DVD Review Of A Face In The Crowd
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/16/12
Elia Kazan’s 1975 black and white film A Face In The Crowd is neither the lost masterpiece its champions claim, nor is it the film worthy of totally being forgotten that it was for many decades. It’s a good, but manifestly flawed film, starting with the too over the top performance by Andy Griffith, in his film debut as Larry ‘Lonesome’ Rhodes, a homespun philosopher ala Will Rogers, who rises from drunken jailbird to national kingmaker in a tale that weaves together strands from films as diverse as Citizen Kane, The King Of Comedy, and Network. It’s a film that does have some marvelous performances- a conflicted Patricia Neal and reserved Walter Matthau- but its screenplay, which starts off strong, as a satire of American television, stupidity, and consumerism (in the Eisenhower era, no less) bogs down into soap operatic didacticism, culminating in an over the top ending to the film.
The film’s screenplay was written by Budd Schulberg, adapted from his own short story, Your Arkansas Traveler. Like Kazan, Schulberg was outcast in Hollywood after he finked to the House Un-American Activities Committee, but in 1957 the Leftist element had yet to attain the power to do to them what McCarthy and they had done to Communist sympathizers. He and Kazan had become friends after their HUAC experiences, and had produced On The Waterfront previously. His story, though, seems stretched exceedingly thin, and making a point once never seems to be enough- it has to be hammered in two or three or more times. The cinematography, by Gayne Rescher, is solid, but, given that the film was made in a 16:9 aspect ratio, there is nothing visually spectacular about the 125 minute long film. The same is true with the minimal musical scoring, although the soundtrack, by Tom Glazer, has some nice moments during clips from the television shows that Rhodes appears on.
The film follows Rhodes’ discovery by Marcia Jeffries (Neal), a small time radio show host, from Pickett, Arkansas, and follows him very quickly up the ladder of fame, from his own local Arkansas radio show, to a television show in Memphis, to a national television show, ala Arthur Godfrey, to covers on Life and Look magazines, to his introduction into the world of advertising- he makes a pep pill called Vitajex seem like the Viagra of the 1950s (via some slyly sexual television commercials), and seems intent on making political connections, too. He wants to put the Senator of his own choosing in the White House. That this vision of television’s power came a few years before the Kennedy-Nixon 1960 Presidential debate, when no national television candidate had ever used the power of television as the Senator in this film, shows how ahead of its time the film was. Rhodes seems sincere, at first, but as his past comes to light, and his womanizing never changes, he alienates friends and employees, such as his gag writer, Mel Miller (Matthau) who eventually pens a book intent on bringing him down, called Demagogue In Denim. Yet, through it all, Marcia never leaves him. She loves him, even though he lies to and cheats on her- he had a wife he never fully divorced and eventually marries an underaged, but sexy, high school baton twirler, Betty Lou (Lee Remick, also in her film debut). Miller, who is in love with Marcia, tries to persuade her that Rhodes is sick, if not evil and/or sociopathic. And, given that Griffith was encouraged by Kazan to go over the top, this is an unfortunate possibility in the character, which would have been much better served had it been underplayed, allowing the audience to guess at whether or not Rhodes was evil, or merely succumbing to fame, money, and power. After all, we do see some initial tenderness and decency in him when, on his Memphis television show, he actually brings a black widow on, telling his viewers her house burnt down, and asking people to donate a quarter each. Even white people send money in. Whether or not this was believable, in reality, is not likely, but diegetically it reveals Rhodes as more complex than the caricature the film makes him out to be. Also telling is his initial train trip out of Pickett, to Memphis, when he mutters, under his breath, that he’s glad to shake that dump, meaning the town. Neal looks at him with surprise and disgust, but like many of the callous things he later does, she ignores it, thus letting Rhodes spiral further and further out of control. His undoing, naturally, comes at the predictable hands of Marcia, determined to kill her own Frankenstein’s monster, who as the credits roll on his show, opens up the microphone, to let Rhodes’ bile over his audience be exposed. This causes his show to lose its sponsors, and allows the suck-up politicians to abandon him. Left alone in his penthouse, he summons Marcia to it. She arrives with Miller. He is ranting, as he uses a canned laughter and applause machine to punctuate his ravings. She finally tells him that she was the one who did him in. He still rants, as she leaves, and Miller tells him off, in one of the best, and most prescient, summaries of the vagaries of American fame ever written, and still applicable in the Internet and Reality TV Age. The pair drive off in a car, as Rhodes rants from his penthouse for Marcia to come back. Miller tells her he’s not the suicidal type, and they drive off.
Aside from the troika of main characters, the film is notable for its sympathetic portrayal of non-white Americans in the 1950s. Another actor worth mentioning is Tony Franciosa, yet another film debuting actor. He plays the smarmy ‘office boy’ pal of Rhodes, who dumps his job at a mattress company to manage Rhodes’ career, eventually betraying him by taking over 51% of his corporation and bedding Beyty Lou, who Rhodes sends back to Arkansas, yet promising to keep her on the payroll. He really reeks of slime, and even has another, younger version of Rhodes, Barry Mills (Rip Torn), waiting in the wings, before Rhodes’ fall is complete. The final fall is based on a New York radio show incident cum urban legend from a few years earlier, wherein a WOR children’s show host, named Uncle Don, is said to have thought he was off the air and said, ‘This is Uncle Don, saying good night. We're off. Good, that will hold the little bastards.’ Supposedly the radio host was fired. The film also features cameo appearances by noted 1950s media personalities, as diverse as Sam Levenson, Bennett Cerf, Burl Ives, John Cameron Swayze, Mike Wallace, Earl Wilson, and Walter Winchell.
The DVD, put out by Warner Brothers, is solid, and part of a 6 DVD package of films called Controversial Classics. There are only two extras given: the original theatrical trailer and a 30 minute documentary called Facing The Past, in which Schulberg, Griffith, and Neal, along with some scholars and behind the scenes contributors, speak of the film, its impact, and Elia Kazan. An audio commentary would have been most welcome, but this documentary is certainly good, and gives the viewer a real sense of what was going on in the minds of the film’s participants. Griffith’s scenery chewing, as example, is blamed upon Kazan’s theatrical penchant for more being more demonstrative, and Griffith relates the tale of how he was told to act naturally, especially in a seen where Lee Remick is eyeing him, at her baton twirling contest. Griffith said he was told to leer at her like any man who wanted to fuck her would.
The film flopped, financially, although it got mostly positive reviews. It then became one of those films that was ‘lost.’ That means its reputation grew the more people spoke in remembrance of it, mainly because of its then ahead of the curve take, not only on politics, but on sex, drugs, alcohol consumption (see the wild faux television commercials Rhodes makes), and its own skewering of then popular television programs, with its own versions of same. Thus, the reissue of the film had to sate its admirers, even if, it may not wholly win over as many new fans as its champions wish for. Still, A Face In The Crowd is worth seeing, less for any technical or artistic achievement, and more for its prescient place as a predictor of the power of television’s role in the decline of intelligent discourse in American society. It may have been too preachy and smug a film to be great, and it certainly has not dated well in many aspects outside of its predictive power, but, no one can deny that, in the main, it was absolutely right about where this nation was headed. And now that we’ve arrived, one wishes for a similar film that might elucidate a way out. God wot!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
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