Ed Piwowarczyk joins me on Moving Target today, the eve of the U.S. presidential election, with a look at A Face in the Crowd. The 1957 film seems terrifyingly familiar today, doesn’t it, Ed?
He’s a womanizer, a bigot, a con man, a demagogue. He’s Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, the protagonist of A Face in the Crowd, directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg.
Released in 1957, the film is a cautionary tale about how the intertwining of media, advertising and politics can give rise to a Frankenstein monster. The movie retains its potency today with the parallels between the Rhodes character and U.S. President Donald Trump. The former was born into poverty, the latter into wealth, but both are able to manipulate people and circumstances to their advantage, proclaiming themselves champions of the “little guy.”
Rhodes is played by Andy Griffith, and his portrayal is 180 degrees opposite from kindly Mayberry Sheriff Andy Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show. His aw-shucks charm conceals his self-centeredness and disdain for those around him.
A Face in the Crowd opens with small-town Arkansas radio producer Marcia Jeffries, played by Patricia Neal, discovering Rhodes in the drunk tank and falling for him, both professionally and personally. She gets him a morning radio show, and his success leads to a TV spot in Memphis. Then it’s on to New York, where Rhodes’ snake-oil persuasiveness sends sales of a worthless vitamin pill skyrocketing, and prompts its maker to enlist him to boost the prospects of a presidential hopeful. Rhodes is convinced he can peddle anything—or anyone—to his fans, whom he secretly despises.
Marcia remains loyal to Rhodes despite his spurning her affections, but his marriage to a small-town majorette, played by Lee Remick, is the last straw for her. It triggers an unmasking that leads to Rhodes’ downfall.
With its portrayal of the rise of a populist demagogue, A Face in the Crowd still merits our attention more than 60 years later.