Sister Fallon defies Hornsby and continues seeing John. The evangelical and the blind aviator fall in love and she confesses what he already knows – that she is a fraud.

One night, Sister Fallon and John are interrupted at the beach by Hornsby. To keep Hornsby from hurting John, Sister Fallon agrees to leave with her manager and has her chauffer take the blind man home. John then enlists the help of his landlady and they break into the tabernacle and go up to Sister Fallon’s office, where he has the landlady describe the room to him in detail. The next night, just before Sister Fallon is scheduled to go on stage, John enters Sister Fallon’s office and pretends that he has been cured by her prayers. But Sister Fallon sees through the ruse. Then Hornsby barges in and, thinking John can in fact see, the manager knocks out the blind man and ushers her out of the room and leads her to the stage.

But by now, Sister Fallon has had a change of heart and decides to confess her sins to the audience. Hornsby doesn’t catch on until she is on stage and in his frantic effort to bring down the curtain, he accidentally starts a fire. As the crowd rushes out, Sister Fallon, remaining on stage with the fire raging around her and gets them to calm down by singing as they exit the building. John recovers consciousness and makes his way down to the stage and calls out to Sister Fallon. She answers just before fainting from the smoke. John, responding to her voice, finds her passed out on the stage, picks her up and carries her to safety.

The next time we see Florence, she has given up her lucrative scam and joined The Salvation Army. As the movie ends, she is happily reading a telegram from John in which he proclaims his love over and over. He also tells her he is about to go into surgery, hoping to have his sight restored.

Elmer Gantry tells a similar story. The title character had once attended a seminary, studying to become a reverend. However, his affair with (if I remember correctly) a preacher’s daughter leads to his dismissal from the seminary. When the movie begins, the unemployed Gantry – who works as a traveling salesman, when he can find work – hustles drinks in a bar by telling racy stories to whoever will listen – and many do. But Gantry’s love of God remains strong, as is demonstrated by a passionate sermon he delivers to his benefactors and his visit to a black church where he surprises the congregation when he enthusiastically joins them in singing praises to the Lord.

Gantry’s wanderings lead him to a revival meeting being led by Sister Sharon Falconer. After initially being rebuffed by Sister Sharon, he manages to charm his way into the good graces of Sister Rachel, a rather shy member of the evangelist’s entourage who in turn helps pave the way for Gantry to join the evangelical crusade. Soon thereafter, Gantry becomes Sister Sharon’s opening act, enthralling the audience with his charisma and powerful style of preaching. His success emboldens him to make romantic advances toward Sister Sharon, who tells him she is not interested in men who partake in alcohol, tobacco and woman chasing.

Until Gantry joined Sister Sharon, her crusade had targeted only small rural communities. But Gantry convinces Sister Sharon and her manager to take their crusade to a big city. During negotiations with community leaders, Gantry convinces them that Sister Sharon’s ministry will be a financial boon for the city. But after the crusade enters the city and things appear to be going well, a reporter traveling with the entourage named Jim Lefferts, writes a scathing article calling Sister Sharon and Gantry frauds and questioning where the money they have collected goes. This is enough to scare one of the city’s businessmen who had backed the crusade. He threatens to withdraw his support, but Gantry digs up some dirt on him and the businessman relents. Then Gantry tries to offset the effect of the newspaper article by leading raids on brothels. Unfortunately for him, though, one of the women in one of the brothels is the girl who Gantry seduced when he was in the seminary. Gantry then does a quick about face and convinces the police not to arrest the girls.

But Lulu Bains, the woman from Gantry’s past, has revenge on her mind. She arranges for Gantry to meet her in her hotel room, where a photographer waits outside her window to take pictures of their dalliance. Gantry, however, refuses to play along because he is in love with Sister Sharon. But Lulu does manage to maneuver the in-this-case-innocent Gantry into seemingly provocative positions which are captured on camera. When the newspaper prints the photos, the public turns against Gantry, which in turn tarnished Sister Sharon’s crusade. Any hope that Gantry had about Sister Sharon being able to love him is now dead. On top of that, the photos instigate a riot at the next revival meeting – which is attended by Lulu, who was there to extract blackmail from Sister Sharon. But after watching Sister Sharon calm the crowd, Lulu finds that she cannot bring herself to carry out her mission and runs from the revival tent. Gantry follows but by the time she catches up to her, Lulu has been beaten by her pimp for not getting the money. After Gantry comforts her, Lulu goes to the newspaper and recants her previous claim that she was having an affair with Gantry.

Vindicated, Gantry returns to the revival tent for the next meeting and watches Sister Sharon, apparently for the first time in her evangelical career, remove a person’s disability by her touch and prayers – restoring the gift of hearing to a previously deaf follower. Unlike the phony faith healer in the previous movie, Sister Sharon had never before tried to heal anyone. However, just before the “miracle” she suddenly began to believe that she really was an instrument of God – and that belief was justified by her “miracle.” Sister Sharon’s success sets off a joyous celebration inside the tent, but one of the celebrants carelessly discards a lit cigarette. The ensuing fire quickly rages out of control, and while everyone else under the tent is trying to get out, Gantry fights his way into it. Unfortunately, he is unable to reach Sister Sharon before she is engulfed by the flames.

The next day, Gantry and Lefferts are sitting just outside the burned tent when a crowd of Sister Sharon’s followers gather around them and ask Gantry to forgive them for Sister Sharon’s death. After Gantry prays with them, Sister Sharon’s manager asks Gantry if he would like to take over the ministry. Gantry turns him down and (again, if I remember correctly) suggests that Sister Rachel take charge of the ministry. Gantry leaves the scene, presumably returning to his previous life before he joined Sister Sharon’s entourage.

The Night of the Iguana is about a defrocked minister named T. Lawrence Shannon who now works in Mexico as a guide for busloads of tourists. The bus is driven by a young American named Hank. On this particular trip, the tourists are a group of schoolteachers led by a decidedly priggish woman named Judith Fellows. Also along for the ride is Judith’s 18-year-old niece Charlotte, who is smitten by Shannon. The former reverend, who was defrocked for amorous adventures and whose current love affair is with alcohol, is completely uninterested in Charlotte’s advances. But being the hormone-charged teenager that she is, Charlotte sneaks into Shannon’s hotel room, where she is discovered by her aunt. And although nothing happened, Judith informs Shannon that she is going to have him fired just as soon as she gets to a telephone.

In an attempt to avoid the inevitable, Shannon hijacks the bus and bypasses the hotel where the tour is scheduled to stay, taking them instead to the rundown seaside resort (for lack of a better word) owned by Shannon’s friend Maxine. Originally, Shannon was the friend of Maxine’s husband, but he has been dead for several years. Maxine is kind of sweet on Shannon, however, and he knows that when things in his life are going downhill, he can always rely on Maxine to help him regain his composure.

After the tourists arrive, Maxine welcomes another pair of guests – Hannah Jelkes and her grandfather Nonno. Hannah is a sketch artist and Nonno a poet who is working on another poem. They eke out a living by selling their artwork. Also at the resort are three young Mexican men who work for Maxine. Aside from their jobs, Maxine also flirts, dances and occasionally sleeps with them.

Judith finally gets to a phone and complains to the tour company about Shannon, who is fired. Meanwhile, Charlotte goes down to the bar on the beach and shakes her groove thing at Maxine’s employees. They in turn begin to take liberties with Charlotte before Hank comes to the rescue. However, Hank’s talents as a white knight are negligible and he finds himself embarrassed and injured – slightly – by the resort’s hired help. Charlotte rushes to succor her newfound Prince Charming and when he has sufficiently recovered, he gathers the tour group together and they leave Maxine’s.

After they have gone, Shannon’s downward spiral continues and he has to be restrained. Hannah sits with him while Shannon is tied up in a hammock. Seeing Hannah with Shannon, Maxine assumes that the two will become more than just friends. But all Hannah is interested in is helping Shannon regain his sanity. Nonno, meanwhile, finally completes his poem just before he dies. Shannon is then asked to say a few words over Hannah’s dead grandfather. After Maxine sees how Hannah has helped Shannon, she offers to give the resort to them and leave. But Hannah is no more interested in being Shannon’s lover than he is interested in being hers. Hannah then leaves the resort and Shannon and Maxine decide that the best thing for both of them is to stay together.

In case you haven’t noticed, the main characters in all three stories are seriously spiritually flawed – their faith suffers from a crisis of conviction. Florence Fallon grief over her father’s death turns her into the kind of religious hypocrite she denounces when the film begins. And, like Sister Sharon, she uses religion primarily as a money maker. Elmer Gantry and T. Lawrence Shannon have both been ousted from the church because of their weaknesses for women – and have added the use of alcohol to their shortcomings. But try as you might, I believe that after watching these movies you will find that these characters elicit feelings of sympathy from their audience.

There is no doubt that these characters believe deeply in their God and that they are seeking a path that will lead to redemption – and with it, peace of mind. And despite their mercenary use of religion, the two sisters and Gantry actually provide a kind of solace to those who attend their revival meetings. Their followers have faith in them – and that feeds their (the followers) faith in God. Shannon, on the other hand, has a much harder time reconciling his love of God with his love of worldly temptations. But nonetheless, you get a chance to look deeper into his psyche through his relationships with Hannah and Maxine. And in the end, you get the feeling that Shannon – and Gantry – will come to terms with their shortcomings as Sister Fallon did by finding love and joining The Salvation Army, and as Sister Sharon did by “healing” the deaf man just before she dies in the fire.

And to my mind, that is the message these films have for all of us. Whether we believe in God or not, we all have demons with which we must contend. And though we may not always conquer those demons, the fight is worthwhile. It makes us better people by allowing us to better appreciate our fellow human beings and giving us more tolerance for their shortcomings – two traits that are sorely needed in today’s world.

No comments:

Post a Comment