When I think of old movies, I typically see idealism at the fore, which in today’s jaded age often seems overly earnest and even trite. Then I stumble on gems like SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, ON THE BEACH, SPARTACUS and NETWORK, and I think, WOW, they really knew how to make movies then. Movies about powerful ideas. Movies where the words mattered as much as the visuals. All steak with just the right amount of sizzle. Movies you feel like your brain eats.
A FACE IN THE CROWD (1957) is one of those movies. The film stars Andy Griffith in his first screen role, who tears apart every scene with an incredible performance, along with Patricia Neal, Walter Mathau and Lee Remick. It also features cameos with contemporary media personalities such as Mike Wallace. This is an Andy Griffith unlike any episode of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW. Forget the kindly sheriff. This guy is an amazing actor who creates a vivid character of a cunning country boy who plays his fans and handlers expertly and would have the entire country dancing to his tune. He gets used by the powerful, but he’s really using them to get what he wants, which is a sense of self-worth and importance.
The story begins with Marcia (the adorable Patricia Neal), who works for her uncle’s radio station in Arkansas. She hosts a show called A FACE IN THE CROWD, in which she goes out among ordinary folk looking for local songs and stories In a county jail, she finds Larry Rhodes (Griffith), a charismatic drifter who blows her away with a song he makes up on the spot about being a free man again the next morning. He won’t tell her his first name at first, so she dubs him Lonesome Rhodes.
Marcia brings Lonesome Rhodes into her studio, where she gives him a morning show. Soon, he’s not only building a fan base with his wit and charm–his way of connecting with ordinary people–but also discovering that he can influence people. It’s his first taste of power, and he likes it.
Soon, Rhodes is hired to do a TV show in Memphis, and Marcia comes with him. There, he uses his power to jab the powerful, including his sponsor, a mattress company. When he loses the sponsor and his TV program, he is brought to New York to do an even bigger show with a sponsor he endorses fully, a manufacturer of energy pills for men that are basically snake oil. Soon, Rhodes is hobnobbing with and serving the rich and powerful he once harpooned.
From there, Rhodes gets bigger and bigger, and so does his ego. He gets another TV show, “The Cracker Barrel,” in which he and some other average folk (paid actors) talk about politics and push certain ideas. The powerful recruit him to push a right wing political candidate for President. He’s told, “The masses have to be guided by the strong hand of a responsible elite.” Rhodes doesn’t care about ideology, however–only his chance to wield even more influence and gain even more power. He tells Marcia–who loves him but hates what he’s become–about his relationship with his enormous following: “They’re mine! I own ’em! They think like I do–but they’re even more stupid than I am. So I gotta think for ’em.”
Like NETWORK, for an old movie, A FACE IN THE CROWD is extremely prescient, and like any classic, its ideas stand the test of time and are as relevant today as they were in the 1950s, possibly even more so.
You can watch the entire movie on YouTube. Here’s the trailer: