Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Warners' Controversial Classics series continues with a prime filmic satire given
superior direction by Elia Kazan. Not since Billy Wilder's acid-laced Ace in the Hole
did a movie present such a negative view of America, an attitude that didn't play any better
in the 1950s than it does now. A Face in the Crowd is almost prophetic in its
portrayal of a media-spawned "demagogue in denim," an uneducated bully eager to lead a
sheep-like public that he claims is even stupider than he is. Bursting with vulgar images from
the consumer-crazy era, Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan's nasty story is the ultimate cautionary
fable about a threat then barely perceived: telefascism.
Arkansas radio producer Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) finds an arresting
personality in guitar-plucking jailbird Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes (Andy Griffith). An instant hit,
Rhodes moves on to a Memphis television show, picks up writer Mel Miller (Walter Matthau) and
errand boy-turned agent Joey DePalma (Anthony Franciosa) and proceeds to the big time in New
York. Rhodes charms the hicks with his smooth-soap folksiness, but secretly considers his fan
base to be
idiots that believe anything he says. He's soon a top-rated star courted by advertisers -
and one sponsor (Percy Waram) who wants his help to elect a non-telegenetic congressman (Marshall
Neilan) as President. Rhodes tops his general insincerity with a callous betrayal of Marcia's
affections, but she stays loyal to him - even when he turns out to be already married. Only
then does Marcia start to realize that Rhodes is a power-mad maniac.
The standard 1950s "issue" picture is Mark Robson's
The Harder They Fall, from
a novel by Budd Schulberg. Its hero becomes involved in a racket, finds out that bad men are up
to no good and steps in to do the right thing. At the fade-out he sits down at his typewriter to
write the gutsy exposé that will tell the world what needs to be done. Ah, freedom in action.
Kazan and Schulberg tell a more complex story. The formidable Lonesome Rhodes is an original villain
but the real problem is with society in general and not just a few bad apples that
need to be policed. A Face in the Crowd agrees with Lonesome Rhodes' notion that the American
public are indeed simpletons easily led by personable TV charlatans who say the things they like
Rhodes learned the hobo way what buttons to push to reach "just plain folk," because to get a meal
he needed to flatter everyone from overworked housewives to stubborn store owners. He has no scruples
responds to everything in life with a hearty laugh that people take as friendly when it really
says "screw you." He learns how to work a radio show to his advantage and then uses his folksy
wiles on the television elite. They don't realize that sponsors will flock to a man who draws an
audience for their wares, no matter what kind of lying nonsense spills from his mouth. Lonesome Rhodes
goes from bum to housewife's friend to countrified superstar and tries to make the next leap into
politics. In Budd Schulberg's eyes he's an Americanized Hitler, a phony man of the people with an ever-expanding
For Patricia Neal's character the story is Pygmalion in reverse. By giving a new name to an itinerant
bum, Marcia Jeffries creates her own Frankenstein's monster. Lonesome Rhodes is a wily mass of selfish desires,
an uneducated sharpie tickled pink by his ability to outsmart his fellow man. Like Frankenstein's creation, he
wants to be loved, but only on his terms - take everything, give nothing. Some of the first words out of
his mouth are, "What's in it for me?"
Americans love wicked satire as long as they aren't made the butt of the joke, as in the final shots of Robert
Redford's Quiz Show that depict a slow-motion studio audience laughing directly at the audience. They also
want to be reassured that whatever bad forces are afoot are not equated with the American system. Ace in the
Hole was despised in part because it doesn't give audiences any squirming room; practically everyone in it is
a craven sell-out trying to make a buck from a tragedy.
A Face in the Crowd says that something is rotten in both Arkansas and the country in general. An All-American
baton twirling contest becomes a spectacle of vulgarity, with nubile girls putting on an exhibition that plays more
like burlesque than a talent show. Lonesome Rhodes' Rock'n Roll advertisements for a worthless pill bring back memories
of tacky TV blurbs with animated stomachs and dancing products. Rhodes isn't just an entertainer, he provides an entire
range of communication strategies. He generates sales for the pill by suggesting that it has energizing aphrodisiac
properties. Rhodes is just the lightning rod that concentrates the power of the television money-making
machine; A Face in the Crowd posits the whole system as corrupt, as indicated when a recalcitrant chemist voices
his doubts about the phony pill product ("Well, it won't kill you") but is later seen trumpeting false claims in
Lonesome Rhodes' career builds like a rolling snowball and Schulberg pays it off by postulating the next logical
step. The top-rated TV personality has already reshaped the media landscape by proving that his
slightest on-air suggestion can sell products and mold opinion. He has wiped out the power of advertising executives
in much the same way that Hitler dissolved Germany's legislature, by a direct appeal to the people, his people. His
next goal is to play kingmaker and get a stuffy congressman into the White House through personality coaching and a
few guest spots on Rhodes' Cracker Barrel opinionizing show. The script says outright that a politician can be
marketed just like any other consumer product, and Rhodes instinctively knows how to go about it ... while reserving
for himself a new cabinet post, "Secretary of Morale." It's the American dream - next stop, the Presidency.
What Schulberg and Kazan don't dare touch is the role of revivalist religion in the real-life trends behind A Face in
the Crowd. Televangelists became extremely popular in the early 1950s and often tried to parlay their fame into
political power, with mostly middling results. Lonesome Rhodes is strictly a secular, Hee Haw- kind of demagogue.
The born-again minority would eventually find influence way beyond their numbers, eventually arriving at their present
ability to warp and steer public policy.
A Face in the Crowd does end with a variation on the The Harder They Fall formula; intellectual Mel
Miller's tell-all book about the demagogue in denim will ring down the curtain on yet another charlatan who thought
he could fool the public at large. The sorry truth is that history has proved this to be a liberal myth. Telling the
truth has little effect in a public discourse flooded with lies and half-truths; every message is presumed to serve
somebody's self-serving agenda. In the film, Lonesome Rhodes' Ides of March comes when his hidden contempt for the
public is aired on live television. There are plenty of examples proving that once a celebrity like Rhodes achieves
critical mass, he grows a shield of Teflon, as when Ronald Reagan was "caught" in an identical way in the 1980s. On a
television appearance he said some things about containing Soviet aggression, but during a commercial break his
unguarded comments were heard by thousands of satellite dish owners, bragging that he could wipe out Russia any time
he wanted in just thirty minutes. There was no grass-roots call for his resignation and no Reagan supporters defected.
The tapes were never played again and the incident faded as if it were an unreliable rumor. Besides, Reagan's
supporters shared his willingness to nuke the USSR, so many viewers saw no controversy in the goof.
The movie Three Days of the Condor got closer to today's truth. The hero busts the truth wide open by taking his
story to the New York Times, and the villain says, "We don't need to kill you, go ahead and squeal. Nobody cares."
Modern policy makers base their strategies on that attitude. Lonesome Rhodes becomes a wailing monster alone in his
penthouse apartment. Today, the evidence of his treachery would disappear and political attack dogs would descend
upon his detractors. He'd be awarded the new contract or win the election, and persevere.
A Face in the Crowd is a sharp drama that stays in focus even if it goes on a tiny bit too long. Andy Griffith is
so convincing as a sleazy good old boy, it's a wonder that he was able to move on to the likeable characters of his later
television shows. Patricia Neal is equally important; it's one of her two or three best films. Her characters always had
a credible sensuality but her Marcia is the most direct. She's practically addicted to Lonesome Rhodes and even looks
like a junkie in withdrawal when it comes time to destroy him, in time-honored Frankenstein fashion. Walter Matthau is a
baggy-suited stand-in for writer Schulberg, who gets in a potent dig for TV writers: Matthau's crew of scribes at
Rhodes' gleaming studio are discovered working in a cramped, dark room. Anthony Franciosa makes a good debut appearance
as a conniving opportunist, but grabbing the most attention is Kazan's discovery Lee Remick as the starstruck Arkansas
baton-twirler who becomes Rhodes' plaything wife. The ultimate symbol of the trashing of core values, Remick's marriage
is mocked on Rhodes' TV show. Although Remick would soon show her worth as an actress she's used as a vapid sex
object, attracting Lonesome's attention from 50 yards away and showing how nimbly she can toss a very symbolic
baton in the air. 1
Warners' DVD of A Face in the Crowd is a fine enhanced transfer that captures the full range of Stradling and
Rescher's dusty exteriors and noirish interiors. The sharp image reveals that Remick had a stand-in
for some baton-twirling shots. The sound is also fine; Warners soundtracks in this era were gutsy and dynamic.
The original trailer treats the film's subject matter directly, focusing on Andy Griffith's obscenely laughing mouth. It
may have had a lot to do with audiences staying away. A new interview featurette Facing the Past is severely
graphics-challenged but gathers a nice selection of surviving participants, including Patricial Neal. They don't "face
the past" all that well, which is more a criticism of the DVD added value format than it is of the featurette makers.
Andy Griffith uses a semantic dodge by saying that Kazan's naming names was something that "happened" to him, as if he
were the victim and not the perpetrator. Savant
surely doesn't feel qualified to judge Kazan, but an evasion is an evasion. Schulberg's reflections on Elia Kazan's
HUAC testimony are more thoughtful and reasoned. A film historian says that Kazan's films became more socially conscious
after the witchhunts, which makes us shake our heads - he directed several of the first liberal issue films, like
Gentleman's Agreement, before the HUAC attacks began. A Face in the Crowd and
On the Waterfront share the same theme, the
need for 'responsible' people to eliminate dangerous criminals and political monsters - by informing, betrayal or whatever
means are at hand, even the fader on a microphone feed.
A Face in the Crowd is considered by some critics as the first in a series of Kazan Americana masterpieces,
followed by Wild River, Splendor in the Grass and America America. Of the ones still outstanding,
Savant would most like to see the superb Wild River on DVD. The almost perfectly realized movie stars
Lee Remick and Montgomery Clift, and is ten times more of a Studio Classic than something like
Return to Peyton Place.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Face in the Crowd rates:
Supplements: interview docu Facing the Past, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 16, 2005
1. Good Information from Paul Mavis, 5.18.05: Hi, Glenn -- I'm
surprised that no one ever talks about the obvious parallels between Griffith's character and "the
old redhead," TV legend Arthur Godfrey (I've never seen it mentioned -- maybe it's in the
documentaries?). The stories are almost identical. Godfrey was revered for his "folksy" charm
and beloved by the "regular" TV viewers. His two shows were in the top ten for years in the
early fifties, where he had a "family" of entertainers that he regularly clowned around with.
He even made fun of his sponsors on the air, just like Lonesome. Godfrey hobnobbed with
political figures, as well, where an endorsement from him (or a personal appearance) could get
an official elected -- just like Lonesome. And then it all came crashing down -- just like
Lonesome -- when his judgment slipped concerning how far the public would follow him: he fired
boy singer and fan favorite, Julius LaRosa, on live TV. People were horrified to see the mask
come off the "real" Godfrey: a mean, spiteful, controlling monster -- just like Lonesome.
And everything changed from that moment. His ratings began to fall, he was now openly
attacked by the media that once kowtowed to him, and he wound up just the way Matthau predicted
Lonesome would end up: a second rate ghost of his former self, showing up on third rate game
shows, where viewers wondered, "Who's that?" I'd love to ask Schulberg if he thought of
Arthur Godfrey when they came up with Lonesome. -- Paul Mavis
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2005 Glenn Erickson
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