Reflecting American Dreams and American Nightmares

Before Andy Griffith became the just and quietly confident Andy Taylor, sheriff in the fictious town of Mayberry, he had a major role in Elia Kazan’s 1957 film A Face in the Crowd. The film is a brutal satire of American entertainment and politics, and of the strange and unlikely ways they are intertwined.

Griffith plays a drifter, Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, passing through Pickett, a fictional small town in Arkansas. As the film opens, Rhodes is in jail, arrested for being drunk and disorderly. He doesn’t have much to his name, and even that may be fake. In his suitcase is a bottle of booze and a few shirts. His most prized possession is his “Mama Guitar.”

In Bud Schulberg’s original story, Rhodes is described as “big” and “western.”

…He’s kind of big all over, like a husky fullback three years after he broke training. He’s got a ruddy, laughing face, the haw-haw kind. He must be well into his thirties, but he’s boyish. He stands there in an unpressed brown suit and cowboy boots, shifting from one foot to another, shy-like, though something tells me deep down he is about as shy as a bulldozer.

This isn’t too far from the way Griffith portrays Rhodes. Although not originally part of the story, Kazan made Rhodes into a musician, using Griffith’s natural talents. Added to those gifts is Lonesome’s homespun wisdom. He’s a hobo sage, affirming the small town living of good and honest folk. This strikes a chord of familiarity for fans of Andy Taylor and Mayberry but it’s also jarring because in A Face in the Crowd, Griffith’s Rhodes character is a madman, drunk on power, and obsessed with his ability to influence people in any way he pleases.

Rhodes’ bad luck changes when a local radio host, Marcia Jeffries (played impeccably by Patricia Neal) goes to the jail to interview prisoners for her radio program called “A Face in the Crowd.” The whole point of her show is to introduce the townsfolk to one human being with a story to tell. Since everyone most likely has some kind of story to tell (however dull and uninteresting), one wonders whether there is a difference between any particular “face” and the “crowd.”

Rhodes doesn’t want to be on the radio and says the only way he’ll do it is if he’s released from jail a day early. He wins the negotiation, and Marcia “christens” him “Lonesome Rhodes.” The significance of the name “Rhodes” and its homophone “roads” is not lost on the audience. Rhodes’s debut appearance is a success. Everyone loves him—his philosophizin’ and singin’ and guit-ahr pickin’ resonates with people. Advertisers line up, and soon, a station in Memphis takes notice.

They offer a television show to Rhodes and with Marcia’s help he accepts. He’s uncouth and appears to be a free man who is not interested in playing any games—just being honest. But being honest for Rhodes becomes a brand, a trademark, which has nothing to do with his true position. When he and Marcia get on a train bound for Memphis, Rhodes spouts sweet and religious platitudes to the people seeing him off. As they get on the train, he says, “Boy, am I glad to shake that dump.” He’s become just another opportunistic drifter. Even his good deeds turn out to be aimed at the prospect of more popularity and power.

Rhodes’ popularity increases in Memphis, and he goes national. America is crazy about Lonesome Rhodes! But the more he rises, the more he becomes arrogant and lost. Is he a free man as a he claims? He may have refused to do proper and scripted advertising for a mattress company, but as time passes, Rhodes starts to shill for Vitajex, a pill that provides nothing more than a regular cup of coffee, but which Rhodes ends up selling as some kind of aphrodisiac. Rhodes becomes so intoxicated with his own mythical persona that he even ends up marrying a 17-year-old girl, played by the beautiful Lee Remick in her very first role.

It was only inevitable that political opportunists would take notice of this force of nature. Rhodes is approached by General Haynesworth and asked to endorse a senator who is running for president of the United States. “Lonesome Rhodes could be made into an influence. A wielder of opinion. An institution positively sacred to this country like the Washington Monument,” Haynesworth says. “My study of history has convinced me that in every strong and healthy society from the Egyptians on, the mass had to be guided with a strong hand by a responsible elite. Let us not forget that in TV we have the greatest instrument for mass persuasion in the history of the world.”

This is the moment when the twisted mythology of Lonesome Rhodes gets an even bigger makeover than any Vitajex commercial might suggest, and he accepts it fully. Marcia is uneasy about everything that is happening, and she doesn’t seem to have any control over Rhodes. She’s not free of guilt, however. She knows her part in creating him, and she knows her power to destroy him. She used to be Rhodes’s conscience but as the madness of media and influence gets stronger, Marcia is losing her grip, not only on Rhodes’s soul but her own as well—and this culminates in a monumental finale.

Although the plot of A Face in the Crowd may seem similar to Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe(1941), Kazan’s film is far more scathing and critical of the madness that is politics and entertainment. While Capra always offered some message of hope that is distinctly American, Kazan and the screenplay writer, Bud Schulberg chose to reveal the dirty wounds and demented faces we would rather not see, and certainly not in a mirror. But this too is part of America because it is part of the human nature, which can indeed have elements of the dark and gloomy.

Do Americans very readily get duped? Are they any different from the peoples of other nations in this or is this a particularly American phenomenon? What is at stake in A Face in the Crowd is individual humanity. Is anyone capable under such circumstances of acting with dignity? Or does everyone so tempted ultimately become an opportunist, and willfully brand himself or herself to pursue popularity, pride, and greed? Although the interpretive center of the film is satirical, Kazan is not a cynic or an ideologue. A Face in the Crowd is about the unmasking of a myth and the dire consequences such unmasking can bring.

It would be easy to say that Kazan made an anti-American film. After all, he unmasks the lies Americans are too often told, and he even suggests that the notion of the American Dream is just an illusion. But as Kazan himself was anything but anti-American, this approach is too simplistic.

It is the intensity with which Kazan tells the story of the rise and fall of one almost nameless, fatherless, motherless drifter that exposes the real purpose of the film. Kazan’s camera close-ups of faces bombard us with demented images, trying to persuade us that Rhodes is the real deal. We become both participants in and voyeurs of the twisted dreams of Lonesome Rhodes. In understanding our own weaknesses, we come to see how those of Rhodes are but an extension of them. “A good man is hard to find,” to quote Flannery O’Connor’s famous short story. And as that story reflected back to us what we saw missing in its characters so, too, does this film.

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