A Face in the Crowd
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Radio reporter Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) interviews a backwoods philosopher named Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith) at a southern jail and his down home wit, personality, and talent with a guitar impresses her. Soon, she begins to develop him as a radio personality and after his initial debut Lonesome quickly becomes a star of the airwaves. But as his radio fame grows, the singer/philosopher sets his sights on television. His Will Rogers-like appeal to audiences is perfectly captured by the TV cameras and soon transforms him into a powerful national celebrity. However, Lonesome has a dark side and it begins to emerge as his ego grows larger, eventually requiring Jeffries and her assistant Mel Miller (Walter Matthau) to take control of their "creation."
A potent message film about the power of celebrity in the mass media, A Face in the Crowd was not a big success when first released in 1957. Clearly ahead of its time, and certainly one of the first movies to question the influence of television, director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg's jaundiced view of TV now seems entirely prescient. In this modern age of American culture, where the confluence of media and politics has never been more tightly intertwined, there have been many media celebrities who have captured the attention and the imagination of the American populace, not by their message, but by how they look and sound on television. Kazan and Schulberg intended A Face in the Crowd to stand as a warning: when we turn on our television sets, radios, or exercise our right to vote, we should be wary of the specter of Lonesome Rhodes. It is a warning that still rings true today.
In Kazan on Kazan by Michael Ciment, the director commented on A Face in the Crowd: "One of the points we wanted to make with the picture was the fantastic upward mobility in this country, the speed with which a man goes up and down. That we both knew well, because we'd both been up and down a few times. It's best illustrated in the film when he goes down in the elevator. We were thinking of suicide at one time, but we abandoned it....Our basic interest in this picture was Lonesome Rhodes as a legend. It was to make a legendary figure of him, and to warn the public: look out for television. Remember, this was Eisenhower's time, and Eisenhower won the elections because everybody looked at him and said: "There's Grandpa!" We're trying to say: never mind what he looks like, never mind what he reminds you of, listen to what he's saying....We were also saying, however, that television is a good thing. Abraham Lincoln said: 'Tell the people the truth, and they will decide what to do.' Well, we said that television is good for that - it's a better way. Television deludes some people, exposes others."
A Face in the Crowd was filmed in various locations in Arkansas, Memphis, Tennessee, and New York City. It was in the 'Big Apple' that the production utilized the old Gold Medal Studio in the Bronx where D.W. Griffith and Thomas Ince made many of their pioneering pictures. But, if anything, the film's authentic milieu is due to the presence of a number of well-known television personalities playing themselves, such as Mike Wallace, Bennett Cerf, John Cameron Swayze, Betty Furness, Sam Levenson, Virginia Graham, and Walter Winchell. The film is also notable for launching the film careers of Andy Griffith and Lee Remick, both making their screen debuts here.
At the time of its release, A Face in the Crowd received a lukewarm welcome from the public and critics alike. Both its reputation has improved considerably over the years and French director Francois Truffaut was a champion of the film, writing, " What is important is not its structure but its unassailable spirit, its power, and what I dare call its necessity. The usual fault with 'honest' films is their softness, timidity and anesthetic neutrality. This film is passionate, exalted, fierce, as inexorable as a 'Mythology' of Roland Barthes - and, like it, a pleasure for the mind."
Producer/Director: Elia Kazan
Screenplay: Budd Schulberg, based on his story "The Arkansas Traveler"
Cinematography: Gayne Rescher, Harry Stradling, Jr.
Editing: Gene Milford
Music: Tom Glazer
Art Direction: Paul Sylbert, Richard Sylbert
Cast: Andy Griffith (Lonesome Rhodes), Patricia Neal (Marcia Jeffries), Anthony Franciosa (Joey Kiely), Walter Matthau (Mel Miller), Lee Remick (Betty Lou Fleckum), Percy Waram (Colonel Hollister).
by Scott McGee