Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked Movies: A Face in the Crowd

(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.


Ed Gorman said...

When I was fourteen I read What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg and became a fan for life even though I later learned that he named names to HUAC and Joe McCarthy. I saw this in a theater the day it opened and then went back twice more. I was sixteen. I always used this as a benchmark and measured a lot of later films against it. "Happy Days" crapola has led bad historians to look back on the 50s as a snoozer. It wasn't and there were people like Schulberg and Kazan (who named a LOT of names to Uncle Joe) who fought against it. I think this is a fine film but I'd suggest for an even better one from the year following "The Sweet Smell of Success." A very good movie night would be watching these two back to back. Excellent review, James. Thanks. Ed

Todd Mason said...

The only weak spots for me were that Neal's character goes along with the gag as long as she does (but, sadly, her life with Roald Dahl might've informed that as much as iy did her performance in HUD), and the ease of what happens at conclusion. Griffiths was often better than his other scripts.

Did you see this Schuiberg item? http://socialistjazz.blogspot.com/2011/04/budd-schulberg-on-face-in-crowd-tv.html

James Reasoner said...

That's an excellent article, Todd. Thanks for the link.

Ed, I don't think I've ever seen THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS. I will, though.