A Face in the Crowd

With all the election talk on the news, I was reminded of a film I saw in high school that doesn't often get mentioned. It is A Face in the Crowd, a 1957 film starring Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal and Walter Matthau, that was directed by Elia Kazan. It has a script by Budd Schulberg, based on his short story "Your Arkansas Traveler".

The central character is Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes played by Andy Griffith, who  is so far away from the Sheriff Andy Taylor most people know from TV that it's worth watching just to see him in this kind of role *.

Lonesome is discovered by the producer (Neal) of a small-market radio program in rural northeast Arkansas. Rhodes ultimately rises to great fame and influence on national television.

Rhodes character was probably based partly on radio-TV star Arthur Godfrey. Both of them mock their own sponsors (which increased sales). Schulberg claimed to have based a significant part of the character's on Will Rogers, though not Rhodes' amorality and cruelty.

One scene I remember after all these years is when Rhodes's mocks his audience because he mistakenly assumed he was off the air - a situation that has actually occurred more than a few times to celebrities and politicians in the years since the film was released.

The film launched Griffith into stardom, but earned mixed reviews upon its original release. It has been rediscovered in the years since. I was invited to a screening in New York City in 1970 as a high school newspaper "film critic" and the film and experience made a big impression on me.

See if Rhodes shouting his folksy platitudes to an applause machine in his penthouse reminds you of any political candidates in recent times.

In 2008 A Face in the Crowd was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Watch some clips from the film as part of the "Critics’ Picks" series from The New York Times

* Footnote:
I also highly recommend seeing Griffith in Waitress (2007), a film written and directed by Adrienne Shelly. The lead there is Keri Russell as Jenna, a waitress in an abusive marriage who finds some release in making excellent pies named after her life experiences. Andy Griffith plays Joe, the grumpy owner of the diner and other local businesses, who takes a liking to her and encourages her to take her life in another direction. If you watch the DVD, be sure to watch the extra material after you watch the film. It will catch you in your throat as much as the film.