First Time Watch: A Face In The Crowd

In 2008, the Library of Congress chose to preserve A Face In The Crowd in the U.S. National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Well, that could be the understatement of the 21st century. I couldn’t escape the feeling while watching controversial director Elia Kazan’s production— about a media sensation that goes haywire—for the first time, that the film was not only incredibly prophetic, but is still oddly relevant to this day, especially considering the current state of quasi-celebrity status in America and the overwhelming power of our media-driven culture. Who ever would have guessed that a 1957 Andy Griffith, in his film debut, as the lead would provide the ultimate cautionary tale about believing too fervently in one’s own hype? But maybe I’m once again getting a little ahead of myself.

Griffith plays Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (in a truly effective, influential, and mesmerizing role that could be among the best of the decade), a lazy, alcoholic, womanizing, backwoods country drifter who doesn’t really seem to have any discernible talent (at least, that was my take) other than an innate ability to influence others and rabble-rouse with a disarming, yet seemingly disingenuous and almost sleazy charm that’s equal to that of a snake oil salesman. His deep, raucous, maniacal laugh is unmistakable, and perhaps a harbinger of things to come. We find him, as does radio producer Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), sleeping off a bender in an Arkansas jail. Jeffries is looking for an average everyday Joe to provide a song, anecdote, etc. for her program, “A Face in the Crowd.” Rhodes is reluctant at first, but acquiesces after being promised that he’ll be released from the clink the following morning. Needless to say, Rhodes’ hayseed charisma and homespun song “I’ll Be a Free Man in the Morning” is an instant hit, first with Jeffries, who falls immediately under his spell, and soon with her radio audience. Jeffries gives him his own show (and eventually her heart), and his popularity becomes contagious. Before long, Rhodes has his own Memphis TV show to the delight of many. However, he begins to get too big for his britches, initially evidenced by his ability to influence viewers to buy mattresses from a show sponsor, despite his lampooning of the business. A writer for the show, Mel Miller (Walter Matthau), immediately recognizes the danger of his power.

 

A slimy, opportunistic would-be agent (Anthony Franciosa) sees his chance to get in on the runaway Rhodes popularity train and lands him in the big time, scoring Rhodes a show in New York City, all under the guise of being a company shill for Vitajex, an energy supplement. His fame and influence explode. Now, a true example of style over substance, Rhodes is drunk with power. He becomes the quintessential egomaniac, believing that he can do no wrong and overestimating the value of his talent for being a manipulator, and starts to alienate everyone around him. Matters begin to come to a head when he rubs elbows with a U.S. Senator vying for the Presidency in order to help him mold his image, instead of worrying about his politics. Rhodes’ believes that if he’s successful in his efforts, he’ll be named the “Secretary for National Morale” (of course, this would certainly make him a threat to democracy).

OK, I should probably stop there because I’m getting excited and I don’t want to ruin the movie for those who haven’t seen it. (Don’t worry, I left a lot out, not the least of which is cute-as-a-button Lee Remick’s film debut). Though, I do want to point out a pivotal scene in the film when Rhodes is coaching the Presidential hopeful under the belief that instead of public debate, people want catch phrases, glitz, and photo ops. It immediately made me think of James Stockdale, independent Presidential candidate Ross Perot’s 1992 running mate, who did nothing to help Mr. Perot’s campaign. Why? Because he was bad on television…and that’s the ultimate sin in this country. In fact, it was even difficult for me not to think of our last commander-in-chief, one George W., as a Lonesome Rhodes character. After all, he was the leader everyone wanted to “have a beer with.” What I’m saying is that it’s amazing how Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg were able to cultivate the Rhodes character into not only a personification of the boob tube and its horrific ability to push viewers into dangerous territory if they’re not mindful of it and vigilant against it, but also a metaphor for modern-day celebrity and politics some 40 years later. The inspiration for Lonesome Rhodes is said to have come, interestingly enough, from various entertainers such as Arthur Godfrey, Ronald Reagan, and Will Rogers (albeit, with a much darker personality). Now, as for the merit of these comparisons, as well as the evaluation of the talent (or possible lack thereof) of the three aforementioned gentlemen, I’ll leave that up to the individual viewer (many of them, probably more qualified than I). However, in the face of such “personalities” as Paris Hilton, Snooki, and Ryan Seacrest, it’s impossible not to draw comparisons between them and Lonesome Rhodes. It’s also impossible not to worry about those who buy into these wolves in sheep’s clothing, which made this a positively special film for me.

Now, a couple things that I didn’t like about the film was that the sheer force of Griffith’s performance as Rhodes tended to overpower the other characters in the film to such an incredible degree that it ultimately overshadowed the film’s merit a bit. There isn’t another person in the movie that even comes close to Griffith, and when he isn’t on screen, I found myself impatiently waiting for the narrative to get moving again. This especially becomes a problem when it comes time to challenge the man’s faults. Additionally, the ending was a touch anticlimactic (even though most folks will be able to figure out how matters are going to pan out), with Matthau’s final speech being superfluous and falling flat. Due to this, I was going to give AFITC three and a half stars out of five, but after letting myself ruminate over the production for a while, I’ve decided that it deserves an extra half star. The flaws should in no way deter people from seeing the film. Subsequently, I’ve learned that this little masterpiece wasn’t successful upon its initial release. So, for those out there who haven’t experienced it, it’s a must. The movie still has vitality to it, viewers will be astounded by its relevance, and no one will ever look at Andy of Mayberry the same way ever again. Who knew he had it in him? I blame Opie for bringing him down.

  • Rbt. Soo Hoo

    Kazan said that Griffith could have been another Marlon Brando, but after this movie, Andy left Hollywood….see this movie and compare it to todays political situation….methinks that Andy understood that spiritually, Maybeery was a better place to be…perhaps after 2012 someone should remake this movie but use a community organizer from Chicago..like Andy, I know that I do not belong in this century…to those under age 25, see this movie, then see it again at age 50…maybe you will learn the same thing Andy learned…

  • NancyT.

    The power and influence of Arthur Godfrey during those years was immense. The film “Face in the Crowd” was not much of an exaggeration, and although Godfrey was much different biographically and in personality and style, his arrogance was similar.

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  • Susan P

    Perhaps the prophetic “Face in the Crowd” wasn’t as popular as it should have been because our nation wasn’t through encountering the media monsters that we have now faced. I believe that the worst was yet to come as our country faced with incredibly simplistic naiveté two such events in our history of promoting charlatans to stardom status. One fell down several notches of his own accord much as Andy Griffith’s character over exposed his own self worth and self imploded, Glen Beck. Another ego maniac continues to lure a following of zombies who seek simple answers to their own issues so that they can avoid efforts to think for themselves, Rush Limbaugh. But probably the most disturbing example of the way that the American public idolizes the shiny, entertaining and overly manufactured answer to the problems of the world, that manipulates masses to look for blame in those least able to fight back, the Tea Party. Lonesome Rhodes is just as slimy and dangerous as ever. Although the portrayal was an incredibly prophetic omen, we didn’t learn a thing.

  • Susan P

    What I fear is that as a people we Americans tend to follow charming wolves in sheep’s clothing. We favor the group or person who presents the fun, easy solutions. It is easy to point to the person next to us who looks or sounds different as the reason for our troubles. Like people who listened to Lonesome Rhodes, bought his sponsors’ products, gave Lonesome fame and power, we are too easily swayed by the person or group that plays to our fears and prejudices. It’s easier to give up our responsibility to investigate those who speak to our needs for comfort, than it is to think for ourselves. But Lonesome Rhodes was a character who’s arrogance brought him down. Let us hope that Corporate America follows the same pattern, and those who can speak up for the good of all will risk complacency and call the Lonesomes to task.

  • Anonymous.

    Trust me. “A Face In The Crowd” is not as meaningful as some of you clearly believe. In fact, it essentially says little that actually amounts to anything. It’s nothing but Elia Kazan’s Depressing, cynical, and angry view of media stars and how an apparently gullible public is more than willing to embrace them. Pardon me but that’s just bull! Moreover, it turns a likable comedian, Andy Griffith, into an “anti-Andy Griffith.” An ugly person who, in the real world, wouldn’t have had a prayer of ever becoming a star. Not then. Not now. There is no mystery about the fact that “A Face In The Crowd” didn’t have movie goers lining up around the block. Why bother to see a downer like “A Face In The Crowd” when you could stay home and be entertained by Lucille Ball on TV. That is to say, GENUINELY entertained by Lucille Ball on TV.

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  • Susan P

    When those who can’t seem to empathize or sympathize with others are examined by professionals, they are at times diagnosed with disorders including Asperger’s Syndrome and/or are called Sociopaths. No name calling is necessary for Anonymous, because he often displays an inability to understand the feelings of others. Poor thing probably keeps a lot of guns under his bed as a precaution for being attacked by Liberals. His birth was likely a result of a sperm donation from Ann Coulter.

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  • Anonymous.

    Say Susan,

    That was very amusing satire! I laughed for five minutes or more! I never would have thought of it myself. Disagree with someone’s opinions by attacking him or her with thoughtless nonsense about “Asberger’s Syndrome,” or some-such crappola! And you did so even though you haven’t actually met the writer! Which means of course, you can’t possibly know anything about him or her! Very creative! I’m truly impressed! Don’t respond reasonably. Just degenerate into mean spirited pejoratives! MY… And it was entirely consistent with the way liberals are known to behave (except, perhaps, not every liberal. Merely because you disagree with me Susan, you may well be assuming too much where I am concerned). Moreover, even though I know you were just funnin’, I would like to say that I do not own a gun. Moreover, I have no interest in owning one. But it’s OK if YOU own one. There is certainly nothing wrong with that. Trust me when I say that I completely understand your feelings about it. despite what you might think, I’m actually a very caring person. And as we all know, the Constitution guarantees everyone’s right to own a gun.

    Now… What were we talking about…? Oh yes… The subject was supposed to be an old movie. I think it’s called “A Face In The Crowd.” How the heck did we go off on a tangent anyway? Oh well…

  • Curt

    Whoa, a vicious back and forth between Susan and Anonymous. As far as the movie, I couldn’t agree less with Anonymous, but hey, it’s just a movie. I believe that the America we live in today makes A Face In the Crowd even more stunningly prophetic. I know that some other movie aficionados that I’m acquainted with dismiss anything by Elia Kazan because of the HUAC years but I certainly don’t. Politics aside, he was a master director. And just for the record, I was never a Lucille Ball fan. Some of you old-timers (yes, like me) might remember a comedienne named Joan Davis who starred on a show called I Married Joan. She was hysterical, more Gracie Allen than Lucy. And bringing up Gracie, Burns & Allen, now that was a funny show and way ahead of its time.

  • William Sommerwerck

    I don’t know why Anonymous. (who conveniently hides) thinks that “A Face in the Crowd” is of little merit or meaning, but he’s flat-out wrong. Its lack of box-office popularity proves exactly nothing.

    How many public figures have ugly sides we rarely see? Arthur Godfrey was one of them. Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have nasty streaks we only get a whiff of.

    “A Face in the Crowd” was the “Network” of its day, and remains worth seeing. I’m sure Anonymous. will now lecture us about how “Network” is just a Chayefsky spew/rant, full of sound & fury, signifying nothing.

    Anonymous., you might get a shosk of respect for your views if you weren’t such a coward that you need to hide.

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  • William Sommerwerck

    A few notes…

    Griffith really didn’t want to do this film, thinking he couldn’t pull it off. But his performance isn’t only one of the best of the decade, it’s one of the best in the history of American film. Why he wasn’t nominated for Best Actor is incomprehensible. Griffith has never done anything remotely as good.

    It should be noted that Rhodes isn’t corrupted by his success — he’s a self-obsessed jerk right from the beginning. He isn’t the least bit naive — he’s constantly manipulating people to get what he wants.

  • Dr Morbius

    Outting Kazan and the mobie’s dark and cynical asspects asside, the real :Face in the Crowd” in this film is the debut of lovely young Lee Remick who’s face and other charms so briefly light up the screen enroute to a terrific film careeras one of Hollywoods most beautiful and well respected actresses.

  • Helen Bennett

    I saw this film when it first opened, and was just as blown away when I saw it again recently. Last week on this blog, I named it as one of the three best American films of all time. I think Andy Griffith’s performance may have been the best ever of any American actor.

  • Tiny Tim

    From one perspective it is a good thing that this film was a commercial failure. If enough people had seen it, we would probably have lost one of the most iconic and uplifting characters of the last century because once the public knew him as Lonesome Rhodes they would never have trusted Andy Griffith to be Sheriff Taylor.

  • Gary Vidmar

    A very good article, but I would disagree that Griffith’s character dominates the film to its detriment. Neal superbly outshines him whenever she is on screen, and, politics aside, it is their volatile relationship that is the essence of the story. Tony Franciosa steals a couple of scenes, too, and has one of its best bits as Griffith’s background music. Lee Remick is the big surprise of the picture. There is no denying that Kazan really knew what he was doing with this winner.

  • Marsha Anne

    I saw this film when I was very young – My dad had seen his comedic side – he kept saying how funny he was – I kept saying he was mean.
    I watched the film when I was older and had seen the comedic side – Andy Griffith is the most under rated actor – I love Brando but Griffith would have made him step up his game.

  • Gord Jackson

    I must admit, I did not like “A Face in the Crowd” when it first surfaced in 1957. But nine years later, when I caught it on television, I was incredibly impressed. It does indeed foreshadow the power of television to influence and manipulate in destructive ways (altho the medium can of course also work in the reverse) but it also foreshadows other films that were to build upon its content: NETWORK, BROADCAST NEWS, NEWS AT ELEVEN being three classic views from broadcasting’s insides. POWER with Richard Gere is a great example of how image makers work, with THE CANDIDATE a good indication of what can result.

    But A FACE IN THE CROWD also falls into Elia Kazan’s preoccupation with the outsider and where they do (or do not) fit in. Think Athur Kennedy’s falsely accused victim in BOOMERANG, Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy in ON THE WATERFRONT or Montgomery Clift’s intrusive government agent in the equally shamefully neglected WILD RIVER. As a man of Greek heritage,(altho born in Turkey) whose parents emigrated to the United States, Kazan spent a lifetime seeing himself as an outsider. It’s little wonder that so many of his films contain that subtext.

    Finally, I cannot go along with the saying, “It’s only a movie.” I understand where it comes from, but for those of us who regard films as the (visual) literature of our times, that is like saying HAMLET is only a play. Cumulatively, and in spite of Hollywood’s myopic preoccupation with itself, the movies do have the power to inform, reveal, educate and comment upon our greatest hopes, joys, fears and social conditions. They only became focussed as ‘purely entertainment’ with the advent of the the studio moguls after the exodus out of New York. In their early days, a film pioneer like DW Griffith saw them as bringing the outside world to the classroom. In other words, the movies as a very important educational tool. They still are, air-headed, blow-dried brains stars and greedy film number crunchers notwithstanding.

  • Ben Ricci

    When I first seen the film, was amazed of Griffith’s performance. Up to that point, i have only known Andy Griffith as the likeable Sheriff on TV, for which the show was very popular. What a transition from one charactor to another. As for other method-style actors, I wonder if Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, or James Dean, could have done the same transformation.

  • Alfie

    I saw this movie one time and do not care to see it again. To me, it was a morality tale. Lonesome Rhodes started to believe his own press. Unfortunately, our country is full of ‘Lonesomes,’ today. Truly ugly souls – inside and out.

  • Stan

    I have a question for Susan:

    When you stare at the cereal every morning do you hear voices and see strange creatures from the shapes of the cereal or is it you live near powerlines and see conspiracies where none exist as a result?

  • StevenWells

    Safe to say most know Griffith as either lovable southern Sheriff Andy Taylor or loveable (yet curmudgeonly) southern lawyer Ben Matlock, and it seems roles such as these were the ones with which he felt most comfortable. We can be grateful he chose to take a risk as Lonesome Rhodes, and for another, equally startling performance by him, check out – if you can ever find it – “Savages,” a TV movie from 1974 costarring Joseph Bottoms.

    In this thriller molded after “The Most Dangerous game,” Griffith plays a wealthy professional who hires Bottoms as a guide for a desert hunting trip, and is as sly and cold a villain as you’re likely to find, engaging Bottoms – as the only witness to Griffith’s accidental killing of a prospector – in a cat-and-mouse pursuit and fight for survival, with Griffith still the hunter, but Bottoms now the prey.

    I don’t believe it’s on video, and rarely shows up on TV, but if viewers can catch it, they’re in for another rare opportunity to see Griffith both play against type, and really strut his stuff as an actor.

  • Ron

    Reagan and Rogers? Really? Hogwash!

  • Anonymous.

    It seems to me that a great many people misunderstand many of the points I make where the more pessimistic, cynical films are concerned. I do not have a negative, pessimistic view of people in general. I think most people wish to do what’s right. They’re not like Larry Rhodes. Certainly not most people. Moreover, I don’t think most Hollywood types are as bad as they’re supposed to be either. That’s why I believe a man with such an ugly soul as Rhodes would not ever have a chance to become a star. Those around him would see through his veneer and choose to have nothing to do with him. That’s why I have a negative view of “A Face In The Crowd.” You mention Arthur Godfrey. Was Mr. Godfrey truly the ugly person you apparently suggest? No… I am not impresed with “A face In the Crowd.” I’m just not all that disappointed with the human race. Not yet, anyway.

  • Anonymous.

    I feel I should more clearly explain the direct approach I apply to my views. It’s true that my comments are very much to the point. that’s primarily due to the fact that, unlike so many other people, I don’t believe the supposedly profound observations of Hollywood writers and/or directors are nearly as meaningful as they presume. After all is said and done, the angst filled dramas of Hollywood are nothing but opinions. After looking at the world, they create films that essentially offer opinions about this, that, and the other (whatever this, that, and the other happens to be). Of course, they’re perfectly entitled to their opinions. But like you and everyone else in the world, through education, experience, and daily observation, I also form opinions. I may be right. I may be wrong. But just like people in Hollywood, we’re all entitled to our opinions. One of my negative opinions involves the dim view Hollywood takes of human nature and public institutions. You already know what I think of “A Face In The Crowd.” Generally speaking, do you think most people are truly as bad, naive, or stupid as the characters in that film? If not, doesn’t “A Face In The Crowd” deserve some criticism? Regarding the television show M.A.S.H., since the anti-war message of the program wasn’t buttressed by criticism of the communists (Korean and/or Vietnamese), can genuinely knowledgable people take the show seriously? Finally, Michael Moore isn’t merely ignorant of economics and/or social issues. His editing techniques make him a rank propagandist. A good example involves film of Charlton Heston, shot on different days and separate locations, deliberately edited together in “Bowling For Columbine.” As a result, Heston apparently provided heartless answers to very pointed questions. There’s just one problem. Moore deliberately took Heston’s remarks completely out of context. And he has applied this despicable technique to every one of his faux documentaries. It’s not just wrong to do such a thing. It’s unethical. Immoral. Therefore, I don’t tolerate such people. I don’t tolerate such crap. I have no patience for it. And neither should you. The difference is, I tend to say so directly.

  • BILLYBOY

    I agree with the writer that this is an excellent film and Griffith gives a sensational performance, made all the more so by the fact that we all know what a “nice guy” he really is. I like to give credit to great performances which should have won an Oscar but didn’t, such as those of Judy Garland in “A Star is Born”, or Burl Ives in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, or Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard”. Highest among them is this performance by Andy Griffith. He positively, absolutely should have won the Academy Award.

  • Martin Stumacher

    A Face in the Crowd was a brilliant picture. I believe that Kazan’s direction showed how the power of television in the hands of an egomaniac could influence the nation’s thinking. Andy Griffith played Arthur Godfrey superbly.

  • bonnerace

    I have always liked A FACE IN THE CROWD for a number of reasons. The moral ideas come out very clearly and leave no uncertainty: Lonesome Rhodes is a total bastard. His ideas of good or bad have nothing to do with his what he does—he has wants and desires that control everything he does. If he doesn’t get what he wants, it isn’t right. (This film reminds me of ELMER GANTRY in a lot of ways; the main characters are opposites to a great degree, but they have a few prominent, important features that are moving on similar targets.) The actors manage to pull off their roles beautifully, you keep waiting for the idea to turn another direction. The first time I saw this I could not believe that this was the same guy who did Sheriff Andy on TV!! Outstanding. Whether Mr. Anonymous believes it or not, there are a few politicians who have this kind of attitude about the general public now just as they did then. Nevertheless, watch the movie, then a few more (NETWORK, ELMER GANTRY, THE SEDUCTION OF JOE TYNAN) and think about it. Everyone has the right to a personal opinion about anything, but it doesn’t mean you need to argue about EVERYTHING.

  • Anonymous.

    Bonnerace, you make two very good points. Firstly, politicians are thought to be dismissive of the public, devious, and/or corrrupt. And of course, this is true for any number of them. But I’m not cynical enough to think that every politician falls into any or all of those categories. Moreover, even though I know that many corrupt politicians are never exposed, am I naive to think that MOST corrupt politicians are eventually exposed? Certainly this was true for the most powerful man in the world, Richard Nixon. And more recently, John Edwards didn’t fool everyone forever. As for the entertainment business and Arthur Godfrey, his behavior was widely known during his TV tenure. As questionable as it may have been, was it on-par with the behavior of the character played by Andy Griffith in “A Face In The Crowd?” In fact, it seems to me that Godfrey’s biggest shortcoming was the fact that he wasn’t really an entertainer. He had no discernible talent. He was just another Ed Sullivan (who also had no talent). Essentially, Godfrey and Sullivan were nothing more than masters of ceremonies on their own variety shows. Secondly, yes Bonnerace, you’re absolutely right. I AM opinionated. To be sure, I’m VERY opinionated. But then, so apparently, are you. In fact, so is everyone who participates on this site. But whether we’re right or wrong, is that a bad thing on a blog that is seeking everyone’s opinion? But no, I certainly don’t argue about EVERYTHING. I think that I touch a lot of nerves because I do something most people won’t do. I frequently offer perspectives that greatly differs from those of the majority. Basically, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, I just feel that we all know too much that isn’t so.

  • Anonymous.

    Addendum…

    Of course, everyone knows that Arthur Godfrey was arrogant. He was also known to berate his staff. This was inexcusable behavior. But it was all an act. a screen designed to hide his insecurities. His career hit the skids when he publicly fired a cast member, a singer by the name of Julius LaRosa, without first informing LaRosa that he was planning to do so. As a result, the stuff hit the fan relatively quickly. The public turned away from godfrey. He lost his clout, radio show, and two television programs in very short order. By the 1960′s he had become a meaningless anachronism. Was he Larry Rhodes? Nope. Not really. Unlike Rhodes, Godfrey wasn’t evil. he was just supremely insecure. Is that how you would describe Larry Rhodes? Insecure?

  • Victor Brown

    It’s about time that the film got the recognition that it so rightly deserves. The film deserves to be preserved because of its stinging commentary on a number of subjects, among other things. It should further be remembered as a classic “rip-off” at the Academy Awards. Griffith should certainly have been nominated for Best Actor for his performance therein. Man, was he “ripped-off”!

  • Ellen Urie

    I have not seen this movie – A Face In The Crowd. But now I want to, so will end up buying it like others I have seen here. I like Andy Griffith. Really liked to watch Matlock. He is the type actor who can play a good guy; then turn around & play a dirty rat & you would hate him! I remember watching the Arthur Godfrey Show. He favored some singer on the show no matter how bad she was. I heard that he went to a hunting lodge near the town I grew up in in Maryland. They said in real life he was a nasty person.