Monday, September 07, 2009
The greatest instrument of mass persuasion in history
By Edward Copeland
When Budd Schulberg died last month, I felt bad that I didn't have time to write an appreciation. Then again, what would I have written? I've never read What Makes Sammy Run? and it had been quite some time since I'd seen A Face in the Crowd. Did I want to write solely about On the Waterfront? However, Elia Kazan's centennial was approaching, so I was planning to revisit A Face in the Crowd anyway. It was worth waiting, because the second teaming of Kazan and Schulberg may be the film both men will end up being remembered for or, at any rate, it should be. Schulberg not only wrote the screenplay for A Face in the Crowd, which was based on one of his short stories, "Arkansas Traveler," he even composed some of the songs Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith) sings in the films. Yes, any Keith Olbermann watchers out there confused when he refers to Glenn Beck as Lonesome Rhodes, this is the film from which the reference and the character originated. Patricia Neal plays Marcia Jeffries, host of an Arkansas radio program called "A Face in the Crowd" who believes, "People are fascinating wherever you find them." As the film opens, she takes her show into the county jail where she finds Rhodes, a surly man spending the night in the drunk tank with his guitar which he says "beats a woman any time." After being encouraged to entertain listeners with a tune, Rhodes makes an impression on Marcia and listeners and Marcia decides that Rhodes could be a sensation, giving him the nickname Lonesome. Marcia tracks Rhodes down as he's heading out of town following his release from jail and persuades him to delay his planned journey to Florida to try radio as a regular gig. It doesn't take long for Rhodes to realize the influence he can wield from his audio soapbox and he has a blast, attracting national attention and, before too long, an offer to transfer his show to television in Memphis. Rhodes acts sheepish and uncertain, but he knows exactly what he's doing and before long his audience and his stage is larger as he and Marcia make the move to Tennessee and he even inherits a a staff that includes writers such as Mel Miller (a great early turn by Walter Matthau), a well-educated cynic who soon recognizes Rhodes for what he really is and that he's selling out by working for him, but does it just the same. Marcia can't share Mel's opinion because she's found herself smitten with Rhodes, who's developed a dependency on her though he's a world class womanizer. Of course with television comes sponsors, and Rhodes doesn't take kindly to the on-air commercials he's supposed to do for a mattress company. Rhodes does do them, but in such a mocking, down home way that the business's owner goes ballistic and wants him fired, despite the fact that his silly attempts at "ads" crack up his audience and boost the mattress company's sales anyway. Besides, Rhodes has an ulterior motive at play. He's enlisted a sleazy New York agent (a spot-on turn by Anthony Franciosa who seems as if he's stepped off the set of the same year's Sweet Smell of Success) to secretly shop him around the Big Apple to find a national outlet. Sure enough, his ploy works and Rhodes is on his way to having a national following. The bigger he gets, the more he feels it's his place to tell his viewer how to think. As Matthau's character remarks at another point in the movie, "He has the courage of his ignorance." Rhodes is soon rubbing shoulders with corporate bigwigs, enthusiastically endorsing their products (the commercial they make for a product called Vitajax is priceless and like nothing you'd ever expect to see in an Elia Kazan film) and soon advising a right-wing Republican senator how to remake his image for a presidential run to make his isolationist and anti-Social Security ideas more palatable. He's introducing the concept of the political soundbite. In its own way, A Face in the Crowd is an ancestor to Paddy Chayefsky's Network. While funny, Crowd isn't as satirical or prescient as Network was in 1976. It's more straight-forward and of the moment, even if people weren't ready to admit it in 1957, despite cameos by real-life media figures such as John Cameron Swayze, Walter Winchell and Mike Wallace. "You have to be a saint to stand up to the power that little box can give you," Matthau tells Neal early on, but Rhodes was never a saint. He's not like Howard Beale, a good newsman who goes psychotic and is corrupted by television; Rhodes is corrupt to begin with. Still, A Face in the Crowd is pretty groundbreaking in its depiction of the convergence and intermingling of the media, corporate and political worlds. People who are only familiar with Andy Griffith as good old Sheriff Andy Taylor or Matlock are in for a shock when they meet Lonesome Rhodes. At one point, Rhodes says he puts his "whole self into everything he does" and that's what Griffith does with this performance. With a maniacal laugh which Kazan zooms into for closeups of its devilish grin, Griffith creates a funny charmer but never lets you forget the fraudulent asshole who lurks below. In fact, if you didn't see Kazan's credit, you might not even recognize A Face in the Crowd as a film he would have made. It's one of his loosest and least formal and moves with a fleetness often absent in most of his films. It's also funny which is an adjective that doesn't usually come to mind when describing Kazan's films. The film itself has a noirish look with crisp black and white cinematography by Gayne Rescher and Harry Stradling. After re-watching A Face in the Crowd, I was ready to watch it again and that's not something I can say about even Kazan's best films. Perhaps it's just because the media, particularly television news, has become such a joke capable of producing only sadness and anger knowing what a force for education and good it could be that makes films such as A Face in the Crowd and Network appeal to me in such a deep, profound way. Then again, it could just be that they are both examples of damn great movies with two of the best screenplays ever written and some of the most memorable performances ever placed on celluloid.