Elia Kazan’s 1957 drama A Face in the Crowd, written by Kazan’s On the Waterfront collaborator Budd Schulberg, 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 that gets bogged down in soap-operatic didacticism and 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 (based on his own short story “Your Arkansas Traveler”) 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. (Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and Sidney Lumet’s Network – the former written by Paul D. Zimmerman, the latter by Paddy Chayefsky – would borrow elements from A Face in the Crowd.)
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. 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 the film. 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.
As for the basic plotline, A Face in the Crowd follows Rhodes’ discovery by Marcia Jeffries (Neal), a small-time radio show host from Pickett, Arkansas. Marcia accompanies the Arthur Godfrey-like entertainer as he quickly rises from his local Arkansas 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 Kennedy-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 Griffith was encouraged by Kazan 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 tenderness and decency in him when, on his Memphis television show, he brings on a black woman, 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.)
Now, also worth mentioning is another actor making his film debut, Anthony Franciosa, who plays 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 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
A FACE IN THE CROWD (1957). Director: Elia Kazan. Cast: Patricia Neal. Andy Griffith. Anthony Franciosa. Walter Matthau. Lee Remick. Percy Waram. Paul McGrath. Marshall Neilan. Alexander Kirkland. Kay Medford. Screenplay: Budd Schulberg; from his short story “Your Arkansas Traveler”
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.