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A Face in the Crowd

A Face in the Crowd(1957)


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This is not Opie's father's Andy Griffith.

I'd pay good money to see the dropping jaws of people who know Griffith only from his "nice" roles on TV's Andy Griffith Show and Matlock as they experience the new DVD showing him in his greatest and most uncharacteristic role, in 1957's A Face in the Crowd. Sure, Griffith is plenty folksy as Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, the down-and-out drifter with the ear-to-ear smile and wide-eyed leer who becomes a big-headed radio and TV star in Elia Kazan's Budd Schulberg-written 1957 movie. But he's much more than folksy. He's sexual. He's nasty. He's in-your-face, at-your-throat dangerous.

Lonesome is the discovery of Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), the Eastern-educated niece of the owner of Pickett, Arkansas' radio station. She heads to the Tomahawk County jail to interview inmates for her radio show A Face in the Crowd, and discovers Lonesome, pulled in for being drunk and disorderly the night before. The entire movie depends on Griffith's performance knocking us out during his early scenes, when hungover Lonesome takes a slug from a pint of hooch, straps on his guitar and wails a tune celebrating his imminent freedom. We feel charisma, passion and talent every bit as strongly as Marcia and the radio audience subsequently do. We never doubt for a second why she might encourage her uncle (Howard Smith) to give Lonesome a morning show or why Pickett's townfolks might instantly take to that show. As I said above, Griffith isn't just amusing and charismatic here, he's dangerous, taunting his jailers, eying attractive Marcia like the proverbial one-eyed cat peeping in a seafood store and pouring out emotion in quantities some would call unhealthy. He's a beast rattling his cage. And this is Griffith's very first sequence on the big screen. He'd had success as a comic monologist (check out 1953's hilarious What it Was Was Football) and in the stage and live-TV productions of the service comedy No Time for Sergeants (a movie adaptation followed A Face in the Crowd).

Lonesome's rise and fall provides the arc of the story, and his path to the power center of the country allows Schulberg to comment on the increasing role of television and media in our lives. Once Lonesome and Marcia leave Pickett, first for a TV show in Memphis and then a national show in New York, not everyone who takes him under his or her wing is as generous in intention as Marcia. They have more in mind than just filling up the 7-8 early bird spot on a Podunk radio station's schedule. They want to convince people to buy products and, eventually, ideas. The Lonesome we met in the jailhouse and in Pickett might have told them what to do with their products and ideas. But after innocently discovering the power of his popularity in Arkansas, when he turns the town against the sheriff (who was hoping to become the next mayor), and then getting a bigger and bigger taste of adulation and money, Lonesome slowly becomes corrupted. Eventually, he turns from corrupted to corruptter. He falls under the spell of his sponsor, a fascistic pharmaceutical tycoon (Percy Waram) who thinks the masses need to be guided by an "elite" that he wants Lonesome to be part of. Eventually, Lonesome "media coaches" the stuffy senator (Marshall Neilan) the tycoon is backing for president and begins starring in a self-serving new TV program in which he spouts canned ideas to a cast of yes-men hayseeds. But Lonesome's loss of the real human spark we saw in the Arkansas jailhouse is clear in more mundane ways, too, like the applause sign aiding audience response on the national show.

The sheer realism Kazan brings to the opening Arkansas action, by often featuring real exteriors and locals - Sheriff Big Jeff Bess is played by a guy named Big Jeff Bess, presumably the real sheriff - adds credibility to the more conventional action of the second half. As in many of Frank Capra's movies, Schulberg and Kazan¿s depiction of the public as one single, sometimes gullible being is a little troubling. It shows some of the same contempt Lonesome ends up having for his public. Still, Lonesome is an amazing Frankenstein monster for the TV age, with an insatiable taste for TV-aided power that causes him to twist that power from doing good for others (on his first Memphis show, he solicits donations for a woman whose house burned down) to doing what's good only for him and his cronies.

But, in a sense, A Face in the Crowd is as much Marcia's story as it is Lonesome's. We see her first and last, and she's the person who both discovers and exposes Lonesome in the very dramatic climax. Once again, the performer puts the character over as perhaps no one else could have. For a spell in time, I don't think any Hollywood actress had as potent a combination of sensuality and smarts, strength and vulnerability, as Patricia Neal. Bookend A Face in the Crowd with 1963's Hud, in which her character physically and mentally tangles with another ornery, self-centered man, and you've got the two great performances of Neal's career. Here, she convincingly portrays Marcia's very deep inner conflict. Marcia sticks with Lonesome, as his producer, friend and sometime lover, through different cities and different affronts to her affection, partly out of love and partly out of guilt for pulling him from the drunk tank and unleashing him on the world. As prescient as the movie's commentary about the marriage of entertainment and politics was for its time, that message is always filtered through the relationship of its two lead characters.

Although Kazan and supporting players Walter Matthau and Lee Remick are no longer with us, the DVD¿s outstanding half-dour documentary Facing the Past rounds up the surviving collaborators, including Schulberg, Griffith, Neal and Anthony Franciosa (the Franciosa interview clip appears to coming from a pre-existing interview). The doc does a great job of frankly detailing Kazan's and Schulberg's controversial history of cooperating with the House Un-American Activities Committee, with Neal bluntly commenting "I thought it was a bad thing for (Kazan) to do." I was unaware the two men didn't even know each other at the time, and it was only a letter of commiseration Schulberg wrote to Kazan that brought them together to do On the Waterfront and then A Face in the Crowd. The doc does an even better job of exploring Kazan's legendary talent for directing actors, thanks to colorful anecdotes by Griffith, who was an untrained actor unsure of himself at the time. He says Kazan told him, "If you think it and feel it hard enough, it will come out through your eyes, and the camera will see it," and gives two specific scenes as examples, which the doc smartly excerpts.

If A Face in the Crowd isn't the best DVD of the year, it's damn close.

For more information about A Face in the Crowd, visit Warner Video. To order A Face in the Crowd, go to TCM Shopping.

by Paul Sherman