A Face in the Crowd (film)

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A Face in the Crowd
Afaceinthecrowdposter.jpg
Directed by Elia Kazan
Produced by Elia Kazan
Based on Your Arkansas Traveler 1952 short story 
by Budd Schulberg
Starring Andy Griffith
Patricia Neal
Anthony Franciosa
Walter Matthau
Lee Remick
Music by Tom Glazer
Cinematography Gayne Rescher
Harry Stradling Sr.
Edited by Gene Milford
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
  • May 28, 1957 (1957-05-28)
Running time
125 minutes
Country United States
Language English

A Face in the Crowd is a 1957 film starring Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal and Walter Matthau, directed by Elia Kazan.[1] The screenplay was written by Budd Schulberg, based on his short story "Your Arkansas Traveler", part of his 1953 short story collection, Some Faces in the Crowd.

The story centers on a drifter named Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes (Griffith, in a role starkly different from the amiable "Sheriff Andy Taylor" persona), who is discovered by the producer (Neal) of a small-market radio program in rural northeast Arkansas. Rhodes ultimately rises to great fame and influence on national television.

The film launched Griffith into stardom, but earned mixed reviews upon its original release. Later decades have seen reappraisals of the movie, and in 2008 A Face in the Crowd was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Plot[edit]

In late 1950s America, a drunken drifter, Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith), is plucked out of a rural Arkansas jail by Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) to sing on a radio show at station KGRK. His raw voice, folksy humor and personal charm bring about a strong local following, and he lands a television show in Memphis, Tennessee under the stage name "Lonesome" Rhodes, given to him on a whim by Jeffries.

With the support of the show's staff writer Mel Miller (Walter Matthau) and Jeffries, the charismatic Rhodes ad libs his way to Memphis area popularity. When he pokes fun at his sponsor, a mattress company, they initially pull their ads—but when his adoring audience revolts, burning mattresses in the street, the sponsor discovers that Rhodes' irreverent pitches actually increased sales by 55%, and returns to the air with a new awareness of his power of persuasion. Rhodes also begins an affair with Jeffries.

An ambitious office worker at the mattress company, Joey DePalma (Anthony Franciosa), puts together a deal for Rhodes to star in his own show in New York City. The sponsor is Vitajex, an energy supplement which he ingeniously pitches as a yellow pill which will make men energetic and sexually powerful. Rhodes' fame, influence and ego balloon. Behind the scenes, he berates his staff and betrays Jeffries by eloping with a 17-year-old drum majorette (Lee Remick). The onetime drifter and his new bride move into a luxury penthouse, while a furious Jeffries demands more money and credit for her role in Rhodes' success.

The sponsor's CEO introduces Rhodes to a senator named Fuller whose presidential campaign is faltering. Under Rhodes' tutelage as media coach, the senator gains the lead in national polls. But Rhodes' life begins to unravel as his amoral dealings with the people closest to him have placed his career trajectory on a collision course with their festering wounds. A woman (Kay Medford) turns up claiming to be his legitimate wife. He also goes home early to find his agent and young wife ending a tryst. He returns to Marcia Jeffries to proclaim that with the election victory assured, he will soon serve on the President's cabinet as "Secretary For National Morale", as a part of his organization called "Fighters for Fuller". He also expects Jeffries to resume her romance with him. She runs away.

Miller tells Jeffries he has written an exposé about Rhodes, entitled "Demagogue in Denim", and he has just found a publisher. Ultimately, Rhodes' ascent into fame and arrogance begins to turn on him. DePalma threatens to reveal Rhodes' own secrets if the affair with the young wife is made public, claiming that he and Rhodes are now part of the same corruption. Rhodes is stuck with his business partner, but cruelly dumps his cheating wife.

The final blow is delivered by the one who has loved Rhodes the most and been most injured by his selfishness: Marcia Jeffries. At the end of one of Rhodes' shows, the engineer cuts the microphone and leaves Jeffries alone in the control booth while the show's credits roll. Millions of viewers watch (in what initially is silence) their hero Rhodes smiling and seeming to chat amiably with the rest of the cast. In truth, he is on a vitriolic rant about the stupidity of his audience. In the broadcast booth, Jeffries reactivates his microphone, sending his words and laughter over the air live. A sequence of television viewers is shown to react to Rhodes' description of them all as "idiots, morons, and guinea pigs".

Still unaware that his words have gone out over the air waves (with thousands of angry calls to local stations and the network headquarters), he departs the penthouse studio in a jovial mood and prophetically tells the elevator operator that he is going "all the way down". As the elevator numbers go down to 0, the ratings of the show go down as well, due to Rhodes' insults.

Rhodes arrives at his penthouse, where he was to meet with the nation's business and political elite. Instead he finds an empty space, except for a group of black butlers and servants, by whom, in desperation, he demands to be loved. When they fail to respond, Rhodes dismisses all of them. Rhodes calls the studio and Jeffries listens to him rant as he threatens to jump to his death from the penthouse. Jeffries, who has been silent, suddenly screams at Rhodes, telling him to jump and to get out of her, and everybody's, life. Miller asks her angrily why she did not tell Rhodes the whole truth.

Jeffries and Miller go to the penthouse and Rhodes is drunk and disconnected from reality. He shouts folksy platitudes and sings at the top of his lungs while his longtime flunky Beanie (Rod Brasfield) works an applause machine—Rhodes' own invention—to replace the cheers, applause, and laughter of the audience that has abandoned him. When he vows to get revenge on the TV studio's engineer, Jeffries admits it was she who betrayed him. She demands he never call her again, and Miller tells Rhodes that life as he knew it is over.

Miller bemoans the fact that Rhodes is not really destroyed at all. Both the public's and the network's need for Rhodes, will, "after a reasonable cooling off period" of remorse and contrition, he predicts, return Rhodes to the public eye, but never to his previous height of power and success. Rhodes ends up screaming from the window of his penthouse for Marcia Jeffries to come back as she leaves in a taxi with Miller, while a Coca-Cola sign continuously flashes off and on.

Cast[edit]

Real-life inspirations[edit]

Aspects of the Lonesome Rhodes character were likely inspired by 1940s and 1950s CBS radio-TV star Arthur Godfrey.[citation needed] The scene where Rhodes spoofs his sponsor on TV in Memphis echoes Godfrey's reputation for kidding his own advertisers. Godfrey claimed he would not advertise products he did not believe in, and routinely ridiculed both the sponsors' stodgy ad copy and occasionally, the companies' executives. The more Godfrey did this, the more sales increased. Godfrey's immense popularity began to deflate following his 1953 on-air firing of singer Julius LaRosa, which opened the gradual exposure of his less lovable, often controlling off-camera personality. Though he remained on radio, TV and even films for several years afterward, Godfrey's mass appeal and popularity had passed its apex, and were never the same. At one point in the film, Rhodes telegraphs Jeffries that he is going to miss a broadcast and requests that Godfrey fill in for him.

Some have suggested that the character may have been inspired in part by John Henry Faulk, a country comedian who was long blacklisted as a result of the "Red Scare", although Faulk was never really a national figure.[citation needed]

Screenwriter Schulberg himself claimed to have based a significant part of the character's facade on that of Will Rogers, adding a distinctively un-Rogers-like level of amorality and cruelty. In Richard Schickel's 2005 biography of director Elia Kazan, Schulberg explained that he had met Will Rogers, Jr. during the latter's run for Congress and discussed his famous father. The younger Rogers supposedly told Schulberg that his father socialized with the very establishment types he mocked in his public pronouncements, adding that his father was actually a political reactionary in private life.[2][page needed]

The film's scene in which Marcia turns up the volume on the studio, with Rhodes unaware that his voice can now be heard by his viewers, was inspired by the debunked urban legend of radio's "Uncle Don" show where he thought that he was off the air. His words: "This is Uncle Don, saying good night. We're off. Good, that will hold those little bastards."

To underscore the sway of television media in America, Kazan incorporated several cameos by well-known media personalities, including: Sam Levenson, John Cameron Swayze, Mike Wallace, Earl Wilson, and Walter Winchell.

Two cast members had genuine ties to the country music field. Rod Brasfield was a popular Grand Ole Opry comedian in the 1950s, known for his own performances and onstage comic banter with legendary Opry comic Minnie Pearl. Big Jeff Bess, who portrayed the Sheriff, was a Nashville-based country music performer on radio station WLAC there, leading a group called "Big Jeff and His Radio Playboys", which recorded for Dot Records and included guitarist Grady Martin. Bess was, for a time, the husband of Tootsie Bess, longtime owner of Nashville's famous downtown bar Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, a hangout for country entertainers.

Production[edit]

Most of the film's interiors were shot in New York at the Biograph Studios in the Bronx.[3] This was preceded by location shooting in Memphis and in Piggott, Arkansas—where Rhodes meets Betty Lou.

Contemporary newspapers reported an early 1956 trip by Kazan to Sarasota, Florida to confer with Schulberg.[4] Late in April, columnist Walter Winchell noted that Andy Griffith would depart the cast of his Broadway show No Time for Sergeants at the end of July, vacation for a month, and then begin shooting with Kazan. Kazan and Schulberg spent much of July and August 1956 in Memphis and in Arkansas,[5] and Patricia Neal's involvement would be announced by early August. Both Griffith and Lee Remick made their film debuts in Face.[1]

The most involved location shoot was in Piggott, Arkansas (the fair and baton-twirling competition scenes). Five thousand extras were sought, to be fed and paid $1 hourly for a mid-August day's work. Sixty baton twirlers were rounded up from NE Arkansas and SE Missouri, and musicians from six different high school bands were assembled.[6] Remick reported spending two weeks in Piggott living with teen twirler Amanda Robinson and her family, working on her twirling and local accent.[7] At the Piggott location shoot some 380 dogs were assembled from Missouri and Arkansas[8] for the scene following Rhodes' first mass-action call on his audience: to take their dogs to the home of a local sheriff who was running for higher office – Rhodes opining that people should first find out if a candidate is worthy of the office of "dog catcher".

Shooting in New York included 61 sets at Biograph Studios as well as some exteriors. Anthony Franciosa, eager to work with Kazan, had turned down a more lucrative offer to appear in MGM's The Vintage.[9] Writer Schulberg remained involved throughout: "I went on a trip in 1955 to scout a location in Arkansas, and I've been on the set every day since shooting started in August [1956]."[10]

In stage performance, Griffith noted, he would work gradually up to his most intense moments, but needed to conjure that up spontaneously when shooting such scenes for Kazan. In some instances, he asked to have a few discarded chairs available to destroy, in order to work up his rage before filming.[11]

Critical reception[edit]

Upon its original release, A Face in the Crowd earned somewhat mixed reviews, one of them from Bosley Crowther of The New York Times. Though he applauded Griffith's performance ("Mr. Griffith plays him with thunderous vigor ..."[12]), at the same time, he felt that the character overpowered the rest of the cast and the story. "As a consequence, the dominance of the hero and his monstrous momentum ... eventually become a bit monotonous when they are not truly opposed."[12] Crowther found Rhodes "highly entertaining and well worth pondering when he is on the rise", but considered the ending "inane".[12]

One critic who had only praise for the movie was Francois Truffaut; in his review in Cahiers du Cinéma, he called the film "a great and beautiful work whose importance transcends the dimensions of a cinema review".[13]

Over the decades critical opinion of the film has warmed considerably. As of mid-2011, A Face in the Crowd had a 91% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 23 reviews.[14]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Georges Sadoul (1972). Dictionary of Films. Translated, edited, and updated by Peter Morris. University of California Press. p. 108. ISBN 978-0-520-02152-5. 
  2. ^ Richard Schickel (2005). Elia Kazan: A Biography. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 978-0-06-019579-3.
  3. ^ Scott McGee; Jeff Stafford. "A Face in the Crowd (1957)". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2015-03-08. 
  4. ^ Leonard Lyons, "The Lyons Den" (syndicated column), Long Beach, CA: Independent, April 12, 1956.
  5. ^ "Arkansas Movie Sets Production for Near Future", Kingsport, TN: Kingsport Times, July 9, 1956.
  6. ^ "Want to be in Movies? Extras Needed in Piggott", Blytheville, AR: Blytheville Courier News, August 8, 1956.
  7. ^ Erskine Johnson, "Hollywood", Ardmore, OK: Daily Ardmoreite, April 21, 1957.
  8. ^ "Dogs in Demand", Aiken, SC: Aiken Standard and Review, August 20, 1956.
  9. ^ Bob Thomas, "Hard Knocks and Actors Studio", Long Beach, CA: Press Telegram, December 27, 1956.
  10. ^ Rob Burton (AP), "Novelist Stays for 'Face' Film", Amarillo Globe-Times, December 31, 1956.
  11. ^ Hal Boyle, "He Fights Furniture Before Acting as If in a Rage", Lumberton, NC: The Robesonian, November 16, 1956.
  12. ^ a b c Bosley Crowther (May 29, 1957). "A Face in the Crowd (1957)". The New York Times. 
  13. ^ Francois Truffaut (2009). The Films In My Life. Da Capo Press. pp. 113–115. ISBN 0-7867-4972-5. 
  14. ^ "A Face in the Crowd". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2013-06-25. 

External links[edit]