A Face in the Crowd
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Anthony Franciosa, and Lee Remick
Warner Brothers, 1957, 125 minutes
Director Elia Kazan and writer Bud Schulberg had had a huge success with “On the Waterfront” in 1954 and teamed up one more time for this quirky and extremely prescient movie.
A radio show producer, Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), discovers a talented drifter, Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith), in a small-town Arkansas jail, and presents him with the moniker, “Lonesome.” Rhodes is given a slot on a local radio station and his folksy, irreverent humor is so popular he’s soon invited to host a Memphis television program. Although Rhodes infuriates the show’s sponsor, his audience loves him. A wheeler-dealer office gopher, Joey DePalma (Tony Franciosa), sets himself up as an agent and brokers a deal on behalf of Rhodes for a nationally televised show broadcast from New York City. Predictably, Rhodes’ soaring popularity and influence goes to his head. He’s rude to his staff and dumps fiancé Marcia for a 17-year-old baton twirler, Betty Lou Fleckum, (Lee Remick). Rhodes’ politically conservative sponsor soon has him playing kingmaker by having him stump for ultra-right-wing Senator Fuller for President. Staff writer, Mel Miller (Walter Matthau), attempts to turn Marcia against Rhodes, but she’s already souring on her discovery. When Rhodes candidly berates his viewership during the closing credits of his show, Marcia, unbeknownst to him, manipulates the sound board, purposely broadcasting his insults over the airwaves. His audience and sponsors abandon Rhodes overnight. When no one shows up at his gathering for conservative politicians and corporate big wigs, Rhodes calls Marcia threatening suicide. She goes to Rhodes’ penthouse to reveal she was the one who betrayed him. The movie ends with Rhodes screaming for Marica to come back as she rides away in a taxi cab.
Andy Griffith is an absolute hoot in his film debut. Few people saw this, his finest performance, but Griffith would find his audience three years later on “The Andy Griffith Show” (1960-1968) on television, playing a character quite unlike Lonesome Rhodes. Patricia Neal gives a great performance. The film did poor box office, which is understandable given the protagonist is an unlovable monster. There’s no doubt the movie was ahead of its time as Bud Schulberg’s script eerily foretold the role of television in politics. Sources reveal the character of Rhodes was inspired in part by Arthur Godfrey and Will Rogers.
“A Face in the Crowd” has some wonderful scenes and some great performances but it’s not quite a five-star movie. Schulberg and Kazan over-reached the mark with this undisguised left-wing, preachy, soapbox. One gets the feeling that with “A Face in the Crowd,” Schulberg and Kazan were saying, “Sure, we may have named names before HUAC but see, we’re still good liberals!”
Ted Turner’s Turner Movie Classics (TMC) cable channel aired “A Face in the Crowd” repeatedly during the 2016 presidential primaries and campaign. Evidently, the folks at TMC felt there were more than a few parallels between Lonesome Rhodes and candidate Donald Trump’s blustering brand of populism.
The DVD includes no commentary but there is an interesting documentary, “Facing the Past” (2005), featuring interviews with Schulberg, Neal, and Griffith.
Trivia alert: Kazan filmed the opening scenes of “A Face in the Crowd” in Piggott, Arkansas. As in most of Kazan’s later films, many non-actor locals were used in small parts and as extras. The house with the swimming pool was the home of businessman Karl Pfeiffer who often entertained his sister and her husband, Ernest Hemingway, poolside.
Additional thoughts from a believer
With “A Face in a Crowd” Kazan and Schulberg warn of the burgeoning influence of television and right-wing manipulation via media demagogues. Sixty years later, we’ve witnessed both ends of the political spectrum attempting to sway public opinion through the media but the reality is that the Left has actually become much more adroit at media manipulation than the Right.
So then, what is our bottom line? Atheist Kazan saw society in terms of a battle between Left and Right, in which the Right had to be defeated in order for society to advance. But are political solutions the answer to man’s overarching problems? Is either the Right or the Left capable of ushering in a “Great Society” of peace and prosperity for all?
As believers, our hope is in our Savior and Lord and we anticipate His coming kingdom. The political ebbs and flows of this world may affect us in varying degrees, but our focus is always on our Heavenly King as we endeavor to fulfill our mission as His ambassadors and emissaries on our brief journey through this world.