Face in the Crowd, A (1957): Kazan on Celebirty and Political Process, Starring Andy Griffith and Patricia Neal

Director Elia Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg, who had collaborated successfully on the 1954 Oscar winner On the Waterfront, team effectively again in A Face in the Crowd, a poignant film about fame, celebrity status, and the political process.

Our Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

Andy Griffith made an unforgettable screen debut in this film as Lonesome Rhodes, a country singer, a folk philosopher.  Initially, he is discovered by Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), who makes him a star by placing him on her local TV station in Arkansas. When he graces Jeffries’ show with a spontaneous rendition of “I’ll Be a Free Man in the Morning,” she asks him to be a regular.

Rhodes’ down-home wit and backwater jokes begin to gain a wide audience, and the state’s largest stations picks up his show. This is followed by seductive offer from a network–until his face and voice are seen and heard throughout the country.  Soon, his homespun wisdom spreads around and becomes the creed of the masses.

An ambitious office worker at the mattress company, Joey DePalma, puts together a deal for Rhodes to star in a new TV show in NY. The sponsor is Vitajex, an energy supplement which Rhodes reimagines as a yellow pill marketed as a male enhancement product.

As Rhodes’ fame, influence, and ego grow, he is enlisted to improve the appeal of Presidential hopeful Senator Worthington Fuller of California, and rebrands the stuffy conservative as an everyman with a folksy nickname.

In contrast to his friendly onscreen persona, Rhodes in private life has become an egomaniac who berates his staff. Marcia’s hopes of marrying Rhodes are dashed, first when a woman turns up claiming to be Rhodes’ legitimate wife, and then when Rhodes returns from alleged divorce proceedings in Mexico, newly married to a 17-year-old drum majorette, Betty Lou Fleckum (played by Lee Remick in her impressive screen debut).

Rhodes and Marcia enter into a business transaction, a profit-sharing agreement, after she reminds him of her role in his success (“I made you”).

However, along with success come ruthless power and insensitive personality. Jeffries and her assistant, the cynical newsman Mel Miller (played by Walter Matthau before he became a prominent star) soon realize that good old “Lonesome Rhodes” is not the rural savant he used to be—or the man they could easily manipulate.

The film is effective in depicting how Rhodes’ ascent into fame and arrogance ultimately turns on him. Joey has an affair with Rhodes’ young wife; Rhodes dumps her, but cannot get out of his business arrangement with Joey, who threatens to reveal Rhodes’ own secrets.

Marcia, who has come to regret her role in making him famous, decides to destroy him.  She activates a live microphone over the end credits of his TV show that reveals Rhodes contempt for Fuller and the station’s “idiot” viewers. As a result, his popularity instantly plummets.

Upon return to his penthouse, where he was scheduled to address the nation’s business and political elite, Rhodes finds the room empty. He discovers the truth during a call with Mel and Marcia and threatens suicide, but Marcia only goads him on.

When the pair arrive at Rhodes’ home, they confess everything and Marcia demands he never call her again. Before leaving, Mel lays out a prediction regarding Rhodes’ future: his career is not completely over, and he will likely find further TV work soon, but he will never again enjoy the same level of popularity.

In the end, Rhodes screaming impotently for Marcia to return, but she and Mel ignore him as they depart into the night.

Griffith, who made an impression on Broadway with No Time for Sergeants, plays the intriguing character of Lonesome Rhodes with passion and conviction.

Neal is well cast, excelling in combining the tough and businesslike but also vulnerable aides of a TV producer snared by the hillbilly philosopher.

As the critic J. Hoberman has observed, Face in the Crows was prophetic in being the first film to dramatize the intricately symbiotic relationship between popular culture and electoral politics.

Cast

Lonesome Rhods (Andy Griffith)

Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal)

Joey Kiely (Anthony Franciosa)

Mel Miller (Walter Matthau)

Betty Lou Fleckum (Lee Remick)

Colonel Hollister (Percy Waram)

Beanie (Rod Brasfield)

Mr. Luffler (Charles Irving)

J.B. Jeffries (Howard Smith)

Macey (Paul McGrath)

 

Credits:

Produced and distributed by Warner Bros.

Produced and directed by Elia Kazan
Screenplay by Budd Schulberg, based on his story, “Your Arkansas Traveler.”
Music by Tom Glazer
Cinematography (b/w): Gayne Rescher and Harry Stradling Sr.
Edited by Gene Milford
Release date: May 28, 1957
Running time: 125 minutes