Produced and Directed by Elia Kazan
Written by Budd Schulberg based on his story “The Arkansas Traveler”
Every once in a while I’ll run across a movie that’s a real eye-opener in terms of subject material and acting. Usually it’s a movie I’ve heard or read about but rarely shown on television or available on DVD. A FACE IN THE CROWD is a movie I’ve never heard about and when it was shown on Turner Classic Movies the only reason I watched it was because the excellently informative and engaging host of Turner Classic Movies, Robert Osborne made the movie sound so interesting that I decided to give it a try, even though it was starring Andy Griffith who had never impressed me as a dramatic actor.
Two hours later the movie was over and I was sitting in my seat trying to believe if what I had just seen was really made in 1957. A FACE IN THE CROWD is so mature and fearless in attacking its subject matter and the portrayal of the characters it could have been made yesterday. The movie is as surprising and startling as a safe dropping on you out of the clear sky. As a satire on the dangers of hero worship, television and the influence it has on our lives it deserves to be ranked along with “Network” and “Bamboozled”.
Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) works at a radio station in an Arkansas town that is so small it ought to be ashamed to lay claim to the designation. She tirelessly hunts up local oddballs and eccentrics for her daily 15-minute spot “A Face In The Crowd”. One day she discovers a hobo named Larry (Andy Griffith) locked up in the town jail. This Larry is an engaging rascal, full of outlandish jokes; down home philosophy and amusing songs he makes up right on the spot. Marcia smells talent here and by the next day has the hobo out of jail, cleaned up, renamed Lonesome Rhodes and on her show as a regular. By the end of the week, Lonesome has become such a hit that he’s got every woman in town sending him home made apple pies, he’s brought in three new sponsors for the radio station and he’s even begun to influence local politics which doesn’t make him best friends with the local sheriff.
It isn’t long before Lonesome has begun to attract the attention of a new entertainment medium called television. With frightening speed he has his own weekly show where he’s dispensing folksy humor along with his unique views on life. The country charm that Lonesome has over people is almost hypnotic and it seems that there is nothing he can’t get his rapidly growing audience to do, whether it’s sending in $20,000 in quarters to pay to build a homeless black woman a brand new house (and trust me…in 1957 Arkansas that IS something of a feat) or starting a riot outside of the office building of his sponsor. Lonesome attains the status of a modern day rock star as he goes on to sell-out concerts, hit records and a top rated television show where he hawks a product called ‘Vitajex’ that promises everything but is actually made up of nothing.
And while his power grows so does his insatiable lust for power. Soon Lonesome has the confidence of powerful government men and he is in a position to become a truly major player. He personally coaches a weak-willed senator into becoming a media darling like himself because Lonesome realizes it’s much more profitable and powerful to be the man who makes kings rather than being king yourself. And Marcia watches Lonesome’s rise to power with growing horror as he goes from an amiable moonshine sippin’ gentleman loafer to ambitious madman. And like all fools careless enough to ignore the warning label on the bottle she has to figure out some way to put the jinni back in the bottle…or trick him into doing it himself without getting destroyed herself in the process…
There are a few things that just amaze me about A FACE IN THE CROWD. If, like me you only know Andy Griffith as Sheriff Andy Taylor from Mayberry, his performance here is going to blow you away. This is a savagely demonic Andy Griffith who is nice and pleasant as sweet potato pie one minute and a raging monster the next. I couldn’t believe he could make a character this depraved so likeable and yet so despicable. That Andy Griffith didn’t win an Academy Award for this movie is absolutely inexplicable to me. Matter of fact, A FACE IN THE CROWD was not nominated for one single Academy Award, which makes me wonder did anybody even see this movie that year.
Patricia Neal is wonderful in her role as Marcia and one of things I really like about this movie is that the story doesn’t let her off the hook. In order to keep Lonesome under her control she uses a variety of underhanded tactics including sex, a fact that the movie doesn’t shy away from dealing with. In another movie Marcia might have been a victim but not here. The tough, mature script makes it clear she’s an adult who knew full well who she was getting into bed with, both literally and figuratively and she deserves what she gets. As does the rest of the excellent supporting cast: Tony Franciosa plays Lonesome’s agent who is lower than a snake’s stomach and he’s just like everybody else in the movie: out for whatever he can get. He’s the first one to sell out Lonesome, both on a personal and professional level with a calculating callousness that’s almost as scary as Lonesome’s. Lee Remick plays Lonesome’s teenage wife and Walter Matthau plays Mel, one of Lonesome’s writers. This movie is another example of Walter Matthau’s versatility. Sometimes I think I prefer him as a dramatic actor than a comedian. His performance here is sharp and full of verbal wit.
What else did I like about the movie? I gotta mention the ‘Vitajex’ commercial, which is one of the funniest things I have ever seen in my life. I must have watched that damn thing a dozen times and every time I howled with laughter. I defy anybody to watch it and not think of our modern day Viagra and the claims it makes. It’s just yet another way in which A FACE IN THE CROWD proves that despite being made almost 50 years ago, it deals with issues of sex, money, fame, power and the price men and women are willing to pay for them in a manner that is so fresh and so willing to treat viewers with intelligence and respect that it makes a whole lot of today’s movies look ridiculously adolescent by comparison.
They didn’t rate movies back in 1957 but if I had to give one to A FACE IN THE CROWD I’d assign it PG-13. The characters do screw each other over emotionally and psychologically in a pretty raw manner and the sexual relationship between Lonesome and Marcia is handled with surprising bluntness and honesty.