Movie Magazine International

A Face In The Crowd

USA - 1957

Movie Review By Casey McCabe

If you're a sharp-eyed satirist, what could be easier game than corruptly bloated politicians? How about tyrannically wealthy corporate puppet masters? Or maybe the ethically challenged agenda setters of our intrusive mass media. I mean really, is there a barroom brawler drunk enough to leap to any of their defenses?

I've sometimes fallen into the trap of thinking this is a very current state of affairs. Every generation does. I guess a lot of people find it oddly empowering to think that they might be witness to the fall of Western Civilization.

It's times like these when a little perspective doesn't hurt. That's why my video pick for the week is "A Face In The Crowd," Elia Kazan's 1957 film about a guitar-playing Arkansas hobo’s ascent to media star and king maker. This was the 1950s, when the television still shut itself off at midnight and corporate sponsorship of the public airwaves was even more blatant and unapologetic. Pop culture hindsight has made the 50s into an era of Happy Days and innocence, but Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg were very much alive and in the thick of it, and "A Face In The Crowd" remains remarkably timeless in its cynicism.

Speaking of remarkable, the Face In The Crowd is played by the pre-Mayberry Andy Griffith, showing an acting range from pitiful to menacing he would never again duplicate. His character, Lonesome Rhodes, is discovered in a small-town drunk tank by Patricia Neal, a small town radio reporter in dogged pursuit of local human interest stories. Like any transient who must survive on his wits and other's gullibility, Rhodes sees her microphone as his meal ticket. Without bothering to reinvent himself, at least initially, he becomes the voice of the common man, speaking the God's honest truth in a homespun drawl. A hungry public bites, and soon Lonesome is on the road to national TV stardom and backroom political influence. It's a role shadowed by Will Rogers and other populists from the radio era, but it also keenly anticipates the likes of Ross Perot, Bill Clinton and Rush Limbaugh.

When Lonesome finally crashes and burns it is up to a young Walter Matthau, playing Patricia Neal's long-suffering intellectual suitor to provide the coda. It remains, more than 40 years later, a perfect summation of America's capricious relationship with its media created celebrities.

Kazan was not beyond the occasional heavy-handed symbolism. But the greater social messages are delivered through a very human story. Of the insecurities that drive the ambitious, and the people desperate to believe them. It is not so cynical as to suggest we the public are witless pawns in the media manipulation. We never have been. And that's not a bad lesson to take home.

© 1999 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 11/03/99

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