A Face in the Crowd

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Criterion;
Drama;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Anthony Franciosa, Lee Remick.

Lucking out with a good fourth-row seat in mid-auditorium, I was there for 1971’s opening showing at the Museum of Modern Art’s Elia Kazan retrospective, when the director who’d made an unbroken 1954-69 string of movies that I love introduced his personal pick for the launch. It was 1957’s A Face in the Crowd, which Kazan’s On the Waterfront colleague Budd Schulberg had adapted from one of his own short stories, a script to which its eventual director gave co-equal status. And it was an interesting choice because the picture had been a flop at the time, both with critics and public, though even in ’71, you could feel that the tide had already turned in favor of this warning shot about how broadcast mass media might soon be able to “package” political candidates the way Madison Avenue had done for antacid TV spots.

Richard Nixon, whose name rates a brief mention in Crowd, was already president — and though Nixon was about as much of a television natural as (on a contrasting decibel level) William Jennings Bryan, the conceit that you could jerry-build a presidential timber out of a TV background had gained ground. Mother of God and father of Ivanka, has it ever.

As a result, either Crowd or Network (and for not dissimilar reasons) is the most prescient of all American movies, though that’s an adjective critic April Wolfe actively shies away from in an outstanding Criterion essay because, as she notes, America had long seen a mingling of entertainers with the political class. Think of, for one, Will Rogers — who was one of the acknowledged influences on Crowd’s “Lonesome Rhodes” character, though I’ve always had a tough time reconciling the Rhodes malevolence here with the droll senior of easygoing John Ford comedies.

But with a dash of Elvis thrown in — due exclusively to the manner in which teenaged girls go into sexual frenzy over Lonesome’s guitar strumming — the subject most vividly brings to mind is the once ubiquitous workhorse Arthur Godfrey. Now almost totally forgotten, Godfrey was a Hall of Fame carbuncle and anti-semite who at one time hosted two primetime TV shows and a weekday radio/TV simulcast when he wasn’t firing talent demeaningly referred to by him as “Little Godfrey’s.” There’s also a dash here, in Lonesome’s ability to manufacture headlines, of real-life newscaster Walter Winchell — another windy Big Shot who eventually fell from grace, though any roman a clef linkage is defused some by Winchell’s cameo as himself in this movie.

So the deal is this. A rarely better Patricia Neal plays an outwardly mature young woman who left rural Arkansas to attend Sarah Lawrence and then came back to work for her uncle’s radio station in, from outer appearances, a burg largely populated by dogs. One guesses that she must have a really interesting backstory, but the story concentrates on her discovery of a rough gem in the local hoosegow (Andy Griffith). Tape-recording the mostly harmless hoboes behind bars for a human-interest story, she discovers Griffith’s Rhodes character presumably sleeping one off in what looks like the oversized cell’s drunk-and-disorderly nook. And despite these unlikely origins, Lonesome is full of aggressively spouted cornpone homilies, knows how to fake “pickin’” and has a sexual magnetism a lot of women find attractive — something that’s going to get Neal in trouble down the road. One can’t say enough about the actress’s characterization here (which was ignored by the Academy) and the way that Neal can go from borderline plain to sexy practically from scene to scene.

This was Griffith’s screen debut feature — he made surprisingly few big-screen appearances — and he gives one of the two performances from Kazan’s screen prime (the other is Pat Hingle in Splendor in the Grass) that I always thought the director might have toned down some. Overall, though, time has caught up with it almost as much as it has with the picture, and you can now make a case that the Griffith/Rhodes broadness is no more extreme than what we see coming out of the White House everyday. First-timers to Crowd may find it a bit disconcerting to see the Pride of Mayberry from “The Andy Griffith Show” as a demagogue. It’s a little like seeing visual proof that Aunt Bea once worked the red-light district.

As for the rest of a hand-picked cast, Anthony Franciosa’s congenital oiliness is better suited to his on-the-make agent here than in, say, The Long, Hot Summer from the same period; Walter Matthau is a reflective intellectual (“Vanderbilt, ’44” — with a pipe) and not the sardonic scowl he later became; and Lee Remick (her screen debut) is a majorette who captures Lonesome’s eye enough to become his wife despite an ex all ready to go to Confidential magazine to spill old marital beans if our boy doesn’t come through with a payoff after becoming a network sensation. The Neal character can’t help herself from falling for Lonesome herself and spends a lot of lonely nights on the road promoting his professional cause — except for the times he “drops in” when he can’t find anyone else. He’s insecure enough to know that on some level, he needs her.

The movie’s satirical high point, then and now, is the uproarious New York “agency” material — crasser than anything in “Mad Men” but also (and accurately) dealing with a caliber of TV commercial that were already pretty risible as early as 1960 and likely would have been too crude for much of the “MM” era, which more or less came in with JFK. Owned by a Koch Brother type known as “The General,” Lonesome’s sponsor is something called Vitajex — caffeine-heavy snake oil that brings to mind Geritol, which sponsored the infamous quiz show “Twenty-One” and “The Lawrence Welk Show.” But whereas Welk promised little more than perhaps a little more pop in your polka, Vitajex all but promises you more sexual partners than Wilt Chamberlain.

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These scenes are crucial because they segue into The General’s promoting of a nondescript white-haired old California senator into a presidential run. It is here that Rhodes, brought in as a consultant, mandates using Madison Avenue techniques to “sell” the product on the star’s TV show, a faux cracker-barrel affair where so-called plain folks sit around and jawbone about current events between chaws. Like everything and almost everyone involved in this phony enterprise, you can all but hear the actors counting down the time until the cameras go off so that they can finally ask, “Where are the broads?” The senator, by the way, is played by silent filmmaker Marshall Neilan (a year before his death) following years in limbo after torching his career by making an enemy of Louis B. Mayer. (Gotta love him for that.) I don’t know who got the brainstorm to cast Neilan, but he is bullseye here.

The Criterion bonus extras are illuminating, as they especially need to be on a movie like this, and do not shy away from Kazan’s somewhat delayed pariah status from having not only named names to the House Committee on Un-American Activities but then took an ad out in the New York Times defending the action. Schulberg cooperated as well but didn’t rub people’s faces in it as much, though there’s a part of me that admires — probably against my better judgment — the way Kazan held a decades-long grudge against his perceived artistic inferiors in the Communist Party who were trying to horn in his work. It brings to mind Humphrey Bogart’s comment about how the greatest thing about being successful is that you can tell people you don’t like to go to hell.

In any event, interviewed historian Ron Briley (The Ambivalent Legacy of Elia Kazan) strengthens the undeniable case that Kazan’s work got better and more committed after the HUAC blow-up, while an excellent 2005 featurette doc is carried over from the old Warner DVD release, which this 4K transfer puts very much in the shade. (Though I wouldn’t rate Crowd as one of the more interestingly shot movies of Kazan’s career). In addition to Wolfe’s beauty of an essay, there’s a lengthy excerpt from Kazan’s introduction to the published Crowd screenplay from 1957, as well as the same year’s New York Times profile on Griffith. Also interviewed on camera is Griffith biographer Evan Dalton Smith (as personable as Briley), whose biographical backgrounding intensifies the oft-told stories of just how much this project took out of a performer who’s previously been a kind of standup comic monologuist. Griffith used to say that it took three months to shoot Crowd and four for him to get over it, but I have a feeling that the latter period was longer.

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Face in the Crowd’ and ‘Tarantula’

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