#218) A Face in the Crowd (1957)
OR “The Andy Griffith Show: Origins”
Directed by Elia Kazan
Written by Budd Schulberg. Based on his short story “Your Arkansas Traveler”.
Class of 2008
The Plot: While doing a profile on local prisoners for a radio program, Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) meets Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith) who, despite his drunken and uncouth demeanor, comes across as warm and personable over the airwaves. Dubbed “Lonesome” Rhodes by Marcia, he becomes the hit of Arkansas, even influencing a mayoral election with his opinions. This leads to a national television program, and instant fame. But is Lonesome Rhodes ready to be the voice of the masses? And with a presidential election looming, just how much influence should one person have?
Why It Matters: No major superlatives, but the NFR calls the film a “dark look at the corruptibility of sudden fame and power.”
But Does It Really?: Holy crap Kazan, you and Schulberg had your fingers on the fucking pulse! This film is about the seismic influence television’s “style over substance” M.O. can have on America, and Schulberg and Kazan absolutely nail it. Like “Network”, “A Face in the Crowd” is ahead of its time, and just keeps getting more and more accurate. Budd Schulberg has a lot to say and Elia Kazan knows exactly how to get that message across. Throw in a star-making turn by Andy Griffith and you’ve got a film that deserves a second viewing, especially right now.
Everybody Gets One: This is Andy Griffith’s film debut! He was a stand-up and a Broadway star when Hollywood came a-callin’. It’s a shame he never had another film role as impressive as this one (except of course for “Spy Hard”).
Wow, That’s Dated: This film is a pretty detailed look at how television operated in the ‘50s, mixed with frequent sexism and sporadic racism. On a less depressing note, there’s a “This is Your Life” parody and a look at pre-Power Point presentations (“Next chart, please.”)
Seriously, Oscars?: Reception was mixed on “A Face in the Crowd” upon its release and as a result, no Oscar love. Its only precursor attention was a DGA nomination for Kazan, losing to David Lean’s “Bridge on the River Kwai”.
- Larry Rhodes is allegedly based on a few similar TV personalities of the day, most notably Arthur Godfrey, with a dash of Tennessee Ernie Ford and Will Rogers (who gets name-dropped a few times).
- It is lovely to see Andy Griffith succeed in a role outside his good-natured straight man Andy Taylor. For starters, we meet him in a local jail. HE’S the Otis!
- Rhodes is essentially what Stanley Kowalski would be like if he could sing.
- Kazan earns points for including African-Americans in several (albeit minor) roles throughout the film. It almost makes up for him ratting out all of his colleagues to HUAC. Almost.
- Selling a mattress sucks, but at least Rhodes doesn’t have to hawk the Garden Weasel. PS: Is this how the Mattress Wars began?
- Patricia Neal never gets the credit she deserves. In a film dominated by a very flashy central figure, Neal gives Marcia a wonderful, subtle character arc. For me, she’s the most tragic figure in all of this. All she wanted was to highlight real Americans; she got that and more than she bargained for.
- Love that Vitajax montage. This movie predicted Viagra/advertising specifically to erectile dysfunction.
- Shout-outs to the supporting cast. Walter Matthau is great in a performance that predates his typecasting as a “grumpy old man”, Anthony Franciosa is excellently despicable as Rhodes’ agent, and Kay Medford nails her one scene as something other than a Jewish stereotype.
- To add to the realism, Kazan had several news and entertainment personalities cameo as themselves. Among them: Mike Wallace, Faye Emerson, Mitch Miller, Walter Winchell, and Burl Ives, no doubt a favor to his “East of Eden” director, Elia Kazan.
- That’s Lee Remick in one hell of a film debut! Though I’m pretty sure that’s a double in some of the long shots of her baton twirling.
- And then we get to Rhodes helping Senator Fuller with his campaign and we start getting such prescient lines as “people want capsule slogans”. It gets a bit eerie. Well done, Schulberg.
- Side Note: “A Face in the Crowd” was added to the Registry in December 2008, shortly after the presidential election of Barack Obama over John McCain. This is the election that gave us nationwide exposure to Sarah Palin, whose meteoric rise to fame is not without its similarities to this movie.
- Shout-out to then-Vice President Richard Nixon, and Checkers too!
- Blink and you’ll miss a young uncredited Rip Torn as “country boy” Barry Mills.
- “A Face in the Crowd” started getting reappraised in the years following its initial release. One of its key early champions was French auteur Francois Truffaut.
- Matlock! Maaaaaaatloooooock!
- Keith Olbermann occasionally refers to fellow pundit Glenn Beck as “Lonesome Rhodes”, a reference that certainly doesn’t help Olbermann shake off his smug liberal persona.
- Timing is everything: When I picked this as my next film I was not expecting Kazan to be tangentially in the news again.
A Brief Editorial (With Spoilers): I don’t get on my political soapbox too often, but I felt I needed to address something connected to this film. Recently there have been comparisons made between Larry Rhodes and Donald Trump. There are similarities to be sure (both capitalize on mass media, both appeal to the blue-collar public, both antagonize the press, etc.), but the key difference is public and private persona. Rhodes was presenting a wholesome “aw shucks” southern boy to his public, while privately despising them. With Trump, what you see is what you get. When Rhodes is exposed, it’s a betrayal to his adoring public. When Trump brags about sexually assaulting women on the “Access Hollywood” bus, it should be shocking, but it’s not too much of a stretch for a man with Trump’s track record. The parallels are enough to revive interest in “A Face in the Crowd” (TCM played the film on Trump’s Inauguration Day), but it’s not a direct allegory, just a really painful reminder of what we’re willing to accept from our public figures.