- A Face in the Crowd (1957) movie review: A depiction of the dangers of populism and the idiotizing effect of mass media, Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg’s sociopolitical drama is marred by excessive didacticism and Andy Griffith’s hammy star turn.
A Face in the Crowd movie review: Overemphatic screenplay & hammy star hinder Elia Kazan’s ‘rediscovered’ classic
Elia Kazan’s 1957 drama A Face in the Crowd, written by Kazan’s On the Waterfront collaborator Budd Schulberg (from his short story “Your Arkansas Traveler”), is neither the forgotten masterpiece its champions claim it to be nor a minor work to be disregarded as it was for several decades.
In fact, A Face in the Crowd is a good though clearly flawed effort, whose chief weaknesses are a screenplay bogged down in soap-operatic didacticism and leading man Andy Griffith’s over-the-top film debut as Larry ‘Lonesome’ Rhodes, a Will Rogers-like homespun philosopher who rises from drunken jailbird to national kingmaker.
On the positive side, A Face in the Crowd does offer some marvelous performances – e.g., a conflicted Patricia Neal, a reserved Walter Matthau – while Schulberg’s screenplay starts out as a strong satire of American television, stupidity, and consumerism (in the Eisenhower era, no less), while sharing several elements with Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.
I should add that in later decades Sidney Lumet’s Network and Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy – the former written by Paddy Chayefsky; the latter by Paul D. Zimmerman – would borrow elements from A Face in the Crowd.
But despite its undeniable qualities, Schulberg’s tale feels stretched thin. Making a point once never seems to be enough; it has to be hammered in two or three or more times.
A Face in the Crowd follows Lonesome Rhodes’ discovery by Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), a small-time radio show host from Pickett, Arkansas. Marcia accompanies the Arthur Godfrey-like entertainer as he quickly rises from his local local radio show to national television and the world of advertising and politics.
Eventually, Rhodes wants to put the senator of his own choosing in the White House. That this vision of television’s power came a few years before the 1960 John F. Kennedy-Richard Nixon presidential debate shows how ahead of its time A Face in the Crowd was.
Rhodes seems sincere at first, but as his shady past comes to light, he alienates friends and employees. Yet, through it all, Marcia never leaves him despite being admonished that Rhodes could possibly be a sociopath.
Given that Elia Kazan encouraged Andy Griffith to go over the top, this is indeed an unfortunate possibility. It would have been much more effective had that element in Rhodes’ character been underplayed, thus allowing the audience to wonder whether or not Rhodes was evil or merely someone succumbing to fame, money, and power.
After all, we do see some initial decency in him when, on his Memphis television show, he brings on a black woman (Diana Sands), telling his viewers her house burned down and asking them to donate a quarter each. Whether or not this incident was believable is less important than the fact that it reveals Rhodes as more complex than the caricature Kazan makes him out to be. (I should add that aside from the main characters, A Face in the Crowd is notable for its sympathetic portrayal of non-white Americans in the 1950s.)
‘Smarmy’ Anthony Franciosa
Also worth mentioning is another actor making his film debut, Anthony Franciosa.
As the smarmy “office boy” who dumps his job at a mattress company to manage Rhodes’ career, Franciosa reeks of slime, even having a younger version of Rhodes, Barry Mills (Rip Torn), waiting in the wings before Rhodes’ fall is complete.
Rhodes’ abrupt fall, it should be noted, is based on a New York radio show “incident” – actually, an urban legend – from several years earlier, when a WOR children’s show host known as Uncle Don Carney, believing he was off the air, is supposed to have told his listeners, “This is Uncle Don, saying good night. We’re off. Good, that will hold the little bastards.”
A Face in the Crowd DVD
Warner Bros.’ solid A Face in the Crowd DVD is part of the box set “Controversial Classics.” The other titles are: Otto Preminger’s Advise & Consent, Arthur Hiller’s The Americanization of Emily, John Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock, Richard Brooks’ Blackboard Jungle, Fritz Lang’s Fury, and Mervyn LeRoy’s I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.
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.
For instance, 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, Matthau, and Franciosa, A Face in the Crowd features cameos by noted 1950s media personalities as diverse as Bennett Cerf, Burl Ives, Mike Wallace, Faye Emerson, Betty Furness, and Walter Winchell.)
Harry Stradling and Gayne Rescher’s black-and-white cinematography is effective, but given that A Face in the Crowd was made in a 16:9 aspect ratio, there is nothing visually spectacular about it. The same is true of the minimal music score, though Tom Glazer’s soundtrack has some nice moments during clips from the television shows on which Rhodes appears.
Prescient yet dated drama
In spite of 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.
A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Director: Elia Kazan.
Screenplay: Budd Schulberg.
From his short story “Your Arkansas Traveler,” found in the 1953 collection Some Faces in the Crowd.
Cast: Patricia Neal. Andy Griffith. Anthony Franciosa. Lee Remick. Walter Matthau. Percy Waram. Paul McGrath. Marshall Neilan. Alexander Kirkland. Kay Medford. R.G. Armstrong. Lois Nettleton. Diana Sands. Rip Torn.
Cameos: Bennett Cerf. Faye Emerson. Betty Furness. Virginia Graham. Burl Ives. Mike Wallace. Earl Wilson. Walter Winchell. John Cameron Swayze. Sam Levenson.
“A Face in the Crowd Movie: Star + Screenplay Thwart Drama” review text © Dan Schneider; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
“A Face in the Crowd Movie: Star + Screenplay Thwart Drama” is a condensed/revised version of Dan Schneider’s text currently found in its original form here.
“A Face in the Crowd Movie” endnotes
Andy Griffith and Patricia Neal A Face in the Crowd movie images: Warner Bros.
“A Face in the Crowd Movie: Star + Screenplay Thwart Drama” last updated in September 2021.