Directed by: Elia Kazan
Screenplay by: Budd Schulberg
Cast: Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Lee Remick, Anthony Franciosa
A few years before his name became synonymous with long-running television series (The Andy Griffith Show [1960-68], Mayberry R.F.D. [1968-1971] and Matlock [1986-1995]), Andy Griffith made his theatrical film debut in a role that seemed guaranteed to catapult him to superstardom: the lead in Elia Kazan’s and Budd Schulberg’s follow-up to their Oscar-winning On the Waterfront, the 1957 film A Face in the Crowd.
Based on “Your Arkansas Traveler” – the first story in Schulberg’s 1953 short story collection entitled “Some Faces in the Crowd” – the movie traces the rise of a down-and-out hobo named Rhodes with a talent to ad-lib songs on the spot, providing his own rough accompaniment by strumming on his beloved “Mama Git-tar.” When small-town roaming radio journalist Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) visits a northeastern Arkansas jailhouse looking for an interesting personality to use in a segment of her on-air program “A Face in the Crowd,” the inebriated Ozark native immediately captures her attention. She creates the nickname of “Lonesome,” and faster than he can bray out another nonsensical song, Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes is hitchin’ a ride on the fame express. With the enthralled Marcia by his side, he blazes through the local Arkansas radio station, to Memphis, to New York, where the network builds him his own show. Called “Lonesome Rhodes’ Cracker Barrel,” Rhodes sings, philosophizes and talks folksy politics with a bunch of backwoods characters who fiercely agree with every piece of populist drivel that escapes his lips. His ever-growing circle of sycophants refer to him as the next Will Rogers.
But where Will Rogers had substantial wit as well as a heart, the megalomaniacal Lonesome falls short, a “demagogue in denim” who gorges on his ever-growing power. Manipulated by corporations who use the gung-ho hobo as their mouthpiece, Lonesome has no compunction turning on his own. As he declaims, “The whole country’s just like my flock of sheep. I’m not just an entertainer. I’m an influence, a wielder of opinion, a force … a force! Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea pickers – everybody that’s got to jump when somebody else blows the whistle … they’re mine, I own them. They think like I do. Only they’re more stupid than I am so I gotta think for ‘em.”
Cinephiles from as early as 1957 have been puzzled that A Face in the Crowd never caught fire. Perhaps it’s the movie’s clumsy, over-the-top theatrics. Perhaps it’s the fact that Schulberg’s screenplay doesn’t allow for a worthy adversary. Perhaps the twin evils of media manipulation and the cult of celebrity had been addressed to greater effect in that year’s The Sweet Smell of Success (featuring bigger box office stars Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis) or, even earlier, in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole. But in those instances, journalism was the targeted evil. In the late ’50s, with Americans spellbound by the big box of entertainment residing in their very own living rooms, it would have been difficult to make the case for a satire about television that aimed its arrows directly at them. That said, by 1976, the cynical post-Vietnam generation had no trouble accepting Network.
[For the full review and Kimberly's rating, please click here]