Release Date: July 24, 1972
Runtime: 88 minutes
Studio: Cinema 5 Distributing
Director: Howard Smith; Sarah Kernochan
Cast: Marjoe Gortner
It might be tempting to call Marjoe Gortner a con man. He was a noted evangelist in the days before Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, “saving” people in exchange for them forking over money to his ministry, money that sometimes people couldn’t really afford to give. He moved from town to town like a one-man travelling sideshow, preaching the gospel of Jesus to those willing and needing to believe it. He was a consummate showman. The interesting thing is, even he would agree with that.
Marjoe (a combination of Mary and Joseph – this kid never had a chance!) Gortner was born into a long lineage of preachers. His mother and father (the latter of whom appears in this movie and speaks of his son as though he were his agent, not his father) were preachers and from an early age (seriously…he was 4 when he first began to preach in front of a congregation), Marjoe was “on.” He was billed as the “World’s Youngest Ordained Minister” and performed his first marriage ceremony at the age of four. His mother and father stole Marjoe’s childhood from him and trained him in the art of evangelical preaching. As Marjoe grew older, he became disillusioned with the game – and by his own frank admission in this film, that’s exactly what it is – and took some time off as a teenager. However, the lure of good money combined with his love of performance eventually drew Marjoe back into preaching the word of God.
But Marjoe knew this was all bullshit. This film, the winner of the 1972 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, sees Marjoe in front of an audience, whipping them into a frenzy as good evangelists do, and it’s easy to see why he was so good at it. He has a natural showmanship and charisma that would make anyone believe, especially if they were primed to believe in the first place. Yet, there was a flipside to the glories and hallelujahs. We see Marjoe speaking to the film crew about the various tactics and ruses he (and, according to him, all evangelists) uses to play the crowd. He mentions how at certain points, he will throw his arm backward in emphasis and at other times, lurch forward or backward in an almost choreographed routine when proclaiming the name of Jesus or denouncing the Devil. The whole show is carefully staged to reap maximum monetary benefit. There is one particularly shocking moment when, in the middle of one revival, the masses in the crowd are being saved and praising Jesus, yet Marjoe and a cohort are literally in the next room counting the cash that they essentially just swindled from the crowd out front. All of the congregants at all of the revivals depicted in this film are made out to look like chumps based upon what we are seeing and hearing from Marjoe behind the scenes. I mean, on some level, I suppose I kind of knew that tent revivals of this sort were all a big show. It’s just jarring, however, to have one of the stars blowing the whistle.