Rhodes' abrupt fall is based on a New York radio show incident-cum-urban legend from a few years earlier, as a WOR children's show host named Uncle Don, purportedly believing he was off the air, said: "This is Uncle Don, saying good night. We're off. Good, that will hold the little bastards."
The solid Warner Bros. DVD is part of the box set "Controversial Classics." The DVD includes only two extras: the original theatrical trailer and the 30-minute documentary Facing the Past, in which Andy Griffith, Budd Schulberg, Patricia Neal, and several scholars and behind-the-scenes contributors speak of the film, its impact, and director Elia Kazan.
An audio commentary would have been most welcome, but Facing the Past is certainly a good documentary, giving the viewer a real sense of what was going on in the minds of the film's participants. Griffith's scenery-chewing, for example, is blamed upon Kazan's theatrical penchant for more being more. During a scene in which movie newcomer Lee Remick is eyeing him, Griffith says he was told to leer at Remick like any man who wanted to fuck her. (In addition to Griffith, Neal, Remick, Walter Matthau, and Anthony Franciosa, A Face in the Crowd features cameos by noted 1950s media personalities as diverse as Sam Levenson, Bennett Cerf, Burl Ives, John Cameron Swayze, Mike Wallace, Earl Wilson, Faye Emerson, Betty Furness, and Walter Winchell.)
Despite some positive reviews, A Face in the Crowd was a box office flop. As the years passed, its reputation grew mainly because of its then-ahead of the curve take not only on politics, but also on sex, drugs, alcohol consumption (see the wild faux television commercials Rhodes makes), and the skewering of popular television programs of the period. Although A Face in the Crowd may not wholly win over as many new fans as its champions might wish for, it is well worth watching – even if less for any technical or artistic achievement than for its prescience in regard to television's role in the decline of intelligent discourse in American society.
Wrapping up, A Face in the Crowd is too preachy and smug to be great, and it certainly has not dated well in many aspects outside of its predictive power. Still, no one can deny that Kazan and Schulberg's sociopolitical drama was absolutely right about where this nation was headed. And now that we've gotten there, one wishes for a similar film that might elucidate a way out. God wot!
© Dan Schneider
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.