By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)
Bowing to the recent passing of iconic actor Andy Griffith, doddle looks at perhaps the most unsung of all of Mr. Griffith’s work, his leading role in 1957’s A Face in the Crowd.
A few years before his name became synonymous with long-running television series (The Andy Griffith Show [1960-68], Mayberry R.F.D. [1968-1971] and Matlock [1986-1995]), Andy Griffith made his theatrical film debut in a role that seemed guaranteed to catapult him to superstardom: the lead in Elia Kazan’s and Budd Schulberg’s follow-up to their Oscar-winning On the Waterfront, the 1957 film A Face in the Crowd.
Based on “Your Arkansas Traveler” – the first story in Schulberg’s 1953 short story collection entitled “Some Faces in the Crowd” – the movie traces the rise of a down-and-out hobo named Rhodes with a talent to ad-lib songs on the spot, providing his own rough accompaniment by strumming on his beloved “Mama Git-tar.” When small-town roaming radio journalist Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) visits a northeastern Arkansas jailhouse looking for an interesting personality to use in a segment of her on-air program “A Face in the Crowd,” the inebriated Ozark native immediately captures her attention. She creates the nickname of “Lonesome,” and faster than he can bray out another nonsensical song, Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes is hitchin’ a ride on the fame express. With the enthralled Marcia by his side, he blazes through the local Arkansas radio station, to Memphis, to New York, where the network builds him his own show. Called “Lonesome Rhodes’ Cracker Barrel,” Rhodes sings, philosophizes and talks folksy politics with a bunch of backwoods characters who fiercely agree with every piece of populist drivel that escapes his lips. His ever-growing circle of sycophants refer to him as the next Will Rogers.
But where Will Rogers had substantial wit as well as a heart, the megalomaniacal Lonesome falls short, a “demagogue in denim” who gorges on his ever-growing power. Manipulated by corporations who use the gung-ho hobo as their mouthpiece, Lonesome has no compunction turning on his own. As he declaims, “The whole country’s just like my flock of sheep. I’m not just an entertainer. I’m an influence, a wielder of opinion, a force … a force! Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea pickers – everybody that’s got to jump when somebody else blows the whistle … they’re mine, I own them. They think like I do. Only they’re more stupid than I am so I gotta think for ‘em.”
Cinephiles from as early as 1957 have been puzzled that A Face in the Crowd never caught fire. Perhaps it’s the movie’s clumsy, over-the-top theatrics. Perhaps it’s the fact that Schulberg’s screenplay doesn’t allow for a worthy adversary. Perhaps the twin evils of media manipulation and the cult of celebrity had been addressed to greater effect in that year’s The Sweet Smell of Success (featuring bigger box office stars Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis) or, even earlier, in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole. But in those instances, journalism was the targeted evil. In the late ’50s, with Americans spellbound by the big box of entertainment residing in their very own living rooms, it would have been difficult to make the case for a satire about television that aimed its arrows directly at them. That said, by 1976, the cynical post-Vietnam generation had no trouble accepting Network.
Though he’d done some prior television work, and was starring on Broadway in No Time for Sergeants, Griffith went to considerable lengths at the time to convince a doubtful Schulberg to consider him. As Griffith discussed in a 2005 L.A. Times interview: “Schulberg felt that Griffith was too nice to be able to pull off someone so odious and ambitious as Rhodes. Griffith told him he could do it and then proved it to both Schulberg and Kazan the next day when he did a impression of evangelist Oral Roberts performing a ‘healing.'”
Lonesome Rhodes aside, audiences would never see Griffith play such a wildly vitriolic character again. But while his rendition of the hobo-turned-media monster is indeed shocking, director Kazan does him no favors, becoming too reliant on Griffith’s bellowing belly laugh to carry the character. If Kazan had sculpted the performance with more subtlety – particularly in the strenuously overheated third act — Griffith’s career may have taken a whole other cinematic path. But then again, what of the fate of Ron Howard’s Opie? Would he have been fatherless? Or worse? We shudder to think.
While Water Matthau is effectively understated, co-lead Patricia Neal has to struggle with the poorly-written Marcia. The character is supposedly smart, yet she acts like a starry-eyed groupie. In the early scenes, whether or not the script calls for it, she’s inexplicably thrown into many close-ups with Lonesome. Later, she’s relegated to the status of an Old Maid, looking on as the camera lingers over her beautifully suffering expressions.
But even with its faults, this 1957 film is stunningly prophetic. Such as Republicans arguing against big government, mouthing anti-social security arguments, i.e., “no handouts.” Corporate bigwigs discover the concept of controlling the voting population by spouting easily digestible info-bits. Entertainment and politics bed down together. And the more folksier the mouthpiece, supposedly the more credible. (Who’s up for sharing a beer with George W.?)
Wow. Budd Schulberg had one heck of a crystal ball. But even he couldn’t have predicted the success of Matlock.
Rating on a scale of 5 arresting performances from the good Sheriff Andy Taylor: 3.5
Release date: May 28, 1957
Directed by: Elia Kazan
Screenplay by: Budd Schulberg
Based on the short story “Your Arkansas Traveler” by: Budd Schulberg
Cast: Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Lee Remick, Anthony Franciosa
Running Time: 126 minutes