Retro Reels: A Face In the Crowd (1957)

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Directed by the legendary Elia Kazan, and with a spot-on script by Budd Schulberg, A Face in the Crowd was not a huge hit when it first came out. Yet, in the sixty years since its release, A Face in the Crowd has proven to be quite prophetic with its relevant fusion of personality, media and politics.

Andy Griffith, in a stunning performance, plays Lonesome Rhodes, a drunken ne’er do well who is drying out in an Arkansas jail. He is discovered by Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) a local radio reporter. She is at the helm of a show called “A Face in the Crowd” and when she finds out Lonesome can sing, she singles him out for her radio program. Not only can Lonesome sing, he’s also a charismatic speaker, filled with folksy, down home charm.

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Before long Lonesome becomes one of the show’s most popular stars. What’s next? Why, television, of course, which at the time was the hot new medium. Lonesome kills on the first night, even helping a homeless family by raising money. Lonesome goes from being a nobody to a huge celebrity in a flash. And not only does Lonesome become a celebrity, he also becomes an advertising pitch man, opinion-making seer, and political kingmaker. Men want to be him, and women want to be with him. Even Marcia finds herself drawn romantically to Lonesome against her better judgment.

It’s not long before Lonesome’s success and sense of power goes to his head. He has enough sway with the American audience that he can influence everything from the vitamins they ingest to the political ideas they hold in their head. However, Lonesome isn’t exactly appreciative of his fawning fans, and he is quite contemptible of them when not on TV. Yet, the audience sees him as this wise “just folks” character that truly cares about them. Sadly, Lonesome is lazy, corrupt and unethical, and gets worse as he becomes more successful. Off-camera, Lonesome takes advantage of women, breaking their hearts (including Marcia’s), and continues to drink himself into oblivion.

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It all becomes too much for Marcia and the rest of the people who work on Lonesome’s TV show, which include Walter Matthau as Mel Miller, a nebbish-like script writer. Wanting to put an end to reveal Lonesome’s real personality, Marcia has the contemptible comments Lonesome makes about his audience (he calls them morons and idiots) audible to the people watching his show. Will Lonesome’s fans stick with him or turn against him? And is just possible that Lonesome will be replaced by someone else waiting in the wings?

As I mentioned Andy Griffith is amazing in his first film role. It’s hard to believe that he would become the kindly Andy Taylor of the The Andy Griffith Show just a few years later, or a few decades later, the wise lawyer on Matlock. Patricia Neal is also perfect as Marcia Jeffries, betrayed both romantically and professionally by Lonesome. Yet, this is no bitter careerist. She also takes responsibility for creating a TV monster.

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A Face in Crowd is just a meaningful today as it was back in 1957. In fact probably more so since the advent of tabloid journalism, cable news networks and gossipy websites like TMZ and Perez Hilton. A folksy politician can have nothing to say but get away with saying it all the time, you betcha. People are famous just for being famous receive record deals, movie roles, television shows, their own fashion lines and countless magazine covers. And I would be remiss not to mention the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is a former reality TV star. Will it ever end or was a movie like A Face in the Crowd only the beginning?

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