A Face in the Crowd: “The American nightmare, years ahead of its time”
An American television institution from the days before American sitcoms were the backbone of Channel Four, most Britons will be familiar with The Andy Griffith Show through its cultural after-effects, rather than the show itself. This writer first heard of it via the distorting mirror of ‘Floyd the Barber’, the acid parody on Nirvana’s debut album Bleach, where the friendly characters of Griffith’s Mayberry turn out to be rapists and murderers. It’s not, frankly, Kurt Cobain’s most insightful lyric; if you want a truly devastating parody of Andy Griffith’s screen persona, you have to turn to, er, Andy Griffith in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, newly issued on Blu-Ray by Criterion UK.
Griffith plays Larry Rhodes, a country singer discovered in an Arkansas jail by Patricia Neal’s radio producer Marcia Jeffries. Punningly rechristened Lonesome Rhodes, he builds up a following on Tennessee radio encouraging his listeners to play mischievous pranks on local dignitaries. There is a terrible, churning anger in Rhodes, but once the recording light is on he can channel it into anarchic, entertaining broadcasting. As this makes him more and more of a celebrity, he finds himself drawn into politics, and one of America’s most beloved TV comedians gets the chance to play one of its most terrifying film villains.
A Face in the Crowd is written by Budd Schulberg, who previously scripted Kazan’s multi-Oscar-winning On the Waterfront. Schulberg was inspired by meeting Will Rogers Jr., who claimed his father’s folky television persona was a facade. Students of early American TV scandals will also notice allusions to Arthur Godfrey, whose nice-guy image was ruined by on-air feuds and allegations of philandering, and a famous urban myth about Don Carney (“that oughta hold the little bastards!”). What is truly remarkable about A Face in the Crowd, though, is not its historical context but its prophetic quality. An early skirmish sees a mattress company pull their sponsorship from Lonesome Rhodes’s show, until they realise the scandal is a win-win: Rhodes burnishes his credentials as a truth-teller too hot for the moneymen, while the mattress company become the most talked-about brand in Memphis, their sales buoyed by Rhodes’s fans buying mattresses to burn in protest. Exactly the same dynamic played out in late 2017 between the Fox News host Sean Hannity and the home coffee makers Keurig.
So, for a 62-year-old film, this is an unexpectedly good counterpart to Hbomberguy’s YouTube essay ‘Woke Brands: A Measured Response’. Its political nous is even more surprising considering Kazan and Schulberg were still pariahs to a lot of the American left following their decision to name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee. One of Criterion’s extras is devoted to examining Kazan’s political evolution, stressing that his co-operation with HUAC was based not on any break with the left, but rather his acceptance of the premise that the American Communist Party was an immediate threat to the US government. There are some scenes in A Face in the Crowd which specify the political figures courting Rhodes are conservatives, railing against the ‘entitlement’ of citizens wanting unemployment benefits and state pensions. The meat of the film, though, is about Rhodes’s exploitation of the media to gain power, and this feels as applicable to a left-wing populist like Huey Long as it does a pro-fascist demagogue like Father Charles Coughlin. It may be that, even here, Kazan is working through his feelings on the Red Scare and its aftermath.
“Even” because On the Waterfront is the only Kazan film that regularly gets read as commentary on HUAC. Despite its bulletproof American masterpiece status, I have to admit to being agnostic on that movie. It’s hard to understand why anyone would follow Lee J Cobb’s thuggish union boss Johnny Friendly, therefore his followers look like idiots, therefore the whole movie becomes Saint Brando versus a mob of morons. It’s easy to see why Kazan, wounded by the Left turning on him, would be unwilling to make a corrupt union boss into an even slightly sympathetic monster, but it makes the film unsatisfyingly Manichean.
A Face in the Crowd does not have this problem. When the film’s portrait of evil is filtered through Andy Griffith in full-on, boisterous comic voice, it’s disturbingly easy to work out why audiences instinctively side with Lonesome Rhodes in his many, many feuds. It’s incredible that this ferocious, screen-filling lead was Griffith’s first ever film role – even more daring, considering Rhodes’s use of down-home Southern charm to sugar the pill of his demagoguery brings the part close to self-criticism. But then, as the interviews on this disc show, Griffith was always a smarter, more subversive person than his TV work would have you believe. The Andy Griffith Show might have been a love letter to small-town America, but he wasn’t unaware of the darker side of the Deep South. That sensibility is vented to unforgettable effect in this astonishing, prescient film.