Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s first film: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”

Today, we begin our series re-reviewing all of director Elia Kazan’s nineteen films. We begin with Kazan’s excellent debut, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” In preparation for this post, I watched the movie once again and my wife happened to walk in at the tail end. She asked to see it and I gladly sat through it for a second time. The cast is stellar and twelve-year-old Peggy Ann Garner’s performance is not to be missed. For some strange reason, this film regrettably is not available on DVD or Amazon streaming. My review below was originally posted back on December 9, 2016 and has been slightly revised.

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Dorothy McGuire, James Dunn, Joan Blondell, and Peggy Ann Garner
Twentieth Century Fox, 1945, 128 minutes

5 Stars

Elia Kazan’s growing reputation as a Broadway theatrical director came to the attention of Hollywood movie studio mogul, Darryl. F. Zanuck, who tapped the 35-year-old to direct “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” which was based on Betty Smith’s popular 1943 novel.

Plot

Twelve-year-old, Francie Nolan (Peggy Ann Garner), and her younger brother, Neeley (Ted Donaldson), live in a Brooklyn tenement in 1900. Their mother, Katie (Dorothy McGuire), struggles to keep the family afloat as their father, Johnny (James Dunn), an alcoholic, squanders his sparse paychecks at the corner saloon. Johnny still dreams of being a famous singer, but only finds irregular employment as a singing waiter. Despite his shortcomings, he and Francie have a loving bond. In addition to having to deal with her alcoholic husband, Katie tries to shield her children from the influence of her free-spirited sister, Sissy (Joan Blondell). Officer McShane (Lloyd Nolan), the neighborhood flatfoot, assists the Nolans on a several occasions and takes a private shine to Katie.

Katie loves Johnny, but has become hardened and embittered by his failures. She finally confronts him and brings his pipe dreams crashing to the ground. When Francie, a bright girl, desires to attend a better public school in a nicer neighborhood, Johnny makes the arrangements by notifying school officials she has moved in with relatives. It is the one thing Johnny can do for his daughter, even if it is dishonest.

When Katie becomes pregnant, she moves the family upstairs to a cheaper, less-desirable apartment to save money. Johnny is so distraught he sits down at a piano left behind by the previous tenant and sings a tearful rendition of “Annie Laurie,” acknowledging the broken promises of his marriage.

The Nolans enjoy a few festive moments on Christmas Eve before Katie informs Johnny that Francie must drop out of school and go to work to help support the family. Crushed by the thought of Francie having to give up her dreams, Johnny walks out into the frigid winter night in search of steadier work.

After Johnny goes missing for a week, the family is informed he died of pneumonia after working as part of a subway tunnel digging crew. Although he was a drunk and a failure, the neighborhood deeply misses the affable Johnny, much to Katie’s amazement. The neighborhood saloon keeper offers the Nolan children part-time jobs, enabling Francie to stay in school. While in labor, Katie reaches out to Francie and makes amends for her past coldness. Francie and Neeley graduate from grammar school and Officer McShane proposes to Katie, offering the security and stability Johnny was never able to provide the family.

Comments

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is a thoroughly enjoyable film and a remarkable directorial debut for Kazan who stated that he relied heavily on renowned cinematographer, Leon Shamroy. The cast is top-notch. Peggy Ann Garner is a complete delight in her Oscar-winning portrayal. Jimmy Dunn was also awarded a well-deserved Oscar. Dunn was a washed-up alcoholic in real life and was basically playing himself in the role. Kazan did Dunn a favor by offering him the part, but demanded he abstain from booze during the shooting. Dunn’s “Annie Laurie” scene is extraordinary. Dorothy McGuire gives a fine performance in her third film role as the tough-as-nails matriarch although Kazan later complained the convent-raised actress was too refined for the part. McGuire also had a reputation for being a bit of a diva on the set, as Peggy Ann Garner reflected on much later; “Kazan had a marvelous quality. He even knew how to handle Dorothy McGuire, and there was a certain way you had to handle that lady.” Joan Blondell is an audience pleaser as the coquettish Sissy, who nags her sister to cut Johnny some slack. Even young Ted Donaldson is enjoyable as the grumpy Neeley. The settings and the performances are thoroughly realistic and evoke the rough and tumble environment of 1900 Brooklyn with its immigrant enclaves. Writers Tess Slesinger’s and Frank Davis’s script also received an Oscar nomination. Although Kazan later dismissed “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” as sentimental corn pone, the young director did a wonderful job telling a heart-warming story, which appealed to war-time audiences and was the studio’s third-highest grossing film of the year.

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” amazingly is not available in the USA as an individual DVD but it is included as one of the fifteen films in the “Elia Kazan Collection” box set (2010). An interesting commentary is provided with analysis from Richard Schickel, Kazan, Ted Donaldson, and Norman Lloyd. Special features also include “The Making of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn” documentary along with “An Appreciation of Dorothy McGuire.”

Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective:

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” pays homage to human determination and perseverance despite adverse circumstances, symbolized by the Ailanthus tree determinedly growing through the cracks of the Nolan’s tenement courtyard. But attitude and ambition don’t always guarantee worldly success. The Irish/Austrian-American Nolans seem to have a certain amount of religion in their lives; there’s nightly perfunctory Bible reading (an unusual practice for a Catholic family), Francie’s prayers for her father, and a pious Catholic ceremony at Johnny’s grave side with a priest offering prayers for a merciful judgement. But Jesus Christ is not present in the hearts of these characters. When her teacher recites Keats’ “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” a distraught Francie questions out loud if her father’s fervent love (beauty) compensates for his egregious faults (truth). The teacher is befuddled by the question, leaving the viewers to decide the answer for themselves. The film insinuates that Francie will grow up to be a successful writer. But then what? In God’s great plan, worldly success is as short-lived and as unfulfilling as Johnny’s tragic life. The Nolans, director Kazan, screenwriters Slesinger and Davis, and author, Betty Smith, are all searching for truth and beauty outside of life in Jesus Christ. It is only in Christ that we find everlasting happiness, beauty, and truth.

Next up: Kazan’s sophomore stumble, “The Sea of Grass” (1947)

Excellent preface to 2020 Kazan Fest

Elia Kazan: An American Odyssey
By Michel Ciment
Bloomsbury, 1988, 238 pp.

5 Stars

I can still vividly remember watching a particular movie on television as a young teenager back in the early 1970s. The flick was, “Splendor in the Grass” (1961), and I was so startled by the unconventional, un-Hollywood-like ending that I took special note of the name of the director, Elia Kazan, in the closing credits.

Over the many decades that followed, I’ve enjoyed watching all of Kazan’s nineteen films and reading the many books written by him or about him.

“Elia Kazan: An American Odyssey” is an interesting collection of disconnected articles and notes written by Kazan regarding his directing career. The text is supplemented with many interesting photographs, some of which I’ve never seen before. Be aware that this volume is intended more for Kazan fans who are already knowledgeable about the director and his films. It’s no place to start for a neophyte.

French film critic, Michel Ciment, previously presented a collection of interviews with Kazan, “Kazan on Kazan” (1973), in which the director spoke briefly about each of his films. See my review here.

Reading “Elia Kazan: An American Odyssey” was a timely prelude to the upcoming launch of my Elia Kazan Film Festival, 2020 Redux series. I was happy to be able to purchase this handsome volume from an Amazon used-book seller at a very cheap price. Bloomsbury used to do an excellent job with these semi-coffee table books back in the day.

This Wednesday: Kazan’s excellent directorial debut, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”

The Two Popes: A ham-fisted plug for pope Francis

The Two Popes
Directed by Fernando Meirelles, screenplay by Anthony McCarten, and featuring Anthony Hopkins as pope Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce as pope Francis
Netflix, 2019, 125 minutes.

2 Stars

Back in February 2019, I reviewed an interesting book, “The Pope,” by Anthony McCarten, that contrasted the doctrinally conservative, pope Benedict XVI, with his successor, the progressive reformer, pope Francis. See me review here.

Netflix produced a film based on the book and released it for streaming this past December 20th. Just as in the book, the sharp contrast between the conservative Benedict and the progressive Francis is the theme of the film. Benedict is portrayed as hopelessly out of touch with the world with his rigid clericalism and doctrinalism. Francis, in contrast, is presented as a breath of fresh air who is willing, make that eager, to eschew clerical privilege and bend/circumvent doctrine in order to reach people with the progressive version of the Catholic works-righteousness “gospel.”

This film is a biased representation of the current battle within the Catholic church between conservatives and the Francis-led progressives, with Francis the clear favorite. Pro-Francis screenwriter, McCarten, “swings for the fences” at the end of the film with Benedict XVI/Hopkins admitting the error of his rigid ideology and fully embracing Francis’ reforms. The two characters seal the deal over Fanta and pizza, watching a soccer game, and dancing the tango together (VERY creepy in light of the current clerical abuse and homosexuality scandals in the RCC). What a “hammy” ending and it’s all pure fiction.

People love Francis for being so “down to earth,” but neither in conservative Catholicism’s rigid doctrinalism or in Francis’ doctrine-bending “pastoralism” can be found the genuine Gospel of salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone.

While “The Two Popes” is garnering a lot of accolades at the various Hollywood awards shows, I would recommend this pro-Francis puff piece only to serious evangelical Vatican-watchers. Everyone else should use the two hours for something more productive.

Elia Kazan Film Festival, 2020 Redux

Way back in December 2016, I began a series on director Elia Kazan’s nineteen films. Wow! Was it actually that long ago? It took me all of 2017 to complete that ambitious project (see here) and by the time I was done, I definitely needed a break from Kazan (photo above).

Well, I’m getting the itch again, so I will be viewing all of Kazan’s films in 2020, about one every three weeks. Since I already reviewed each movie pretty thoroughly three years ago, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Instead, after watching each movie, I’ll re-post the archived review with a few new insights that I’ve culled.

Sound good? Dust off the popcorn popper and dim the lights for another year-long Kazan film festival!

Coming soon: Kazan’s remarkable 1945 debut, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” featuring Dorothy McGuire, Joan Blondell, James Dunn, and the precocious, Peggy Ann Garner.

The birth of “folk-rock” in the hills of Los Angeles

Echo in the Canyon
Directed by Andrew Slater and featuring Tom Petty, Brian Wilson, Jakob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Stephen Stills, Roger McGuinn, Michelle Phillips, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, John Sebastian, and Lou Adler
Greenwich Entertainment, 2018, 82 min

4 Stars

In the early-1960s, young people gravitated to two types of music; there was rock-and-roll for teeny boppers and the “unsophisticated,” and there was folk music for college students and the “socially conscious.” Both groups eyed each other and their music with contempt. But when the Beatles came to America in 1964 and took the country by storm with their infectious brand of rock-and-roll, a few young folk musicians took notice.

In Los Angeles, Jim (later Roger) McGuinn hooked up with fellow struggling folkies, Gene Clark and David Crosby, to form the Byrds and together they created a synthesis of folk music and rock-and-roll. It was one of those rare moments of “game-changing” creativity. The new style of music, dubbed “folk-rock,” was a huge success and had a powerful influence. Both the Beatles and Bob Dylan, folk music’s premier troubadour, were paying attention and changed course; the Beatles became more cerebral and Dylan plugged in. Young musicians and songwriters who were hip to the new sound flocked to Los Angeles where it was “happening.” With some serious paychecks now coming in, Crosby bought a house in the Laurel Canyon neighborhood in the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles and was followed by many other like-minded artists. For a brief period, 1965-1968, Laurel Canyon was THE place to be.

Former record company executive, Andrew Slater, put together this documentary to capture some of the excitement of that particular time and place. Host, Jakob Dylan (son of Bob), takes the audience on a journey that includes archived footage and interviews. Dylan and his young friends (Beck, Jade Castrinos, Justine Bennett, Regina Spektor) ruminate on the impact the Laurel Canyon sound had on popular music and perform some of the old chestnuts in concert.

I had been meaning to catch “Echo in the Canyon” at Rochester’s art house movie theater. Having missed it there, I was pleased to see it was already available via Amazon Prime videos. Being an old Byrds/Buffalo Springfield fan, I really enjoyed this documentary. But I was even happier when I listened to my wife describe the film to one of our sons over the phone the next day. She told him the Laurel Canyon musicians sang about peace, love, and universal brotherhood, but they couldn’t get along themselves. Hey, that’s my line! Yup, Jesus Christ is the ONLY answer.

Postscript: Many have asked why one of Laurel Canyon’s most celebrated former residents and artists, Joni Mitchell, is conspicuously missing from this documentary? Well, Joni has been scathingly critical of Bob Dylan in several interviews and I’m sure Jakob Dylan was not enthusiastic about featuring her in any form or fashion. Peace? Love? Harmony?

We love our super-heroes! But why?

I recently completed a lengthy series of thirty-five posts written over a span of eighteen months that was comprised of reviews of Legion of Super-Heroes comic books from DC Comics’ Silver Age (see here). This blog is mainly devoted to theological issues and many readers were undoubtedly scratching their heads wondering why I allotted thirty-five posts to such “frivolous” subject material. Throughout the long series, I had this concluding post in mind and now we’re finally here. Phew!

For millennia, human beings have been absolutely enthralled with tales of heroes versus villains, good guys versus bad guys. Think of the notable fictional heroes of literature in the past: Odysseus, King Arthur, Beowulf. In the last one-hundred years, as entertainment forms have expanded with new technology, audiences have continued to gravitate to tales of heroes triumphing over evil via radio, movies, television, and even video games. The release of a new movie featuring a comic book super-hero has become a shared, must-see event for society-at-large. These hero movie and comic franchises have even become a quasi-religion for some people. Skeptical? Just visit a Comic Con convention.

Why do people crave these stories of heroes triumphing over evil? As human beings, we’ve all experienced injustice and unfairness to some degree. We all know what it’s like to be bullied or mistreated and we innately crave justice and even revenge. Fictional heroes right the wrongs that we never could.

At movie theaters, we thrill at the hero’s bravery, resolve, and commitment to what’s “good” and “right,” because such qualities are in short supply in the real world, even within ourselves. While we all would like to flatter ourselves and think we are “good” people and lovers of justice, we’re mainly concerned with our own personal circumstances and we ourselves have often mistreated others as we selfishly prioritized our own welfare. Yes, we have and we still do. There is a God and He is Holy and Just. The Bible states that we are all sinners and that we all deserve eternal punishment. We don’t like to admit it, but we are the unjust ones. We are the villains. Yes, us! Argh! That’s not a popular message, but that’s our reality as we stand before a Holy and Just God. But God, in His love, provided a Hero for us.

A real man, Jesus of Nazareth, walked the streets and trails of Palestine two-thousand years ago and He was on a mission. Jesus was the only person who was ever truly good. He was/is God the Son and He lived a life of perfect goodness. He didn’t deserve the cruelty and punishment that He received, but He willingly died on the cross as the atonement for your sins and mine. But He rose from the grave, defeating sin and death, and offers the free gift of eternal life and fellowship with God to all those who repent of their sin and receive Him as Savior by faith alone. Now, THAT is a HERO! He is my Rescuer, my Defender, my Solid Rock amidst turmoil! Thank you, Jesus!!!

Postscript: Many fictional characters have been based on persons mentioned in Scripture. As just one example, much has been written about how the “Star Wars” movie franchise draws heavily upon the Bible. See “5 Biblical Themes from Star Wars.”

David Crosby: A lot of questions, but no answers and time is running out

David Crosby: Remember My Name
Directed by A.J. Eaton, Sony Classics, 2019, 1 hr 35 min

4 Stars

A couple of Thursdays ago, my wife and I went to the theater to see the documentary, “David Crosby: Remember My Name.” David Crosby was a founding member of two very popular and influential bands from the 1960s and 70s; the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, and Nash (and sometimes Young). I became a fan of CS&N back in 1969 when I was thirteen-years-old and bought every record those guys cranked out in their various permutations over the next eight years. I especially enjoyed Crosby’s unconventional songs with their weird guitar tunings. And what a voice! Crosby was one of the great singers in rock and roll. Learning that Crosby had previously been a member of the Byrds, I eventually bought the entire back-catalog of that band as well and grew to like their music even more than CS&N’s.

Crosby has led an “interesting” life. The Byrds achieved phenomenal success in 1965 with their breakout folk-rock single and album, “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Crosby played rhythm guitar and contributed masterful vocal harmonies. He also began writing songs and the band’s third and fourth albums featured his unconventional and uncommercial compositions. An extroverted and outspoken personality, he became a leading figure in the Los Angeles and San Francisco counter-culture scenes. However, Crosby’s confrontational temperament made him an insufferable bandmate and he was notoriously fired from the group in 1967 during the recording of the Byrds’ fifth album.

Crosby landed on his feet, to say the least, when he hooked up with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash in 1969 to form CS&N. The group became arguably the most popular and successful rock band in the world in 1970-1971. But with the money and fame also came misery. The accidental death of Crosby’s girlfriend in 1969 led to a long depression that was exacerbated by drugs. Squabbles within the band led to a constant pattern of breakups and reunions. Crosby’s spiraling drug addiction led to increasingly frequent run-ins with law enforcement, which eventually led to a 5-month prison stretch in 1986.

Following his prison release, a drug-free Crosby returned to CS&N, but the group had largely devolved into an oldies touring band. Internal conflicts permanently broke up the band in 2016. Freed from CS&N’s constraints, an aging Crosby improbably caught a creative second wind, releasing four solo albums in the past five years.

This one-and-a-half hour documentary is as disturbing as it is entertaining. The now seventy-eight-year-old musician contemplates with great regret his soured relationships with his ex-bandmates in the Byrds and CS&N. Both groups sang songs exhorting everyone to live together in peace, love, and universal brotherhood, but they themselves were glaringly not able to do so. In addition, Croz admits that he steamrolled over hundreds of women in his pursuit of selfish sexual pleasure as a celebrated “rock star.” He also bemoans wasting ten years of his life while in the throes of drug addiction, although he continues to be a heavy marijuana user.

Crosby is now an old man in very poor health. He knows he is close to death and fears his end. Has he considered the Good News! Gospel of salvation and eternal life in Jesus Christ? Below is a snippet from a 2017 interview:

Q: How do you feel about religion?

A: “I think it’s absolute nonsense. It’s fairy-tales.”

Q: So would you call yourself an atheist?

A: “Yeah, certainly an agnostic. I just don’t like it because even when it starts out as a good idea, ‘Love thy neighbor’ for example, not a bad idea, when it winds up as the Inquisition or the Crusades, it’s gotten out of hand. What happens with religion seriously, starts out as a great thing and then winds up a way for a few to manipulate the many.” https://www.huffpost.com/entry/david-crosby-a-certified_b_8079334

Crosby knows about institutional religiosity, but he doesn’t know the Lord. Throughout his entire career, Crosby has written and sang about some of the great questions of human existence, but he has yet to find any solid answers. We enjoy the work of talented, secular artists, but all they can do is make observations or ask questions, they cannot provide answers. I appreciated Crosby’s honesty in this documentary regarding his fear of his impending death. There is an answer to his fears and His name is Jesus Christ. Do you fear death as well? You should if you are not a Christian. Repent of your sin and accept Jesus Christ as your Savior by faith alone.

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” – Romans 6:23

The Criterion Collection releases Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd”

A Face in the Crowd
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Tony Franciosa, and Lee Remick
Written by Bud Schulberg
Warner Brothers, 1957, 125 minutes

4 Stars  for the film itself.

3 Stars  for this Criterion Collection DVD release.

A couple of weeks ago, I received my copy of the Criterion Collection’s new DVD release of director Elia Kazan’s 1957 film, “A Face in the Crowd.”

I reviewed “A Face in the Crowd” at length a couple of years ago (see here) as part of my series on Kazan’s nineteen films, so I’ll just note a few thoughts I have about the movie and this DVD release:

“A Face in the Crowd” was a box office flop in 1957, but has garnered an increasing number of admirers over the decades. The reason? The film’s warning of the manipulative power of television and marketing in relation to politics was eerily prescient. More than a few contemporary commentators have cited this film in relation to president Donald Trumps’ populist appeal, which is no doubt the main reason why Criterion selected it.

Most people are familiar with actor, Andy Griffith, who became a national celebrity in his 1960s television role as the friendly sheriff of Mayberry. Few people are aware of Andy’s strikingly contrasting film debut in “A Face in the Crowd” in which he played an ornery drifter turned power hungry, megalomaniac and political kingmaker. Griffith is a hoot and Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Tony Franciosa, and Lee Remick also played excellent parts. The film’s ending falls a little flat, but that’s a minor criticism,

I’m pleased Criterion selected “A Face in the Crowd” as one of its premium releases and I appreciate now having the film in Blu-ray high-definition. Criterion normally provides a large number of bonus features with its releases, but, unfortunately, that wasn’t the case with “A Face in the Crowd.” I did enjoy the new interview with Ron Briley, author of “The Ambivalent Legacy of Elia Kazan” (see my review here), as well as the new interview with Evan Dalton Smith, author of the forthcoming biography, “Looking for Andy Griffith.” Also included is the documentary short, “Facing the Past” (2005), featuring interviews with Griffith, Neal, Franciosa, and screenwriter, Bud Schulberg, but this extra was previously included in the Warner Bros. 2005 DVD release. I enjoyed the DVD package booklet featuring an excellent essay by film critic April Wolfe, excerpts from Kazan’s introduction to the movie’s published screenplay, and a 1957 New York Times Magazine profile of Griffith. However, I’m disappointed that an audio commentary from a film critic/historian was not provided. That’s a major oversight.

Criterion selects Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd”

Netflix, Amazon, and other streaming services are quickly making DVDs a thing of the past, however, Criterion continues as a resource for outstanding, classic films. Criterion selects films it deems to be significant and presents them in high-quality resolution along with many bonus features.

No, I’m not a film buff even by the slightest stretch of the imagination. I’d much rather read a good non-fiction book than invest two hours in a Hollywood fantasy. But readers of this blog know that I am a fan of the films of director, Elia Kazan (1909-2003). His quintessential method-acting movie, “On the Waterfront” (1954), was previously released by Criterion in 2013. I now see that Criterion will be releasing Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd” (1957) on April 23rd.

“A Face in the Crowd” is a fascinating movie featuring a pre-Mayberry Andy Griffith as the folksy ne’er-do-well-turned-populist-kingmaker, Lonesome Rhodes, and Patricia Neal as the radio producer who discovered him, much to her regret. See my 2017 review of the film here.

Criterion’s summary of the film on it’s website is as follows:

“A Face in the Crowd chronicles the rise and fall of Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a boisterous entertainer discovered in an Arkansas drunk tank by Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), a local radio producer with ambitions of her own. His charisma and cunning soon shoot him to the heights of television stardom and political demagoguery, forcing Marcia to grapple with the manipulative, reactionary monster she has created. Directed by Elia Kazan from a screenplay by Budd Schulberg, this incisive satire features an extraordinary debut screen performance by Griffith, who brandishes his charm in an uncharacteristically sinister role. Though the film was a flop on its initial release, subsequent generations have marveled at its eerily prescient diagnosis of the toxic intimacy between media and politics in American life.”

Special features listed for the upcoming Criterion release include the following:

  • New, restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • New interview with Ron Briley, author of The Ambivalent Legacy of Elia Kazan
  • New interview with Andy Griffith biographer Evan Dalton Smith
  • Facing the Past, a 2005 documentary featuring actors Griffith, Patricia Neal, and Anthony Franciosa; screenwriter Budd Schulberg; and film scholars Leo Braudy and Jeff Young
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: An essay by critic April Wolfe, excerpts from director Elia Kazan’s introduction to the film’s published screenplay, and a 1957 New York Times Magazine profile of Griffith

“A Face in the Crowd” was a box office disaster when it was released in 1957, but its warning regarding the corrupting influence of the media upon politics is certainly an important issue in our current era and the reason why Criterion added it to its collection.

 Face in the Crowd – from the Criterion Collection web site
https://www.criterion.com/films/28703-a-face-in-the-crowd

A Face in the Crowd – Trailer

“See a movie, talk about a movie…”

The Oscars are coming up in six weeks and there’s quite a lot of buzz in the media because they can’t seem to find anyone with a politically-correct enough past who’s willing to host it. Movies (and entertainment in general) are such an important part of our culture. For many people, deciding on the next movie they’re going to watch is the opiate gets them through the day. Which brings to mind a couple of memories from the past:

My paternal grandfather died in 1967 when I was eleven-years-old. Back in those days, it was routine to have calling hours for the deceased at the funeral home for two or even three evenings in a row prior to the funeral service and burial. Our extended family gathered for the three-night wake at Felerski’s Funeral Home on Hudson Avenue in what remained of Rochester’s small Polish enclave. I wasn’t very close to my grandfather, who spoke very broken English and was 66 years older than me when he died. So I viewed the wake and funeral pretty much as an occasion to get together with our many first-cousins.

Anyway, while at the funeral home during one of the evenings, I was standing by my oldest sister who was carrying on a conversation with our cousin, Rick, who were both in their late-teens at the time. They were discussing the 1966 movie, “Fahrenheit 451,” which was directed by Francois Truffaut and based upon Ray Bradbury’s popular 1953 sci-fi novel. Very briefly, the story is about a futuristic society in which the government is so repressive, that “firemen” don’t put out fires, they START fires in order to burn “subversive” books. Okay, so back to my sister and cousin. It wasn’t that they were just discussing the movie, they were picking apart every little detail as if it was the most important thing in the world! I didn’t time it, but it seemed like the intense conversation lasted an hour. I thought to myself, “Sheesh, who could possibly care that much about a dumb movie? These teenagers aren’t so smart after all.”

Flash forward twenty-five years later to 1992. At that time, our two sons were seventeen and fourteen-years-old, respectively. There were three things the boys loved to regularly banter about; sports, music, and movies; especially movies! They would talk incessantly about movies. All of that chitchat reminded me of that endless and ridiculous dialogue between my sister and cousin. One day, in my scolding, fatherly tone, I interjected into their lengthy movie discussion, saying, “Boys, it’s all a big nothing. What does it all count for?” Right then and there, I coined that phrase that still reverberates in our family’s lore:

“See a movie, talk about a movie. Talk about a movie, see a movie, and round and round and round.”

Our youngest son then turned to me with a quizzical look on his face and responded, “Well, what else is there?” I knew the answer to that question deep down, but I had walked away from the Lord the previous year so I kept my mouth shut. Sad.

There’s nothing wrong with having hobbies and interests. I’ve been known to spout off at length about a few topics myself (including some lengthy posts about movies directed by Elia Kazan!). But believers need to do a self-check and see if the Lord is sovereign over every aspect of their life. Entertainment, in all of its various forms, isn’t the be-all-to-end-all, but for many people, that is exactly what gets them through the day. Our sons still love their sports, music, and movies, but now I’m able to let them know that there is something, no, Someone, who is so much more than all of that.