Magazine article USA TODAY

The Shadow of 1957

Magazine article USA TODAY

The Shadow of 1957

Article excerpt

"Today, every year seems like 1957, except now the warning often appears to apply more to political products. Satire can be a savior here, but it would help if the human herd seemingly did not so need this empty prattle."

There are countless neglected films that need to be resurrected. A prime candidate is Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd" (1957). Kazan arguably was America's most creative Broadway and Hollywood force in the mid 20th century. He directed Tennessee Williams' game-changingly controversial "Streetcar Named Desire" on Broadway (1947-49) and adapted it to film (1951). He won Best Director Academy Awards for "A Gentleman's Agreement" (1947, which attacked American anti-Semitism) and "On the Waterfront" (1954, about union corruption and possibly his defense on why he named names for the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the McCarthy era's Communist witch hunts).

Moreover, he helped create the naturalistic realism called method acting. Of course, Marlon Brando's acclaimed demonstration of the technique in both versions of "Streetcar" (as well as in "Waterfront") sometimes kiddingly was called the "itch-and-scratch" style.

Regardless, "A Face in the Crowd" becomes more timely with each passing year. Written by another HUAC-friendly witness, Budd Schulberg, its importance lies in the simple but terrifying Marshall McLuhan phrase, "The medium is the message." Besides this pioneering warning about the power of media to sell anything and create cookie-cutter political candidates, the film also is a cautionary tale about the U.S.'s love affair with the crackerbarrel populist--the charismatic, folksy man of the people.

"Crowd" chronicles the story of an Arkansas hobo (Andy Griffith) soon to be christened "Lonesome Rhodes." Fluctuating between down-home humor and a biting disregard for the calcified status quo--which he undercuts with horse-sense solutions--the meteoric surge of TV personality Rhodes seems like a budding Will Rogers, or an Arthur "Old Redhead" Godfrey. (The latter possibly was the key inspiration for the character.) Rhodes' rapid rise is orchestrated by captivated small-town radio personality Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal).

The narrative slickly reverses the standard Frank Capra populist blueprint of "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" (1936), or "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939). That is, the Capra template has a cynical leading lady so sure the populist figure is a hoax that she helps institute some sort of mid-film humiliation, and then discovers he is the real corny deal. From then on, her loving direction successfully brings his common sense to the common man.

In contrast, Neal's naive faith has her lovingly choreograph Rhodes almost immediately into a powerful "aw shucks" national phenomenon. However, this apparent cure-all populist turns out to be more of a Huey Long wannabe.

Consequently, Neal's character continues to reverse the Capra pattern by personally bringing down Rhodes. When one broadcast concludes, with end titles rolling, he ridicules the viewers to his entourage, since his microphone is off. Yet, unbeknownst to him, Neal switches it back on and his hypocrisy is revealed coast-to-coast. However, the film ends suggesting the powers that be either will resurrect him and/or create other similar demigods selling products and politics interchangeably. Besides being so prophetic, today the film packs an added chill because Griffith now is so associated with the idealized populist, a la his later "Andy Griffith Show" (1960-68). His Mayberry marshal is an American Solomon, the most benevolent of homegrown autocrats.

With 24/7 media coverage of The U.S.'s seemingly 24/7 political campaigning, the increasing danger of this "Lonesome Rhodes" factor seems ever on the rise. Indeed, before Glenn Beck self-destructed a few years ago, he sometimes was stamped, sans a reference, as a "Lonesome Rhodes." Of course, "A Face in the Crowd" goes back to television's early days, when the small screen was just beginning to mesmerize the public with grandfatherly Godfrey types. …

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