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.
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 to hear.
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 whatsoever and 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 ego.
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 its ads.
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.(spoiler)
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:
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