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02 February 2010

Has a movie ever changed your life?

"Elmer Gantry," the Oscar-winning, hard-hitting religious-drama changed mine in 1960.

(Courtesy:  MGM Home Entertainment)

I was thinking about "Elmer Gantry" and the effect one movie can have on a life the other day because Jean Simmons, who co-starred with Oscar-winner Burt Lancaster in the film, passed away at the age of 80.

I was on the cusp of becoming a teenager and beginning to think about what, if any, place I might have in this world when my older brother, three years my senior, got his driver's license in 1959.  We lived in Grand Prairie (TX), a sleepy underachieving gas stop between Dallas and Fort Worth where you could buy hamburgers seven for a dollar. 

There wasn't much for a kid like me to do on weekends except walk across the railroad tracks to town, or more specifically to the Uptown Theater for a Saturday afternoon at the movies.

The long, joyous afternoon typically began with cheesy MC Jerry Silver (the owner or manager) hopping on stage and pretending to swallow a lighted cigarette.  After a newsreel, cartoons and maybe a "Flash Gordon" serial short, there'd be a double-feature.  John Wayne was usually involved, as were "bad hombres" and/or "ingins."  (The Duke's words, not mine.)

That all changed when my older brother got the keys to the car.  Looking back, it was probably a minor rite of passage for him; freedom and an introduction to the world of unchaperoned dating, etc.

A trip to the nearby Chalk Hill Drive-in, however, changed my life in 1960.  For some reason I can't recall, my brother and a couple of his buddies actually let Little Larry tag along.  I remember my mother asking what was showing.  My brother replied something about a Disney movie.

It is very likely that a Disney movie was playing in theaters (including drive-ins) back then.  The Mouse House released "The Sign of Zorro" and "Swiss Family Robinson" that year, along with "Pollyanna."  I'm pretty sure my brother didn't say we were heading out to see "Pollyanna."

Mother would have snapped that something risky and bordering on dangerous emotional territory was up.  The trip would have been canceled before my brother could back our '57 Chevy out of our two-strip, cracked driveway.

But we didn't pull up to the Chalk Hill Drive-in speaker pole and face the screen playing a Disney movie.  This carload of semi-naughty boys were "getting away with something."  I was in the back seat; not a hostage nor a willing co-hort, but just a forgotten extra kid in the backseat.

We were there to see "Elmer Gantry." And it altered my life forever.

Set in the 1920s, "Elmer Gantry" starred Jean Simmons as an angelic-looking tent evangelist named Sister Sharon Falconer.  Her life changes drastically and unexpectedly (like mine) when a loud, but charismatic traveling salesman named Elmer Gantry shows up.  He's quick with a joke and even quicker to pull out his flask of whiskey.

Lancaster, nominated for Best Actor Academy Awards for "From Here to Eternity," "Birdman of Alcatraz" and "Atlantic City," won instead for this amazing, grandiose title-role performance.  Elmer takes a shine to the saintly evangelist and pulls out all the stops -- even joining her troupe of tent preachers -- to use his gift of salesmanship to, shall we say, win her over.

I'll never forget how Lancaster emphasized the name "Sister Sharon," lifting it to such heavenly heights in his sermons that she might have been one of the original disciples.  More often, though, Elmer stoked the hell fires of the crowd by charming them before Bible-thumping the fear of everlasting damnation into them:

"I have here in my pocket - and thank heaven you can't see them - lewd, dirty, obscene, and I'm ashamed to say this: French postcards. They were sold to me in front of your own innocent high school by a man with a black beard . . . a foreigner."

If my brother or anyone in the front seat with him had turned around, they would have seen a future film critic stunned by the brute power of effective, provocative drama as the projected colors of "Elmer Gantry" danced across my frozen face.

Academy Awards an ex-family affair this year

This year's Academy Award nominations were announced before the sun came up in Hollywood on Feb. 2, and things are a little more interesting than usual this year.

For the first time in Oscar history, the best picture and best director race looks like a domestic squabble that -- if multi-million-dollar movies (or a billion in one care) weren't involved -- might be settled in family court.

And it gets better.  "Avatar," directed by "Titanic" filmmaker (and Oscar winner) James Cameron, and "The Hurt Locker," helmed by Cameron's ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow, tied with nine Academy Award nominations each to lead this year's race for the golden statuettes.

Too bad Bette Davis isn't still alive to say, "Fasten your seat-belts, it's going to be a bumpy night."  Look for the awards on ABC on March 7.

"You must remember this." -- Trivia time!

How about a little fun?  Answer all five of our trivia questions correctly and you'll earn the highly coveted Movie Memories 4-jalapeño salute.  (See answers below.) 

1.  "My Bloody Valentine" was:

     a.  My Valentine's Day card after I pricked my finger on a rose thorn.

     b.  A 1981 slasher movie (later remade)

     c.  A holiday drink made with vodka and tomato juice

2.  On Valentine's Day it's traditional to send your sweetie . . .

     a.  Flowers

     b.  Chocolates

     c.  Packing

3.  The St. Valentine's Day Massacre happened in . . .

a.  Chicago

     b.  Hico, Texas on Memorial Day

c.  Walmart during a giant-reduction sale

4.   Most dangerous movie snack food:

     a.  3-year-old Milk Duds

     b.  Walnuts in the shell  (Think about it.)

     c.  Bananas Foster

5.   The movie Jean Simmons wasn't in:

     a. "Spartacus"

     b.  "Guys and Dolls"

     c.  "My Bloody Valentine"  

(Trivia Answers:  1-b, a 1981 slasher movie/2-a, flowers/3-a, Chicago/4-c Bananas Foster/5-c, "My Bloody Valentine")

Upcoming presentations

April 13:  "'Casablanca' -- My Favorite Movie of All Time" presentation at The Village at Frisco Lakes.  7 p.m. (Residents only)

June 9:  "'Casablanca' -- My Favorite Movie of All Time" presentation at The Forum at Park Lane, Dallas.  6:45 p.m.

July 21:  An Enrichment Presentation at Richland College, Dallas. "'Casablanca' -- My Favorite Movie of All Time." 1:45 p.m.

Aug. 2:  Richland College Emeritus Program class No. 1. "If You Can't Say Something Nice -- My Career as a Film Critic" presentation.  10 a.m.

Aug. 9:  Richland College Emeritus Program class No. 2.  "Deadline Pressure ... What Deadline Pressure" presentation. 10 a.m. 


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