Judge Maurice Cobbs used to think that a guitar beat a woman every time, but he kept getting tangled in the strings.
"We've got to face it…Politics have entered a new stage: the television stage. Instead of long-winded public debates, people want capsule slogans: 'Time for a change.' 'The mess in Washington.' 'More bang for a buck.' Punch lines and glamour."—General Haynesworth
"This whole county…[is] just like my flock of sheep! Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers—anybody who's gotta jump when somebody else blows the whistle…They're mine! I own 'em! They think like I do! Only they're more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for 'em."—Lonesome Rhodes
He's frightening. Intense. Egomaniacal. He runs the gamut from rattlesnake-like hobo to swaggering, screaming demagogue with a veritable rainbow of likeable and disgusting and pitiable personalities in between. He's crude, vicious, and meaner than Montezuma's Revenge.
He's Andy Griffith—as you've probably never seen him before.
If your only image of Andy is the kind-hearted sheriff of Mayberry, brace yourself for A Face in the Crowd.
Facts of the Case
A Face in the Crowd begins, as many stories of meteoric success do, in a small, quiet country town. Not all of them, however, begin in a jail. This is where Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal, The Day the Earth Stood Still) first meets Larry Rhodes (Griffith), a hobo with a powerful personality and a mean streak as wide as the Mississippi River. Christening him "Lonesome" Rhodes for the benefit of her morning radio show, "A Face in the Crowd," Marcia is quickly enthralled by the down-home, folksy charm of the filthy but exuberant Rhodes. So are the radio listeners. Soon, Rhodes is a regular feature on the show, eventually becoming its host and developing a large fan following, and an ego to go with it.
After discovering the power that he wields over people by destroying the local sheriff with a stinging prank, Rhodes begins his journey to national fame via television, with Marcia at his side (and eventually, in his bed). But his inherent viciousness manifests itself in more and more dramatic ways behind the scenes, even as his friendly, folksy persona continues to increase in popularity, until a powerful business tycoon realizes that he can use Rhodes's popularity to change the course of a national election in his favor—provided that he can keep the star from self-destructing under the weight of his own personality.
"Watch out—He's a mean one!"
An explosive indictment of pop-culture manipulation, A Face in the Crowd was not a big success in 1957, when television had only just begun to insinuate itself into every aspect of American life. But it is remarkably prescient. Director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg seem to have anticipated an America in which the public cannot distinguish a person's television image from the off-camera reality, where people elect on-screen personas instead of human beings and a man with a likeable enough media personality can wield dangerously persuasive power. And as usual, Warner Bros. delivers it all in a great package, with excellent sound and picture; it's a practically flawless black-and-white transfer, and a mono track that brings the gritty blues and twangy rockabilly songs performed by Rhodes through with maximum punch. A half-hour documentary, "Facing The Past," examines the film in great detail, with insightful comments from Griffith, Neal, and Schulberg, and predictably beats that dead horse about Kazan testifying for the House Un-American Activities Committee.
The character of Lonesome Rhodes is mostly based on Arthur Godfrey, but also on "Uncle Don" Carney, the 1950s television personality who—as the story goes—inadvertently destroyed his career when he signed off his popular children's show by saying, "There! I guess that'll hold the little bastards!" into a live microphone. (Although this incident never actually happened, at least not to Uncle Don, the story is a pervasive and persistent urban legend.) The irony of a man's becoming tremendously popular while secretly harboring a sickening contempt for his audience was the seed for Schulberg's short story "Your Arkansas Traveler," which he later spun into A Face in the Crowd with Kazan's input. Drawing from a diverse number of popular figures of the time, such as Billy Graham, Huey Long, and even Elvis, the two created an indelible character that is brought to vivid life by Andy Griffith, a newcomer to film at the time, who nevertheless turns in one of the most layered performances of his career.
There may be just a handful of screen debuts as powerful as Andy Griffith's in A Face in the Crowd. Griffith as Lonesome Rhodes is electric, dominating the screen from the moment we first discover him on the filthy floor of an Arkansas jail; by the time he exuberantly proclaims in song that he will be a "Free Man in the Morning" a few minutes later, it's hard not to feel overpowered by his sheer personality. Even at his worst, toward the end, when no trace of the likeable rough scoundrel is left and there is nothing but a screaming, ranting breakdown from a power-mad tyrant, it is as difficult for the emotionally exhausted audience to turn away from Lonesome Rhodes as it is for the emotionally exhausted Marcia to do so. It's a testament not only to Kazan's direction, but to Andy Griffith's raw talent as well, and the inherent complexity of the character.
So Griffith starts out with a splash, a wild man in filthy clothes singing pure and from the heart with the honesty of raw energy—with a mean streak, to be sure, but he ain't all bad, just mostly. By the time he gets to Nashville, he's able to create an outpouring of good will from a TV audience in order to help a poor black woman whose house has burned down buy a new house for herself and her children. When his fledgling show is dropped by his sponsor, who doesn't take kindly to Rhodes's poking fun at the product while pitching it, the show's fans nearly riot in the streets.
Over a TV show.
By then, of course, it's become much more than that—to those throngs of people, Lonesome Rhodes is practically a member of the family. They trust him. Hang on his every word. Do what he tells them to do. To say that he has begun to like it is a gross understatement. Soon, under the tutelage of the wealthy tycoon for whom he has been an advertising boon (selling useless vitamin supplements, in a sequence that takes time to skewer the advertising industry), Lonesome Rhodes begins to realize his full power, and it isn't long before he's schooling a reactionary political candidate on how to get into office: "Respect? Did you ever hear of anybody buying a product…because they respect it?"
Senator Worthington Fuller (Marshall Neilan, Daddy Long-Legs) already enjoys the support of the rich and the powerful, but he knows that he can't become president unless he can appeal to the little guys—he wants to become the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks. And he knows that his stuffy personality isn't going over well with the Bubbas of the country; he needs a man like Lonesome Rhodes, who has built his career by pandering to people he despises, to give him an extreme makeover. Using his "ignorant" friend Beanie (Nashville comic Rod Brasfield) as a guide, and with all the political savvy of a Karl Rove or a James Carville, Rhodes reshapes Worthington Fuller into "Curly" Fuller, man of the people and good ol' boy. Of course, helping Senator Fuller into the White House is a path to more power for himself, and he quickly becomes drunk on the idea of being "Secretary for National Morale"—even as his personal life begins to fall apart around him.
"You're the locker room where he eases up after a fight, win or lose. You're the shock absorber for collisions with ex-wives and models and new wives and assorted tramps. You're the little wheel of efficiency without which the great streamline express called Lonesome Rhodes plunges off the track and leaps to destruction."—Mel Miller
A Face in the Crowd is as much the story of Marcia Jeffries as it is of Lonesome Rhodes; the journey that she takes is a long and painful one, from the laughing, rather innocent girl who discovers Lonesome Rhodes, into the young woman who begins to feel a desperate attraction for him, the heartbroken woman who is shabbily treated by Rhodes when his eye begins to rove, the hardened sophisticate whose outer veneer conceals a still-vulnerable heart, and finally ending in numb, wide-eyed shock at the monster she has helped to create and knows she must destroy. It is every bit as remarkable a performance as Griffith's, every bit as emotionally shocking; in one particular scene, Neal is so emotionally raw that a groan she lets out, a primal moan from somewhere deep within her, reaches out and punches the viewer in the gut, so that we're bent over in the fetal position, just like she is at the end of the scene. Patricia Neal so fully conveys the complicated web of conflicting emotions that finally explode in a wild act of desperation, and they culminate in her tearful release as she finally reaches her limit after all his emotional blackmail. Having nothing left to give to Rhodes, she screams at him to "Jump! Go ahead and jump! Get out of my life! Get out of everybody's life—jump!"
The film also benefits from incredible supporting performances; Walter Matthau is perfect as Mel Miller, the young writer who falls in love with Marcia and becomes embittered by her continuing infatuation with Rhodes; Anthony Franciosa is brilliant as the sleazy but ambitious office boy turned agent; and Lee Remick makes her film debut as Betty Lou Fleckum, a young majorette who eventually becomes Lonesome's wife. There are also cameo appearances by real-life media figures like Mike Wallace, John Cameron Swayze, and Walter Winchell.
There's a lot that can be said about this movie, but most of it would ruin it for first-time viewers, and trust me—this is one film you do not want spoiled. So I'll just restrict myself to this: In A Face in the Crowd, Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg have crafted a story that bears more than a passing resemblance to Frank Capra's Meet John Doe. Both films explore the overwhelming power of the media to influence the public, and the way that power can be twisted to fit the agendas of powerful figures. But where Meet John Doe is an optimistic fairy tale, assuming the best of the American public and asserting that integrity can win out over manipulation and greed, A Face In the Crowd is a far more cynical fable with a far more disturbing ending. And although the story resembles Capra's tale, it is styled more like Network, another biting satire on the TV age, but told from the perspective of a generation already hopelessly enthralled by it. Like Network, Kazan's film begins all too plausibly and builds in exaggeration until it reaches critical mass. However, A Face in the Crowd clings to the hope that, as Mel Miller observes in the film's final moments, "We get wise to 'em. That's our strength. We get wise." Even that thin sliver of hope has evaporated by the time Network rolls around, as Howard Beale rants with disgust: "You people and sixty-two million other Americans are listening to me right now. Because less than three percent of you people read books. Because less than fifteen percent of you read newspapers. Because the only truth you know is what you get over this tube. Right now, there is a whole, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn't come out of this tube…But you people sit there day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds—we're all you know. You're beginning to believe the illusions we're spinning here. You're beginning to think that the tube is reality and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you. You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube. You even think like the tube. This is mass madness. You maniacs."
Here there's no longer any brash confidence in the American people, along the lines of Connell's defiant final line in Meet John Doe: "There you are, Norton! The people! Try and lick that!" There isn't even the consolation that we will eventually "get wise to 'em," as Mel Miller puts it. We've become "maniacs"—and the current trends in television entertainment do much to support that assessment. Even now, almost half a century after A Face in the Crowd's release, we can see shades (and exaggerations!) of the megalomaniacal "Lonesome" Rhodes in Michael Moore's narcissism and contempt for his audience, in former president Bill Clinton's meaningless "feel your pain" platitudes, and in Rush Limbaugh's ability to maintain an ever-growing army of unquestioning "dittoheads"; and the shadow of D.B. Norton and General Haynesworth looms over us as multibillionaires like George Soros attempt to use their vast wealth to influence elections. It's not even that hard to do any more—after all, this is the age of the sound bite and the focus group, and no one seems to have time for articulate thought when a bumper-sticker-sized slogan will do just as well.
"One of the points [Schulberg and I] wanted to make with the picture was the fantastic upward mobility in this country, the speed with which a man goes up and down. That we both knew well, because we'd both been up and down a few times. It's best illustrated in the film when he goes down in the elevator. We were thinking of suicide at one time, but we abandoned it…Our basic interest in this picture was Lonesome Rhodes as a legend. It was to make a legendary figure of him, and to warn the public: look out for television. Remember, this was Eisenhower's time, and Eisenhower won the elections because everybody looked at him and said: "There's Grandpa!" We're trying to say: never mind what he looks like, never mind what he reminds you of, listen to what he's saying…We were also saying, however, that television is a good thing. Abraham Lincoln said: 'Tell the people the truth, and they will decide what to do.' Well, we said that television is good for that—it's a better way. Television deludes some people, exposes others."—Elia Kazan
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Facing The Past" Featurette
Review content copyright © 2005 Maurice Cobbs; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.