A Face in the Crowd (1957) chronicles its era, lambastes it, and foreshadows future evils of an unchecked demagogue. Perhaps it also marks the end of the noir era of film in its intended righteous ending. It is that ending, however, that contradicts the realities of the future, the cynical realities of our own era. It might be the weakest moment of the movie.
Andy Griffith makes a magnificent film debut as the noxious “country boy” whose meteoric rise in the media is made possible by a gullible public and the machinations of a canny promoter played by Patricia Neal. Both turn in stunning performances. Their co-dependent professional relationship becomes personal, and intensely psychological as both nearly go off the deep end in mental breakdowns by the movie’s conclusion.
The film is a parable, and starts, rightly enough, as Miss Neal and a radio crew discover Mr. Griffith as a vagrant in jail, a colorful character they exploit for a whimsical program. We have beginning shots of men playing checkers, whittling, as tropes for the sleepy Southern town with the eerie fatigued complacence of a society willfully decaying. A gentle bluesy guitar over the credits is a deceptive lulling feel, but there are menacing shadows even now. The character Andy Griffith plays; and the director, Elia Kazan; and the writer, Budd Schulberg, constantly flick us with contradictory images – warm and kind, and then backstabbing and threatening. They keep us off balance, and so too will Patricia Neal’s character be swept in and kept off balance throughout the film, falling deeper under the spell and sinking deeper into danger, but it is a quagmire she has created. By the end of the movie, she and Griffith have become allegories of our modern era.
Long post. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
She is a roving reporter for a small-town radio station run by her uncle. Her show is called “A Face in the Crowd” and today she gleefully interviews drunks and vagabonds at the county jail for amusing material. The sheriff is sweet on her, so he rouses the inmates and orders them to perform.
Not particularly craving the spotlight, the hungover Griffith is at last persuaded to play his guitar for the pestering radio crew. He tells folksy stories, and the camera looks beyond the easy rambling of Griffith to Patricia Neal’s delight in finding such good material. Her gossamer parade of expressions reveals an increasingly intense curiosity about Griffith, her captivation for a man so poetic, earth-bound, and gloriously independent.
Filling a void in local radio programming—or hitting a nerve—“Lonesome Rhodes” finds an appreciative audience who identifies with him and whose identification with him he will find easy to exploit. Soon, he has a regular radio program and will use his “voice” to charm the citizens and call down revenge on the sheriff in pranks when he finds his loyal audience will do his bidding. Lonesome Rhodes, or Larry, has a mean streak.
Neal and her protégé next move to a television program at a small station and a regular sponsor. Part of Lonesome’s charm for the audience is that he playfully bats the sponsor’s name and product around insultingly, like a cat knocking expensive glass tchotchkes off the coffee table and with about as much concern for consequences, and the audience loves him for his seeming bravado, daring to talk back to authority, telling it like it is. The very fact that he doesn’t seem to care who he offends, boyishly admitting his lack of social graces with a shrug of his shoulders, endears him to his audience.
We see he makes use of people who latch on to him, but his closest relationship is with his “Mama Guitar” which “beats a woman every time” and is a psychological reference to the mother who slept around and who left him with a misogynistic attitude toward all women. He continually puts the moves on Miss Neal, who with mature wariness for the grifter, rebuffs him. However, when one prank gets him in hot water with the sponsor and Griffith is set to leave for good, she invites him into her bed. Is it because she can no longer contain her desire for him, or because it is all she has left to keep him there? Neal is more refined and genteel than Lonesome Rhodes, and has kept him at bay with her superiority, but she is no less a compromising person.
Anthony Franciosa plays the aggressive office boy-turned-mogul, a symbol of the new TV age, who joins the Lonesome Rhodes gravy train and propels him to an even larger TV market in New York City. He takes kickbacks from advertisers and crows, “It’s not illegal if they don’t catch you.” He will later leave Griffith in the dust when he is no longer of use to the shallow, but even shiftier, Franciosa.
Walter Matthau plays one of the Silent Generation’s men in the gray flannel suit, a writer of intellect and ideals on the writing staff of the program, who is constantly put down by Griffith because Mr. Matthau makes the naïve, if pardonable, confession that he matriculated at Vanderbilt University. His intellectualism, as well as his decency, is a threat to the homespun (gutter-spun, actually) Griffith, who pathologically resents anyone who has more than he does—more education, more talent, more money, more importance, more fame.
But Lonesome Rhodes continues to keep us off balance with antics that are sometimes kind and always nervy. He brings forth an African-American woman and says she has had a personal calamity, a fire, and asks his audience to donate money. Thousands of dollars pour in, and she is able to buy a new home for her family. Matthau remarks under his breath to Neal in admiration at the moment of surprise when he first brings the lady on stage that putting a black person on TV took nerve here in Nashville. It did take nerve, but was his generous stunt because he is impulsive and innocent, or because he knows it is nervy and the establishment won’t like it, and so he can’t help himself but to taunt them? Lonesome Rhodes, as Patricia Neal discovered early on, is an irresistible character.
But the behind-the-scenes staff doesn’t like him. Matthau is an underling, and he must submit to and endure Griffith’s teasing and bullying, but more insufferable for Matthau is the attraction Patricia Neal feels towards Andy Griffith’s character. Matthau is in love with her, but in addition to the pain of not being her romantic choice is the anger and disgust he feels towards her for her inexplicable desire for such a phony, manipulative sociopath. We are meant to see and accept her desire for him, but the hold he has on her is never explained in a psychological or emotional sense. She is an intelligent, ambitious professional woman. Matthau may not want to concede her sexual preference for Griffith, and he puzzles over her lowering herself to someone clearly not in her league. At last, he must accept that the woman he has put on a pedestal is as unscrupulously ambitious as Griffith (it was she who gave him the marketable nickname, “Lonesome” Rhodes,) and that is their strongest bond.
Griffith does not really need her sexually—he is a womanizer, and in one scene painful to Neal, chooses a young Lee Remick for his second wife. (A delightfully wry Kay Medford is the first Mrs. Rhodes, who happily watches his climb to fame as long as it means large alimony checks.) He judges a baton-twirling contest and lusts after the innocent 17-year-old played by Miss Remick in her film debut—who enters the Faustian menagerie through her own consuming ambition to be the wife of a big star, and escape from the boredom of her small town.
Apart from these wonderful performances dancing or fencing in their tangled relationships is the broader look at American society at the end of television’s first decade. Once Griffith rides to the top of the ratings and is firmly in the public eye, the movie shifts into high gear and we are slapped with a series of images that parody society even as they unflinchingly document the era. First is the maniacal Vitajex musical commercial montage, a barrage of tasteless images of coy, seductive females, an animated pig who turns into a wolf by achieving sexual prowess through taking the little yellow pill, Griffith’s in-your-face laugh to a crazed doo-wop tune, a mesmerized audience, and sales charts.
The uncomfortable flicks of sinister motives, sinister doings grow from merely being less subtle to sinking into out-of-control obvious, and the journey following the increasingly manipulative Lonesome Rhodes and his handler drags us into a Madison Avenue film noir nightmare. His penthouse apartment, and the studio control booth, are all angles and shadows.
Vitajex is Griffith’s commercial sponsor, a diet supplement (made of some sugar and nothing nutritional) promoted in a buttoned-down and boring way by company man played by Paul McGrath, who finds himself totally usurped by Griffith. Griffith takes over the sales talk and promotes it as a powerful vitamin to enhance the male libido. McGrath will end up in the hospital from a heart attack when Griffith has destroyed his career.
Cameos by real-life journalists and media figures of the day such as John Cameron Swayze, Mike Wallace, and Walter Winchell stamp the movie with topical cachet, and even Edward R. Murrow’s name is bandied about. Lonesome Rhodes gets his picture on the cover of Life and Look magazines.
Griffith’s ego climbs with his ratings. The man behind Vitajex, retired General Haynesworth, played by Percy Waram, who has king-making aspirations, wants Griffith to do the same for the general’s chosen presidential candidate, right-wing Senator Worthington Fuller, played by Marshall Neilan, as he did for Vitajex.
General Haynesworth believes the masses need to be led by a strong hand. Fifth Avenue and Big Business join hands to utilize the entertainment media to make their candidate President, with graft, favors and kickbacks to follow, and a social reconstruction that serves only the right people. We’ve seen it happen in presidential races, but A Face in the Crowd gives us an uncanny simplistic blueprint as to how it’s done.
We realize the fun and games that has amused and diverted us has led to the potential for serious evil, especially as Lonesome Rhodes, unchecked in his self-absorbed quest for power, is not merely content with making anyone he chooses President, but he wants a place in the cabinet for himself. The money isn’t enough, the fame isn’t enough, the power isn’t enough. Having a war ship and mountain named after him isn’t enough. He wants everybody to love him, to give him absolute adoration. He invents a canned laughter and applause machine for his program, and has one installed in his apartment. We see he is a sick man, but he always was, even back in the sweaty jail cell with his guitar. He was harmless then; someone else had to launch him and profit by him. Who is the guiltier?
He has left a trail of enemies along with his cult fans, plenty of people to whom he has done dirt, but none more so than Patricia Neal, who keeps coming back for more. Walter Matthau, who abandoned ship months previously to maintain his integrity, returns, having left to write a book on the phony rise of Griffith (another foreshadowing of our modern era of tell-all political books). He finds Miss Neal in a bar, nervously smoking and sipping her drink while morosely watching Griffith on the TV over the bar. He frankly points out Griffith’s manifold sins, and she weakly defends him, and herself, by saying she keeps him from worse impulses, in effect, she is, as the modern phrase goes, “the adult in the room.” She is practically a shaking wreck over the moral morass she is beginning to acknowledge.
Only in the final moments of the film will she accept responsibility for the monster she has made when she realizes the fascist horror about to be unleashed upon America as can only come from the hand of a demagogue. She flees her apartment when Griffith, weary and half-crazed, expects to return to her bed now that he has thrown out Lee Remick. He discovered his child bride having an affair with Mr. Franciosa, who throws it in his face.
The next evening, Griffith will perform his show live as usual, and afterwards, he plans to attend a political dinner where the sponsor’s chosen presidential candidate will crown Lonesome Rhodes Secretary of Morale, something we will need in time of war. Senator Fuller, the “isolationist” who says he knows what is best for America, is evidently full of big plans, including getting rid of Social Security because Daniel Boone didn’t have unemployment insurance and social security benefits.
Patricia Neal, desperate and nearing a nervous breakdown, hides in the dark control booth watching the show, because she cannot face Griffith’s overbearing personality to tell him she wants out, knowing that even if she had the strength to leave, she would still be responsible for the monster she created.
When at the very end of the show, as the credits roll over the recorded theme song (which, without shame, is a hymn), Griffith is still on set, aping for the camera to play the show off, and mocking and belittling Senator Fuller, mocking the millions of “stupid idiots” who watch his show, showing off for the cast and crew like a class clown looking for attention. The television audience cannot hear his words because Griffith’s mic is dead as the theme song plays over the rolling credits, so he knows he is safe.
The control booth technician, disgusted by months of working behind the scenes for the bullying star, wishes aloud that the public could only hear that.
In a flash, the remark wakes Patricia Neal out of her inertia, and she lunges forward and thrusts the control to turn on Griffith’s mic. His words, his hypocrisy, his cruelty, his abominable ego pours out over the airwaves. The techie tries to stop Neal, but sobbing, she has thrown her body over the console and will not relent until the show has ended.
The sponsor is aghast. The Senator is insulted. The millions of “stupid idiots” who adored him are incensed. When Griffith, not knowing he was caught by a hot mic (another foreshadowing of modern political realities), heads for the elevator so he can rush to the political dinner, the elevator operator calls out, “Going down!” and we know there is a double meaning. In a rush of calls to the network switchboard, we see the career of Lonesome Rhodes taking a very public, real-time nosedive. Anthony Franciosa, even now, is grooming a new “country boy” for a replacement. The sponsor, the network, and the public will abandon Griffith.
Will Patricia Neal abandon him at last? When Walter Matthau finally finds her still hiding in the control booth, she is emotionally helpless, as one in shock. Griffith calls on the phone, pleading for her support because nobody has come to his party, everyone has called to cancel. He is bewildered and needs her to put things right.
Matthau insists that she tell him she’s through with him, to have the courage to tell him that she was the one that turned on the mic and betrayed him. He takes her to the hotel ballroom where Andy Griffith paces like an animal in a cage, frothing at the mouth and demanding revenge for whoever scuttled him. It takes the last bit of strength she has, but Miss Neal claims responsibility not only for the creation of his career, but for the ending of it.
It is this emotional climax, this roller-coaster ending to the film that sweeps away the moody, menacing film noir aspect to this movie and to the genre and replaces that genre with something noticeably different about movies in the late 1950s and early 1960s. There is no name for them, at least not that I know of, but they are pointedly liberal in their message. Films like Inherit the Wind, Twelve Angry Men, Judgment at Nuremberg, The Miracle Worker, To Kill a Mockingbird, Seven Days in May, are different from the cynical noir of the late 1940s and early 1950s, as if in the wake of crumbling of McCarthyism, an era when liberals were politically and legally persecuted, when the Silent Generation marched cautiously, blindly toward the New Frontier, the writers—who were the most persecuted under McCarthyism, came out from the noir shadows and said, “Enough. Our turn in the sun now.” Ironically, both director Kazan and writer Schulberg participated in the witch hunts by naming names to save themselves, attempting to expunge their own earlier communist affiliations. They knew something about being compromised and compromising others.
Such films of this movement, if it was a movement, explored social issues with strong writing, a breath of fresh air in a stagnant, repressed era. These introspective, thought-provoking, soul-stirring, and conscience-poking liberal-message TV shows and movies would form a brief, if brilliant period. Maybe it was the Kennedy assassination that brought it to an end, for after that came a period of films where predominantly there was no message, no great theme, and women’s roles were weakened and diminished. The most successful films were mega-expensive blockbusters, the ratings system was created to categorize films that increasingly featured coarse language and explicit sexual scenes, and if there was a point to the film, it was only to shock and to dare the audience to be entertained by it. Most films did not strive for a lesson learned, or an inspirational message, lest they risk being labeled unrealistic, or even more damaging at the box office: family friendly.
Looking back on A Face in the Crowd from an era where the story came true, we may marvel with condescension on the naïve conclusion to the parable that a megalomaniac could be rendered harmless by a changed public opinion, or that public opinion could even turn sour on such a folk hero manufactured to custom fit the most base, coarse, and ignorant instincts of millions of Americans, who by their fecklessness hold the lives of millions of other Americans in their guilty hands. However satisfying Lonesome Rhodes' comeuppance may be, it doesn't ring true.
Senator Joseph McCarthy, to be sure, did have his downfall at the hands of such as Murrow, and a courageous Republican Senator who defied her party: Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, the first to publicly denounce McCarthy on the Senate floor. If this, along with the careers of Will Rogers and Arthur Godrey were influences for A Face in the Crowd, the movie nevertheless uses Neal and the audience as those most culpable and therefore to be ones who right the wrong.
But how often does that happen in real life, let alone in the area of public opinion where being wrong is so humiliating that we can never admit to it?
We have a greater appreciation for film noir these days, rediscovered and named in the 1970s. Our cynicism today is less articulate and less stylish than in those gritty/glamorous films we love, but we have experienced disillusionment, and so we these days we identify with that darker world of film noir.
To be idealistic and progressive requires courage, a respect for humanity and for human intellect, to prize compassion above all else, and a willingness to stubbornly try, try again. It is often irascible, and certainly nitpicking. It also requires a leap of faith that a better world is even possible. Noir has no use for this dreaminess, and so the stark black-and-white world fades in the new liberal message films. But even A Face in the Crowd is not so optimistic, and does not extend its message of a lesson learned beyond Patricia Neal and Walter Matthau. It does not stoop to that level of naiveté. The powerful triumvirate of politics, big business, and the media has not been changed by the revelation about Lonesome Rhodes. Probably not the public either, who are not really chastened, just mad at being played for saps. They will be back.
Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.