We start off in the searing sunlight of an Arkansas day. A local radio producer, Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), drives to the jailhouse to record an episode of her morning feature A Face in the Crowd. “People are fascinating wherever you find them,” she enthuses into a microphone, before imploring the prisoners to offer a song, an anecdote, a funny story, anything. But she didn’t expect to find a person quite so fascinating as Larry Rhodes, a hobo with a guitar, who has been locked up overnight for drunkenness. He improvises a song – “Gonna be a free man in the morning” – and wow! This guy’s really got it going on.
Rhodes is played by Andy Griffith, which is the first clear masterstroke made by Elia Kazan’s 1957 movie, also called A Face in the Crowd. Griffith has a face that stands out not just from the crowd but from the screen – a hee-haw smile running all the way from one protruding ear to the other – and a voice to match it. He’d already made some all-laffin’ appearances on the popular Ed Sullivan Show. He’d performed alongside Elvis on the Steve Allen Plymouth Show. And in 1960 he’d get his own show that became one of America’s all-time favourites. What Marcia Jeffries sees in Larry Rhodes, real-life producers saw in Andy Griffith. He’s good, and he’s good for ratings.
What follows, for Rhodes, is a swift rise. Marcia gives him the forename “Lonesome”, and offers him a regular morning slot on her radio station. This isn’t just a position from which he can entertain people with an earthy mix of song and folk wisdom, but also influence them. One brilliant early scene has dozens of dogs running and yapping around a mayoral candidate’s garden – the people put them there because ol’ Lonesome Rhodes told them to. From there, it’s not long before bigger radio stations, advertisers and even the television networks take notice. Rhodes ends up in a New York penthouse, with millions of dollars and millions of viewers.
The joy of A Face in the Crowd film is in its breadth. Basically all of Kazan’s movies – from the tale of immigrant New York A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) to the pastoral Wild River (1960) – pick through the tapestry of American experience, but few take in as much as this film does. Its very story gives us rich and poor, prison and show business, the small town and the heaving metropolis. At times, it plays like a rockabilly musical. At others, it’s more like an episode of Mad Men. In its ambition and variety, and even for its quality, it bears comparison to Orson Welles’s rather more celebrated Citizen Kane (1941).
Credit must go to screenwriter Budd Schulberg. And, happily, it does – the opening titles mark this as “Budd Schulberg’s A Face in the Crowd”. It’s one of those screenplays that makes a mathematically precise argument about a time and a place, but never reduces its characters to mere ciphers. Take Rhodes himself. He’s revealed to be everything his radio persona isn’t – an uncaring, dishonest megalomaniac – as soon as a train delivers him away from Arkansas, and he says “I’m glad to shake that crowd”. But, although he gets worse from there, he’s never entirely to blame. Remember, it was Marcia – one of the film’s most sympathetic characters – who birthed the “Lonesome” phenomenon in the first place. And what about all those teevee executives and ad-men? They get what they want out of Rhodes, just as much as he gets what he wants.
So where does the politics come in? Towards the apex of Rhodes’ ascent, when he’s asked to make a would-be presidential candidate ready for public consumption. “We’ve got to face it, politics have entered a new stage, the television stage,” intones one character, immediately calling to mind our own televisual spectacle of PMQs. “Instead of longwinded debate, people want capsule slogans: ‘Time for a change’, ‘The mess in Washington’, ‘More bang for a buck’.” This politics-as-advertising is something that A Face in the Crowd seems to lament, but it also admits its effectiveness. Using Rhodes’ cheap methods, Senator Fuller more than triples his approval ratings.
It’s around this point that Rhodes’ rise becomes a fall, as he reaches out for everything and more, including a position in the presidential Cabinet. I shan’t spoil how his eventual comeuppance happens, except to say that, in the film’s final scene, the sun has now set. For Lonesome, this has been a long day’s journey into night. As one of the people who has been steamrollered along the way says, “his personality finally came through”.