A Face in the Crowd

A Face in the Crowd (1957 USA 125 mins)

Source: ScreenSound Australia Prod Co: Newtown Productions/Warner Bros. Prod, Dir: Elia Kazan
Scr: Budd Schulberg, based on his story The Arkansas Traveller Phot: Harry Stradling, Gayne Rescher Ed: Gene Milford Art Dir: Richard Sylbert, Paul Sylbert Mus: Tom Glazer

Cast: Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Anthony Franciosca, Lee Remick, Percy Waram

Between Mayberry, Matlock and snack crackers, Andy Griffith is an American icon of heart-warming goodness, so it was difficult for some to accept him as the disturbing Lonesome Rhodes in Elia Kazan’s A Face In the Crowd. This is one reason the film wasn’t a success in 1957. But, also, people don’t like being told they are gullible fools being manipulated by a shadowy elite. True to the American paradigm (the myth of the powerful individual), most assessments of the film focus on the duplicitous megalomaniacal Rhodes as the source of the evil media manipulation, an evil that is then exorcised by the removal of the perpetrator. He is often compared, and rightly so, to Arthur Godfrey, the media giant who ruled the American airwaves at the time and was fond of repeating, “I made you all, and I can break you at anytime.” In mainstream U. S. media culture it is always the lone, power-mad individual who is to blame for societal ills, and it is only the lone hero who is able to save the day. This formula allows the masses to focus on an interesting villain and experience a vicarious victory through the hero, while leaving them with a calming feeling of happy impotence. However, scriptwriter Budd Schulberg (1) and Kazan were both given to biting the hands that fed them, and were targeting more insidious villains whom they both knew intimately, villains who are still with us, now more than ever.

Fully cultured and educated radio reporter Marcia Jeffries and writer Mel Miller (played brilliantly by Patricia Neal and Walter Matthau) promote Rhodes for the sake of their own careers with full knowledge of who and what he is. Martha catches up with her star-to-be on the road out of town on the morning after his jail cell appearance and asks him, quoting from the song he had improvised on the radio program: “How does it feel to be a free man in the morning?” Larry ‘Lonesome’ Rhodes just looks to his left, disgusted, and crudely spits. She knows exactly what sort of varmint she’s dragged out from under a rock – a Southern grifter utterly without principles or restraint. He reminds me of the Bible salesman who steals a college girl’s wooden leg in Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People”. The Salesman leaves the girl helpless in a hayloft and says, “Hulga, you ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born” (2). Marcia knows that Rhodes is this type of man, but she doesn’t care because he can be used to further her interests, an attitude all of his handlers and backers share.

Andy Griffith brilliantly plays the most complex character of his entire career. Rhodes knows he’s being used but doesn’t care as long as he can graze in the food chain, and he makes it clear that he plans on doing some ‘using’ himself. His Will Rogers-like facade of hayseed-wisdom is for the public only, and he sells his lie to them by being refreshingly honest and acting seemingly utterly without premeditation. His creator, Marcia, unbelievably, allows herself to fall for him.

I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee and we Southerners immediately identify Rhodes as a familiar personality using a well-worn technique. More than Arthur Godfrey, he is reminiscent of Sputnik Monroe, Dewey Phillips and, of course, Elvis Presley, feigning ignorance while playing every possible angle. These personalities stroked their poor white and black audiences, treating them better than they’d ever been treated while at the same time deceiving them cheerfully and taking their money. These Memphis personalities exploited (and were exploited by) a complex cultural dialectic at play which Griffith, Schulberg and Kazan all understood perfectly and, might I add, personally.

Midget wrestler, Sputnik Monroe, created the first integrated event ever in the South by paying off the doorman to flood the arena with his black fans. As one elderly black woman said to Sputnik some years later: “I used to live in Memphis when they made us sit upstairs in those buzzard seats. You’re the one who got them to change that” (3). Like the fictional Rhodes, genuine altruism mixed with cynical disdain and self-love motivated Monroe’s violation of the colour barrier and the same could be said of Dewey Phillips and Elvis Presley. Phillips made fun of his sponsors and ingeniously promoted them and himself at the same time: “Go on down to People’s furniture, get whatcha want and just pay ’em a dime and then pay for it while you’re wearing it out or when they catch up with you” (4). He talked on top of songs and literally demolished the very records he was making famous. Executives at WHBQ were dismayed even as they raked in the money. Co-worker Milton Ponds reports that they said, “Look at this guy, he’s a goddamn lush, he’s a pillhead, he doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing. Yet people love him and he’s breaking records. How can Dewey do this and we can’t.” When he moved to television, he spent half the show “dragging the cameras out in front of the audience” and “arguing on the air about when they were going to take a commercial break” (5). It is Phillips’ antics that are the real source of the Memphis program in the film. Listening to the chatter on Elvis’ “Sun Sessions” makes it clear that Presley’s attitude was one of slumming mockery and genuine admiration at the same time. When he went to Hollywood, it is well-known that Presley despised the movies in which he was cast, their target audience and himself for doing them, all the while basking in the glory and wealth they brought him.

In the 1950s, when rock and race music were breaking into the mainstream, the cultural elites initially tried to shut them down. Contrary to official American mythology, Michael Bertrand argues in Race, Rock and Elvis that racial integration took place organically among poor whites and blacks and was opposed by the educated Ivy League establishment every step of the way. Bertrand quotes the Virginia Quarterly Review as typical of establishment views at that time, a history we’d like to forget: “The mass of Southern Negroes and the majority of the whites are incapable of directing their own affairs… [and] are biologically inferior” (6). In A Face In the Crowd this establishment is represented by Col. Hollister, a man whose quiet power sways presidents, creates senators and extends into the corporate and military realms. He is the real target of this moral fable, not Lonesome Rhodes. In an unusually candid moment, Col. Hollister reveals to Rhodes that his agenda is much more insidious than selling a useless pep pill: “In every strong and healthy society from the Egyptians on, the masses had to be guided with a strong hand by a responsible elite.” Lonesome Rhodes doesn’t mind being the hammer for this hand as long as he gets paid and laid on a regular basis, and our current herd of entertainers and programmers feel exactly the same way. Only, like Rhodes, they sometimes begin to believe that they really are the cultural elite, and that is when they have to be wiped off the media map. (This elite is still firmly in place. All of our Presidential candidates this year are ‘Yalies’.) The opening credits of A Face in the Crowd are a whistled version of the blues classic “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” whose lyrics capture the bitter ironies of such a position. The song is brought back in mournful arrangements during several of the film’s key moments. It is the perfect choice for underscoring the precarious process of first “sittin’ on top of the world” and then finding yourself suddenly ground under by it, a change in status Kazan was certainly familiar with. What the cultural establishment can’t tame and control, it ignores or destroys. Elvis was tamed and Dewey Phillips and Sputnik Monroe were ignored. The drama of A Face In the Crowd is not about the rise of a demagogue but about the gradual taming of a wild man, and the ultimate failure of that attempt.

Mel consoles Marcia regarding the monster that Rhodes had become: “You were taken in just like we were all taken in;” but he is lying. Earlier in the press room, he is throwing darts at a poster of Lonesome Rhodes under which lies the title of Eric Fromm’s book, Escape from Freedom, something he cynically knows most Americans are desperately trying to do. He’s too smart to be taken in, and so is Marcia, except for her misguided libido. They’ve all done this before, and they’ll do it again. It is Larry Rhodes who is ‘taken in’ and left bawling like a wounded steer. He thought he could play the media game but discovered that he was ultimately not smart or tough enough. His personality cracks under the strain of his persona. Patricia Neal reports that the same thing happened to Andy Griffith. On a History Channel documentary she states that “Andy brought the megalomaniacal character of Lonesome Rhodes into his home life,” and it nearly cost him his marriage. Perhaps after his hayseed stand up act and his Broadway hit No Time for Sergeants, the Lonesome Rhodes character struck a little too close to home.

Mark Deming’s comments for All Movie Guide are typical of most reviews and summaries of the film: “And while Walter Matthau has the thankless task of delivering the film’s moral in his final speech, you can’t say that he didn’t know how to make the most of it, as he sums up Lonesome’s crimes with lip-smacking cynicism” (7). I hope it is clear how wrong this assessment is. This is no ‘message movie’ whose message is obvious and dated. Matthau’s speech is actually a subtle self-indictment (an indictment that Kazan and Schulberg are levying against themselves as well) that speaks volumes about the media’s complicit involvement with corrupt governments owned by faceless corporations. A Face In the Crowd is, in fact, as fresh and relevant as tomorrow’s headlines.

Endnotes

  1. Not only did Schulberg also testify at the infamous HUAC Hearing along with Kazan, he is the author of the Hollywood exposé What Makes Sammy Run? and the novel The Harder They Fall, on which the movie of the same name was based. In The Harder They Fall the line between news and P.R. is obliterated, a line which now no longer even exists.
  2. Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories, New York, Noonday Press, 1998, p. 281.
  3. Quoted in Robert Gordon, It Came From Memphis, Boston, Faber and Faber, 1995, p. 34.
  4. Dewey Phillips, Red, Hot & Blue: Live Radio Broadcasts From 1952–1964, exec. prod: Eddie Dattel, Memphis, Memphis Archives, 1995.
  5. Quoted in Gordon, p. 19.
  6. Michael T. Bertrand, Race, Rock and Elvis, Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 2000, p. 38.
  7. Mark Deming, “A Face in the Crowd”, All Movie Guide.

About The Author

Thomas Beltzer is the author of Antojitos: Little Cravings (Edwin Mellen Press, 2000). He currently lives in Fredericksburg, Texas and teaches at Austin Community College.