Andy Griffith commands the spotlight in film debut
At the time of Andy Griffith’s death July 3, most tributes cited his television portrayal of Sheriff Andy Taylor on “The Andy Griffith Show” as the role that turned him into unforgettable American icon. It is a just appraisal. “The Andy Griffith Show” (1960-1966), set in small-town Mayberry, N.C., was enormously appealing for its homespun values. Throughout its run the show never dipped out of the top 10. Griffith later tapped into that folksy, down-to-earth charm as a straight-talkin’ lawyer on the long-running TV series “Matlock” (1986-95).
Yet I argue Griffith’s acting talent—and what I consider his greatest legacy—is most evident in his 1957 film debut, A Face in the Crowd. Since the actor’s death I’ve rescreened the movie a number of times.
Why? I, along with many other critics, believe this screen work by director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg to be one of the great, under-appreciated sound motion pictures of the 20th century. I also think Griffith’s rendering of anti-hero Lonesome Rhodes, a drunken hobo who evolves into a television demagogue, remains one of the most powerful, engrossing, and prescient performances ever recorded on film.
From a critic’s point of view A Face in the Crowd displays the full spectrum of possibilities offered by motion picture art. It is a remarkable achievement from writing to directing to casting. Its aesthetics in cinematography, lighting, sound, and music are beyond compare. From a cultural and historical perspective, Schulberg’s screenplay foretells the unprecedented power of an emerging new medium. As one politically motivated character puts it, “In TV we have the greatest instrument of mass persuasion in the history of the world.”
The future is now
To illustrate this theme, Schulberg delivers the boozing rabble-rouser Lonesome Rhodes. During a stint in the local jail, he is discovered by small-town Arkansas radio personality Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) who hosts the human interest show “A Face in the Crowd.” She taps ratings gold when she records Rhodes philosophizing and plucking his guitar behind bars. “I’m 10,000 miles from home and don’t even know my name,” he sings. (Screenwriter Schulberg wrote the songs with score composer Tom Glazer.) Rhodes is so popular he gets his own timeslot on the radio and, in no time, he discovers the unique power he wields over his fans. At one point he commands admirers to hustle their dogs en masse to the home of his detested nemesis, the county sheriff.
Seemingly overnight, Rhodes evolves into a cultural phenomenon, noted far and wide. John Cameron Swayze and Walter Winchell (portraying themselves) report on his meteoric trajectory. Later we even see the very young U-M alumnus Mike Wallace conducting a “60 Minutes”-style interview.
Rhodes’ fame transcends radio and he accepts an offer to host a television version of “A Face in the Crowd.” In a particularly amusing, pure Andy Griffith scene, Rhodes encounters his first soundstage, complete with TV cameras, boom mics, and monitors. He peers into a camera lens and asks, “What is this? I’ve never seen one of these things before.” This scene of a country bumpkin reacting to an unknown world was precisely reminiscent of Griffith’s 1954 comic monologue “What It Was, Was Football” that catapulted the actor to fame. Google “Andy Griffith’s Football Story” to hear his account of a hayseed who wanders into a college football stadium and tries to assess what’s going on “down on the pasture.” The recording sold nearly a million units, caught the attention of talent agents, and landed Griffith in the 1955 Broadway production of Ira Levin’s No Time for Sergeants.
On television Rhodes’ fame and power reach new heights, abetted by adoring studio audiences who roar with approval when he mocks the commercial sponsors of his show. Arrogance and self-confidence swell. Big-time New York television comes next and Rhodes is a national success at selling commercial (even bogus) products. As his cohort Joey (Anthony Franciosa) says, “Nothing is illegal unless you get caught.”
Suddenly, Rhodes is drawn into the role of media adviser to a rising presidential hopeful. The plan is to sway gullible voters by turning the lackluster senator into a folk icon just like Rhodes.
Complex, compelling, codependent
Each of these plotting arcs is shared with Neal’s character Jeffries, the sweet, beautiful, and intelligent radio producer who discovered Lonesome Rhodes in the first place. She remains by his side each step of the way, falls in love with him, and then finally suffers the painful revelation that she has helped to launch a megalomaniacal monster. On the ladder up, Rhodes says to Jeffries: “This whole country is like my flock of sheep. Only they’re more stupid, so I’ve got to think for them.”
To watch Griffith and Neal create these two magnetic and codependent characters is to witness one of the most complex and compelling screen relationships ever filmed. Griffith’s Rhodes is a paradox: a mix of soulless opportunism and utter charm. He has a smile so wide you can almost see his rear molars, a wealth of wavy black hair that screams virility, and penetrating eyes that persuade in a single glance. Neal’s portrayal of Jeffries is subtle, nuanced, psychological. Her eyes convey joy, then growing uncertainty. Soon we see agony and, finally, resolve.
“Jack Daniel’s was a character in the film”
Director Kazan was the ultimate actor’s director who was schooled in the Actors Studio’s method strategies, an approach that sought to combine an interior psychological attitude with acquired skills. The eventual goal of achieving a more naturalistic, realistic character interpretation is on full display in A Face in the Crowd. Beyond the two leads, we are treated to an amazing ensemble cast that features Walter Matthau, Anthony Franciosa, and Lee Remick. Kazan nurtured them all with his unique coaching methods. In the unforgettable climactic banquet sequence, for example, a drunken Rhodes goes mad. Kazan had liquor delivered to the set during the five-day shoot and encouraged Griffith to imbibe. The emotional power of this scene has to be seen to be appreciated.
Dark undercurrents at work
Another outstanding quality of the film is the creative use of light and shadow throughout its expressive black-and-white palate. For this reason, I would put A Face in the Crowd in a league with two other favorite black-and-white films, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) and Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). In each of these films the visual styling has a palpable noir quality that suggests the psychological undercurrents at work. The cinematographers in A Face in the Crowd employ low-key lighting extensively with Neal, who lives at the center of the film’s blackest moments. In the final scenes the actress often is framed in limbo, her stark white face set against total darkness for a classic, expressionistic effect.
Surprisingly, in spite of all the heavy fare, A Face in the Crowd also delivers a wealth of humor, mostly achieved through portrayals of Rhodes’ radio and television programs. We get perky jingles, song-and-dance routines, and “Cracker Barrel” political parodies, complete with hayseed jokes. Most unforgettable is Griffith’s characterization of Lonesome Rhodes as an over-the-top, human Howdy Doody.
One especially clever editing sequence foreshadows Rhodes’ imminent fall from grace after he reveals his “true self” to viewers. As he leaves the television studio, an unwitting elevator operator shouts, “The Lonesome Rhodes Express, going down!” Rhodes echoes ironically, “All the way down.” Descending floor numbers are intercut with a montage of telephone operators barraged with calls from angry viewers. Rhodes’ metaphoric demise is complete by the time he exits the building.
A far greater talent
A Face in the Crowd did not succeed at the box office and it won no favor with Hollywood at Oscar-nomination time. Maybe this was in part because most of the cast was relatively unknown at the time. Griffith, Franciosa, and Remick all made their film debuts in the picture. Also, the plot offered a very dark take on the American “success story,” much like the downbeat Citizen Kane, which also fared poorly on its 1941 release. Perhaps, too, Kazan’s “friendly witness” appearance before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in 1951 still burned in Hollywood’s memory.
The reappraisal of A Face in the Crowd over the past 55 years has been notable. Each year it gains favor with new viewers as well as fans who take the time to revisit it. If you only remember Andy Griffith as the TV characters Andy Taylor and Ben Matlock, A Face in the Crowd will come as an enormous, gratifying surprise. Griffith’s raw, larger-than-life realization of Lonesome Rhodes reveals a talent far greater than that seen in the appealing portrayals that followed. Oh, how I wish there were reconsideration Oscars for indelible, unforgettable, overlooked film actors. Andy Griffith is a most deserving contender.