A Face in the Crowd (1957) Elia Kazan

I originally had Orson Welles “Touch of Evil” scheduled for today, however, with the death of Andy Griffith earlier this week I decided to repost an old review of A Face in the Crowd I wrote a few years ago for the now defunct website Halo-17. Then the horror struck. I had no copy of my original review saved! The website was shut down, so I could not even retrieve anything from on-line. I generally keep a copy of all my reviews on my PC, but this one apparently got away. All I could find was a paragraph of notes I had taken for background. Still determined to put out a review, I began with those notes and, though a bit rushed, came up with what you will read here. It is not the best, but it will have to do.  Oh yeah, Welles Touch of Evil, which has been brewing on the back burner for a month or so now, has been rescheduled once again, and will  appear here two weeks from today.

The rise of the media star as an influence in our lives has never been greater. From Presidential politics to what we watch on television and listen to on the radio; the media star influence’s us all.  Oprah Winfrey can persuade millions on what book to read or who to vote for in an upcoming election. Since the 1950’s the power of television cannot be under estimated. Mass communication was now available at a level undreamed of and unavailable before. As far back as the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, when the camera revealed JFK as good looking, confident and in control, while his opponent then Vice-President Richard Nixon appeared with a five o’clock shadow and a sweaty brow, the use of television had the power to shape voters opinions and ideas then and ever since. In the most recent Presidential debates, between Obama and McCain in 2008 your saw it once again. As Obama explained his policies, the camera showed McCain tightlipped and anxious, almost itchy or unwilling to wait for Obama to finish so he could jump in.

A Face in the Crowd is about the power and abuse of the media. The plot goes something like this. In the small town of Pickett, Arkansas, home town radio personality Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) who visits the local county jail to interview some prisoners for her radio show aptly called, A Face in the Crowd.  Its here she finds a drunken crude Larry Rhoades (Andy Griffith) who she quickly discovers has an everyman homespun personality that could potentially win over radio listeners. Marcia, who soon nicknames him “Lonesome Rhodes,” gets her uncle, the owner of a local radio station, to put Rhodes on the air.  He quickly becomes a favorite with the radio audience. Rhodes is invited to Memphis to appear on a television show and ignoring the script written by Mel Miller (Walter Matthau), Rhodes ad-libs on the air insulting the sponsor and just about everyone else. The audience loves him and his star continues to rise even higher. Joey DePalma (Tony Franciosa), a young and opportunistic office boy, arranges for Lonesome to get a big advertising spot for Vitajex, an alleged vitamin, in New York.  With Rhodes fame now nationally and millions of admiring fans, his grip on the public is so strong, he becomes an advisor for a Senator who is running for President. Rhodes tells the candidate how he needs to change his stogy old fashion style for the modern television age. The public likes the quick sound bites, the punch lines, capsule slogans like “time for a change” (yes politicians have been promising change for a long time).

Rhodes career all comes tumbling down when Marcia, who fell into a love/hate relationship with Lonesome, leaves the sound board on as the credits rolled on his TV show one night, so the public could hear the real Lonesome, what he was like behind the scenes, the contempt he held for his fans and the American public in general.

A Face in the Crowd did not do well upon its initial release, most likely, a product of being ahead of its times. Andy Griffith, making his screen debut, as the corrupt celebrity with political ambitions and contempt for his public is mesmerizing. Director Elia Kazan first saw Griffith in the hot Broadway comedy, No Time for Sergeants. Kazan was not sure the amiable Griffith could pull off the devilish role of “Lonesome Rhoades.” When he auditioned for the role, Griffith did a spirited imitation of evangelist Oral Roberts (As a youngster Griffith had wanted to be a preacher). Griffith remarked in a 2005 interview in the Los Angeles Times, “At that moment he (Kazan) and (screenwriter) Budd Schulberg could both see I had a wild side.” Needless to say, he got the role, a part unlike anything else Griffith would do later in his successful career, mostly playing more genial type characters. I believe it is the best thing he ever did. He reached down deep within to find feelings and attitude he held below the surface.

Also making her screen debut was Lee Remick portraying Betty Lou Fleckum, a sexy, seductive seventeen year high school cheerleader who is selected by “Lonesome” Rhodes as the winner of a baton-twirling contest. Rhodes is so sexually turned on by Betty Lou’s sensuality they soon run off together and marry. The scene when “Lonesome” first spots Betty Lou baton twirling in her short skirt is so unlike the homespun Andy we have known now for so many years, his inner desires exposed in his eyes and face, it comes across even more shocking today than ever. Both Griffith and Remick give power house performances.

The film is based on a story Budd Schulberg wrote called, The Lonesome Traveler“about a Will Roger’s type character named “Lonesome” Rhodes who connected with the common every day man. Like Rogers, he started to include political humor in the down home stories he would tell. His fame and his power grew and with it he became a threat the liberal populace. The story was included in a collection called Faces in the Crowd.

Kazan realized the power of TV and radio as a tool to be used by politicians and Madison Avenue to manipulate and persuade the public into thinking ideas they would have never considered before. Kazan and Schulberg saw the threat more than fifty years ago and it is more prevalent today than ever. Organizations from both sides of the political spectrum have perverted the political process with fodder and outright lies in attempts to put forth their own agendas through the use of the media. This in itself makes A Face in the Crowd more relevant today in this climatic of super Political Action Committees (PACS) and ‘Reality’ TV than ever before.

TCM will be paying tribute to Andy Griffith on July 18th with four films including “A Face in the Crowd” at 8PM.

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9 comments on “A Face in the Crowd (1957) Elia Kazan

  1. I agree – this movie is probably the best thing Andy Griffith ever did. “A Face in the Crowd” is almost more relevant today than it was then. Great review!

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  2. Ziegfeldman says:

    John:

    Here’s another interesting parallel pointed out by Spike Lee who guest programmed the film yesterday on TCM (evidently taped before Griffith’s death).

    In watching how Vitajex is promoted in a montage of “satirical” (but totally on target) commercials, one cannot help but think of how TV sells Viagra or Cialis today–“I bought the large economy size for my boyfriend.”

    Best,

    Gary

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  3. The Lady Eve says:

    John, So glad you posted this fine piece on “A Face in the Crowd” in the wake of Andy Griffith’s passing. It IS the best thing he ever did and an outright tour de force of a performance. Hard to believe it was his big screen debut. I happened to watch Spike Lee’s intro to the film when it aired on TCM the other night and he mentioned another great film that, more or less, picked up where “Face” left off – the Paddy Chayefsky/Sidney Lumet masterpiece, “Network.” Together, what a vision of the rising power of the media these two films accurately predicted. I have to wonder if anyone was ever actually killed in order to get higher Nielsen ratings…wouldn’t be surprised.

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Eve, NETWORK and this work would make for a terrific double feature. Both films kind of forecast what we are experiencing today.

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  4. Sam Juliano says:

    I do indeed applaud you John for posting this after Griffith’s lamentable passing earlier this week. Andy was a natural, and this very great Kazan film (one of his best) is the actor’s most rightfully celebrated role and performance. Schulberg of course is known for this and for ON THE WATERFRONT.

    Splendid piece John!

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  5. […] reviews: The Erstwhile Philistine Times Union Twenty Four Frames (warning, spoilers!) Anyone […]

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