Covering politics in North Carolina and beyond, VoterRadio.com is streaming 24 hours a day. Listen live or on-demand.
ABOVE: The theatrical trailer for Andy Griffith's 'A Face in the Crowd' (released 1957 by Warner Bros.)
This is the first installment of the ongoing series “Washington Goes to Hollywood,” examining depictions of American politics in popular culture.
The prescient vision of Andy Griffith's 'A Face in the Crowd'
By Bryan Warner
Published: July 16, 2010
RALEIGH - There is nothing novel about those who lust for power using art and technology to transfigure themselves as icons. Emperors commanded bronze to be forged in their image. Royalty commissioned painters to immortalize them with brush and oil. The printing press was employed to bend reality to the will of rulers.
But of all communication advances, it may be television that has proven the most potent -- and perilous -- when it comes to marshalling popular will. That is the message of director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg in their astonishingly prescient film "A Face in the Crowd."
A Face in the Crowd
(Warner Bros., 1957)
Director: Elia Kazan
Screenwriter: Budd Schulberg
Starring: Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Anthony Franciosa, Walter Matthau, Lee Remick
Andy Griffith gives a riveting, breathtaking performance as Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, a drifter-turned-celebrity, or as one observer puts it, a demagogue in denim.
Plucked from obscurity in an Arkansas jailhouse by local radio producer Marcia Jefferies (Patricia Neal) while recording her program "A Face in the Crowd," Griffith's Rhodes swiftly becomes a favorite among listeners for his homespun humor and folksy music. Soon enough Rhodes catches a glimmer of his newfound power, persuading his listeners to mischievously swarm the lawn of the town's oafish sheriff with packs of hounds.
From the Arkansas backwater, Rhodes, accompanied by his "Girl Friday" Jefferies, makes his way to Memphis television, where his full-body laugh and cutting mockery of the program's sponsors further intoxicates the masses and turns him into a regional icon.
It's in Memphis that two more players join the Lonesome Rhodes caravan: Mel Miller (Walter Matthau), an acerbic writer who sees through the stagecraft of his program's star, and Joey DePalma (Anthony Franciosa), a duplicitous and ambitious peon who becomes an agent for Rhodes.
DePalma's bluff and bluster with New York advertisers paves the path for Rhodes' arrival in the Big Apple, where he is given a nationally televised variety show sponsored by "Vitajex," a modern-day snake oil remedy -- and a good fit for Rhodes' brand of faux folksiness.
Rhodes' cult of personality sweeps the nation, landing him on the cover of glossy magazines, having a ship christened after him and a snowcapped summit dubbed "Mt. Rhodes." All of the hype prompts a sullen Miller to remark, "It's dangerous -- power. You've got to be a saint to stand all the power that little box can give you."
The wealthy proprietor of Vitajex, General Haynesworth (Percy Waram), soon takes Lonesome Rhodes under his wing with the intention of turning him into his own version of Will Rogers to be used as "a force" and as "an institution as sacred to the nation as the Washington Monument."
The aim is to pivot on Rhodes' appeal with average American voters in order to push the presidential aspirations of Haynesworth's political ally, Sen. Worthington Fuller, known as "the last of the isolationists."
Haynesworth hardly sees television as the epitome of Jacksonian democracy, but rather an opiate of the masses, to be used for his own cynical pursuits.
"My study of history has convinced me that in every strong and healthy society, from the Egyptians on, the mass has to be guided with a strong hand by a responsible elite," Haynesworth informs Rhodes. "Let us not forget that in TV we have the greatest instrument for mass persuasion in the history of the world."
The scene in which Lonesome coaches the avuncular, stodgy Fuller (whom he nicknames "Curly" for his "fine head of skin") is a pitch-perfect depiction of the unholy union between Madison and Pennsylvania Avenues. When one of the bland Fuller's acolytes insists that the senator is respected, Rhodes barks back, "Have you ever heard of anyone buying a product because they respect it? You got to be loved!"
And so Rhodes and his cohorts set about transforming the senator into a man of the people, instructing him to ditch his Siamese cat in favor of a dog, since "it didn't do Roosevelt any harm, Dick Nixon, either." It's all in an effort "to find 35 million buyers for the product we call Sen. Fuller."
With the rise of Rhodes' fame comes the leavening of Sen. Fuller's poll numbers. Scanning the New York skyline from his towering penthouse apartment, Rhodes glowers, "This whole county's just like my flock of sheep. I'm gunna be the power behind the president."
Indeed, General Haynesworth convinces the would-be president Fuller to plan a new cabinet-level position for Rhodes: secretary for national morale. The ploy of using Rhodes' celebrity as a political vehicle works, for a time. Like any Shakespearian tragedy, the antihero of this tale is ultimately hewn down by his own hubris and folly, and with it comes crashing the White House hopes of his client.
The film is a revelation to any longtime viewer of idyllic reruns of "The Andy Griffith Show," for here Griffith is a million miles from Mayberry. He plays a man that is at turns charming, menacing and infantile. He at once burns to be loved by his public, but despises them for their blind affection.
This may be his best dramatic performance -- a bold statement, to be sure, made all the more so by the fact that this was Griffith's first lead role as a film actor, a craft for which he had received little formal training.
What makes the movie most potent is how prophetic it seems today. The film was released three years before the watershed 1960 contest between Kennedy and Nixon that saw the first-ever televised presidential debate. The power of television in politics has grown exponentially since, making and breaking many a political career and becoming the prism through which Americans view their democracy.
Although director Kazan paints a pessimistic picture of the manipulative ways of politics and mass marketing that reveals both to be interchangeable, the film ends on a hopeful note of sorts, unexpectedly delivered by Matthau's hard-boiled writer.
"We get wise to them," he says. "That's our strength. We get wise to them."