A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Directed and produced by Elia Kazan
Screenplay by Budd Schulberg, based on his short story “Your Arkansas Traveler”
Music by Tom Glazer
Cinematography by Gayne Rescher, Harry Stradling Sr.
Edited by Gene Milford
(2:06) Criterion Blu-ray
The Great Movies at the Severna Park Library
My introductory remarks at our Great Movies events usually touch on various aspects of the film we’re about to watch: its history, production, cast, director, or possibly the times/context in which the film was made. I did none of those things last Thursday for our July Great Movies event. Weeks earlier, in my email newsletter that goes out to our regular attenders, I laid out the basic premise of the film: A Face in the Crowd is the story of a drifter named Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith), whose talent and charisma are discovered by Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), producer of a small-town Arkansas radio show. Rhodes, propelled to stardom by making himself sympathetic to the common man, becomes enormously popular and powerful, so much so that his opinion could influence people in positions of tremendous power.
The night of the showing, I made my welcome to the audience and simply, “If you know Andy Griffith only from The Andy Griffith Show and Matlock, you’re in for a big shock. I first saw this movie in my 20s and thought it was one of the most important movies I’d ever seen. Over 30 years later, my opinion hasn’t changed. We’ll have a lot to talk about afterward, so please stick around for our discussion. Here now is Andy Griffith in A Face in the Crowd.”
During the first half-hour of the film, which includes Rhodes using his radio show to dismantle the authority of Sheriff Big Jeff Bess, the audience laughed as they should, but I felt a bit uneasy that they kept laughing, fearing they may think the entire film is one long joke. Many people in the audience had also been with me when I presented Network (1976) two months earlier as part of my What Were the ‘70s Trying to Tell Us? series. “They’re just going to see this as a precursor to Network,” I thought, which isn’t entirely inaccurate or inappropriate. The scene when Marcia and Rhodes prepare to depart Arkansas at the train platform would be crucial: if they laughed at this, I’d lost my audience. When Rhodes turns his back to his fans and boards the train, speaking to Marcia, “Boy, I’m glad to shake that dump,” I cringed at the audience’s laughter, but when they saw Marcia’s troubled reaction, things got very quiet.
As the film turned darker, I heard less laughter. As Rhodes begins to disintegrate, I could feel the viewers’ uneasiness, perhaps even their anger. From the back of our large meeting room, where I usually stand during screenings, I could hear someone speaking out loud. As I moved closer, I heard the voice getting louder, not shouting, but growing stronger. I recognized the man speaking as a regular library patron, one who had never spoken aloud during any of our previous movies. As Rhodes began to loose control, this man was clearly saying, “That’s you, Mr. President, that’s you!” I’ve known this guy for years and have a pretty good relationship with him, so I approached him and said, “We’ll all have a chance to talk about this afterward, but for now, I really need to you watch the movie without talking, okay?” He nodded and didn’t say any more, but I wondered how many people were right there with him.
When the film ended and I turned on the lights, I spoke a little about Elia Kazan and the House Committee on Un-American Activities, how Kazan named names, and faced the consequences of his actions. (If you’re unfamiliar with the Hollywood blacklist, I urge you to read more about it.) I mentioned that from that point, Kazan considered himself an outsider and felt he understood the outsider Lonesome Rhodes enough to tell his story. Yet Kazan also understood, echoing the Senator in the film, “The masses have to be guided by a strong hand by a responsible elite… In TV, we have the greatest instrument for mass persuasion in the history of the world.”
I concluded by reading a portion of the review of the recent Criterion Blu-ray by Dr. Svet Atanasov:
Rhodes is not a monster. He is just a disposable puppet that is allowed to grow only because it serves the needs of the real monster, which is the media machine whose giant tentacles have successfully penetrated millions of homes across the country. This is precisely the reason why Kazan repeatedly shoots him in compromising situations where it becomes painfully obvious that he does not have the killer instincts to survive on his own.
After that, I simply said to the audience, “What did you think about the movie?”
No one said a word. Nothing.
This went on for several seconds, then people started looking at each other, hoping - or may dreading - that someone would be bold enough to get the conversation started. Several more seconds passed before someone said something like, “Well, it’s where we are, isn’t it?”
Some general comments followed, mostly about the performances (One woman said she’d never look at Sheriff Andy Taylor the same way again) and the excellent writing. Another person mentioned that Rhodes was simply a pawn in a much bigger game, yet a game that they all bought into, and we continue to buy into.
One audience member said she appreciated how Kazan doesn’t let anyone off the hook in this film: everyone is culpable and shares in the blame. Marcia may be the most sympathetic character and the hero of the film, having both created and destroyed Rhodes, yet Neal’s performance is so brilliant it can easily get overlooked. None of us want to own up to having any part in the creation of a Lonesome Rhodes, but few of us will ever have to bear the load of blame quite like Marcia does.
The discussion drifted to the power of the media and choices we make, to pay attention or not pay attention to it, which is sometimes not only difficult, but unavoidable. “Watch what people do,” someone said, “not what they say.” Familiar words, practically clichéd, but still valid. “This movie should play on every channel around the clock,” another person said.
After the movie, one of my regular attenders told me, “The movies you program always make me think. Sometimes they make me uncomfortable, but they always make me think.” They make me uncomfortable, too, and most of the time, they’re movies I can’t stop thinking about. I believe that no one who sees A Face in the Crowd will ever forget it and I have to also believe that after last Thursday, this small group will look at the world - and the people the world constantly puts before us - in a different way.
Here’s my constant plea: Watch movies. Talk about them afterward. If your local library isn’t programming movies, ask them to do so. If they are, ask them if they will allow time for discussions afterward. And please do me a favor: report back to me and let me know how it’s going.
Photos: DVD Beaver, Flashbak, Awards Circuit