(This post originally appeared in different form on September 28, 2010.)
When I was a kid I was a big fan of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW on TV, as most people were in the early Sixties. I also liked the movie NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS, where Griffith played an affable country boy in the Army. I’d also heard some of his comedy bits on the radio, such as “What It Was, Was Football”. But somehow I never got around to watching his film debut, which was much, much different from those other things. I’m talking, of course, about A FACE IN THE CROWD.
At first glance, Griffith plays a similar character in this one, a grinning, guitar-playing, yarn-spinning good ol’ boy from a small town in Arkansas. He’s discovered in the drunk tank by a local radio personality played by Patricia Neal, who does a man-in-the-street show called “A Face in the Crowd” on her uncle’s small-market radio station. In short order, Griffith’s character, Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, becomes a radio star, then a TV star on a station in Memphis, and then the networks come calling and he heads off to New York to become the biggest thing on nationwide television, eventually wielding such power over his fans that he may well be able to determine who’s going to be the next President. Neal’s character goes along with him, as does a writer from the Memphis TV station played by Walter Matthau.
There are hints early on, though, that Lonesome Rhodes isn’t the friendly sort that he pretends to be. In fact, Griffith turns in a great performance as a character who’s actually rotten to the core, as big a heel as any to be found in an Orrie Hitt novel. A FACE IN THE CROWD is a very dark film, a bleak, almost vicious attack on the advertising business, the TV business, and America’s obsession with celebrities. Despite the Fifties trappings, it plays very much like it could have been made in today’s increasingly bitter climate.
This film was directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, and it reminds me in places of their earlier collaboration, ON THE WATERFRONT, especially the sense of despair that runs through it. Most of you have probably already seen A FACE IN THE CROWD, but if you haven’t, it’s well worth watching. It’s not what you’d call a likable film, but it is very well done.