Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith) is a shiftless drifter. A lay-about. A no-account. He is also one heck of a performer. Man alive can he strum that guitar! He can belt out the Country Blues with conviction too, but it’s the way he spins a story out of thin air, keeping folks hanging on his every word, that’s special.
But Larry drinks–a lot. Plus he’s a hot head, a letch, impulsive and–Damn!–he’s got a big mouth. It’s no wonder that when he’s discovered by an ambitious radio programmer he’s in jail.
Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) roams the backwoods and small town streets of rural Arkansas looking for talent for her radio program “A Face in the Crowd”. Smart, industrious and eager to prove herself as something more than just the boss’ niece (her uncle owns the small town radio station where she works) Marcia talks a local yokel sheriff into letting her record some of the prisoners in the drunk tank. She’s got her eye out for the next Will Rodgers or Lead Belly.
Initially, Rhodes–nursing a hangover–is cantankerous and uncooperative, but he eventually warms to the opportunity to show off. What’s more, this is his big chance to embarrass the sheriff in front of the pretty lady and that’s just what he does. He makes up a bawdy little number on the fly with witty lyrics that rubs the sheriff’s nose in his lack of sophistication. He works the room–stalks it, is a more apt description–with a beguiling confidence.
The gall of the man to strut like a king when he’s in vagrant’s clothes. So arrogant and yet so accessible, he wins over the occupants of the drunk tank and Marcia Jeffries too. She knows the it factor when she see’s it and Rhodes has got it. But he also has penchant for cruelty, which she quickly recognizes, though his gargantuan charm bats down the red flags–at first.
Ms. Jeffries uses her own considerable attributes, convincing the sheriff who is sweet on her, to let Rhodes out early and–yes, you guessed it–they embark in a business relationship that, initially, takes them to nearby Memphis and then all the way to the big time of national television vis-a-vis New York City, and in an ill advised affair that very nearly destroys them both.
Director Elia Kazan’s naturalistic signatures, e.g., sweat streaked shirts, unshaven faces, the curve of a woman’s breast straining against flimsy fabric, torn wall paper and grimy fixtures pulse like a carnival midway in A Face in the Crowd. So much so that during the arc of the film when opulence bests squalor it’s obvious that Kazan preferred the gritter canvas where his visual artistry gleamed.
Even so, visual artistry is/was not the essence of Kazan’s genius. Instead his brilliance was in his ability to bare and dissect the human condition in order to persuade the audience–with compassion and dignity for the subjects–to think.
And the instrument of this persuasion? The actors from whom he was able to coax magnificent performances.
As Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, Andy Griffith is no exception to this most prominent feature of Kazan’s methodology, though at first glance it is easy to dismiss his performance as a gluttonous case of scenery chewing. But to do so would be to ignore the most obvious trait of the portrait. Lonesome Rhodes is a grotesque and Griffith conveys this essential quality with unabashed brio.
Rhodes is obnoxious in every sense of the word. He’s a big guy, so he makes himself even larger by taking up as much space as he possibly can. He sprawls, rather than sits. He towers rather than stands.
Then there’s his laugh. It too is big.
No, I take that back. It’s enormous. When he laughs his face distorts into a cavernous mouth with wild, leering eyes.
Even so, Lonesome Rhodes is funny. He really is. And his wit is as sharp as a scalpel; his talent and charisma are undeniable. Possessing both eloquence and folksy charm, he sets his ire on the rich and powerful, which ingratiates him to everyone else.
As his influence grows so does his bank account, his malignant ego, his cruelty and dishonesty. And, most ominously, his misanthropic disdain intensifies for the very people who have lifted him to his throne, those that he has supposedly championed–“the common man.”
Patricia Neal, always wonderfully reliable, does not stray from her usual earthy, practical elegance. As Marcia Jeffries, there is no snobbery in her educated, cultured Southern draw. Hardly a pushover, she is initially mesmerized by Rhodes’ sheer force of personality even as she is a little leery of his sincerity, or lack thereof.
So when Lonesome Rhodes plunges into a decent of decadence and self delusion, threatening to take down much of the country that is under his sway, Marcia has long abandoned any romantic notions of the man. She stays on, firstly, because she feels responsible for unleashing this monster on an adoring and completely buffaloed populace. Secondly, because he has offered to buy her out at a paltry ten percent and she wants and deserves an equal partnership and lastly, because, in spite of his tyrannical abuse, she pities Rhodes, the lonely, hateful pariah, who loathes everyone, but not as much as he loathes himself.
A Face in the Crowd launched the career of then fledgling comedian/ musician Andy Griffith, introducing him to his most diverse and largest audience yet. But the film tanked at the box office and received lack luster reviews.
Modern audiences, however, especially cinephiles, have been captivated by this very timely film that, with the explosion of social media, has become even more relevant today than when it was released some sixty years ago. In 2008 it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
In his 1986 Guide for the Film Fanatic author Danny Peary prophetically wrote,
“Lonesome Rhodes is guilty of taking advantage of the medium – through which you can fool all the people all of the time – but (screenwriter) Budd Schulberg is attacking us, the ignorant public who sits like sheep and believes whatever it sees on the tube. The scary thing is that if today Rhodes were caught expressing his real thoughts while thinking the mike was off, his popularity would probably go up.”