After the Silents: A Face in the Crowd (1957)

Would you like to see a magic trick? I can tell what movies you’ve seen! Here goes:

Andy Griffith is one of the best actors ever to grace the silver screen and he gave one of the best performance of the 1950s.

If your reaction was, “Huh? I mean, he’s charming and all but best actor? And of the 1950s?” then you have never seen A Face in the Crowd, his motion picture debut. It’s also one of the smartest, most underrated films to come out of mid-century Hollywood.

The film is also significant as the very last screen appearance of Marshall Neilan, Mary Pickford’s favorite director. We’ll be discussing his career briefly after the review.

(This is part of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon. Be sure to read all the entries!)

Review: A Face in the Crowd (1957)

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD and via streaming.

We’ve seen them come and go and there are always more waiting in the wings. You know who I mean: public figures who seem to hit like a thunderclap, charming millions with their tell-it-like-it-is shtick and dictating public policy through their adoring fans. They rarely last but the power they wield, at least for a short period of time, is enormous.

Would you like to see an evil Andy Griffith?
This ain’t Mayberry.

Making a movie about these homespun demagogues seems obvious today but it wasn’t so clear back in 1957. A Face in the Crowd was a box office disappointment and was ignored at awards season. It was simply too far ahead of its time and its cynical look at the relationship between mass media, politicians and pundits had to wait for modern culture to catch up with it.

Writer Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan were looking to follow up On the Waterfront with another look at corruption but casting the charismatic, megalomaniacal main character proved to be a challenge. Fortunately, Kazan and Schulberg both had eyes for talent and, in a stroke of casting genius, they hired a standup comedian named Andy Griffith.

What a beginning!
What a beginning!

Griffith was three years away from playing Sheriff Andy Taylor in The Andy Griffith Show. He had been acting in the stage version of No Time for Sergeants but that was essentially a variation on his country boy standup routine. As far as dramatic acting went, he was as green as could be. Kazan used his inexperience to deepen the character of the evil Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes.

The story opens with Marcia (Patricia Neal), a bubbly reporter who hosts a small town radio show called A Face in the Crowd. She has the swell idea of interviewing a low-level offender at the local jail and a fellow named Rhodes (Griffith) seems to fill the bill. After he refuses to give his real name, she dubs him “Lonesome” and records him singing, bantering and generally charming everyone with his country ways.

Marcia is utterly charmed
Marcia is utterly charmed

Rhodes is a hit and it starts him shooting up the ladder to success. From small town Arkansas, he jumps to Memphis television and then a sponsored program in New York. Rhodes quickly realizes that he has the power to sway opinions and cause people to act. At first, he uses his power for minor mischief but he soon realizes that he can do much, much more. He has an audience of 65 million viewers who hang on his every word. Why shouldn’t he ride the gravy train for all it’s worth?

The relationship between Marcia and Rhodes remains complicated. She falls for him but she neither trusts nor likes him. However, she still wants to believe in the homespun idealist that she originally saw in Rhodes. If she were to admit that his whole persona was phony from the start, she would have to admit that she created the monster that has his eyes set on the White House.

Rhodes triumphant
Rhodes triumphant

The voice of reason is Mel Miller (Walter Matthau) a gently cynical writer who loves Marcia but can’t manage to detach her from Rhodes. She has no desire to be detached, even when Rhodes throws her over for an underage majorette (Lee Remick, also making her film debut).

But I mentioned White House ambitions. Rhodes has no intention of running for office. No, he means to get in through the side window thanks to a cabinet appointment. He is backing Senator Worthington Fuller (Marshall Neilan), a politician with zero charisma or appeal. With Rhodes’ coaching, Fuller becomes a duck huntin’, hot dog munchin’ everyman and is shooting up in the polls.

Rhodes eyes Remick's teen majorette.
Rhodes eyes Remick’s teen majorette.

I think you can see why this film is so timeless. While telegrams are dead and broadcast television is withering, social media has risen up to replace it and there will always be a new Lonesome Rhodes waiting in the wings. Could I compare him to a modern public figure? Sure, anyone can but that’s missing the timeless nature of the film. Any comparisons or references I might make will be instantly dated while the film itself is timeless.

(Please stay off politics in the comments, by the way. I hate moderating political comments more than anything and you will save me untold headaches. Thanks!)

Mel and Marcia watch Rhodes in action.
Mel and Marcia watch Rhodes in action.

The film takes the medium of television and eviscerates it. Rhodes’ early success in New York is the result of his broad hints that a sponsor’s pep pills are a powerful aphrodisiac. Never claims it openly, of course, but manages to convince his audience all the same. As Rhodes sits on cracker barrels and sings the praises of American womanhood, old-fashioned marriage and the hard-working underdog, he smirks at his viewers and chases anything in a skirt.

Elia Kazan was known as an actor’s director and he used Method acting (that is, having actors experience emotions rather than merely depicting them) to draw incredible performances out of his casts. As a director, he was not flashy but he show enough visual flare to keep things interesting.

The naive Marcia...
The naive Marcia…

I will take a moment from the Griffith/Kazan appreciation to note that Patricia Neal is just smashing in her complicated role. She communicates the hesitation, hero worship, injured pride, hollow acceptance and horror so beautifully. Her climactic breakdown is powerful, heartbreaking and heroic.

And the sophisticated Marcia, nearing her breaking point.
And the sophisticated Marcia, nearing her breaking point.

Kazan’s ensemble cast in A Face in the Crowd is excellent all around but Andy Griffith is the real revelation. Kazan takes Griffith’s awe-shucks comedy persona and tweaks it just enough to send him spiraling to the dark side. Rhodes’ shares his wisdom via country yarns and he manipulates his audiences into a toxic love affair. Lonesome Rhodes is essentially Andy Taylor’s evil twin and that’s why he is so frightening.

Too good a performance?
Too good a performance?

Griffith did play other villains but he never brought the same level of intensity to his roles, at least in my opinion. Why was this? Because, as it turned out, Elia Kazan’s coaching in Method acting was entirely too effective. Griffith couldn’t break character, he actually became Lonesome Rhodes in the film, on the set and in his personal life. He later admitted that he was not a nice person while making the film and he didn’t want to go through it again.

We can be grateful that Griffith allowed the full range of his talent to go on display this once. He was a charming performer and a television icon but we must also remember that he was one heck of an actor.

Marshall Neilan

It’s ironic that Marshall Neilan’s final film role has him portray a man who decides to remake his personality in order to be more appealing. If Neilan had done the same in real life, he probably would still have been directing in 1957.

In order for a film to succeed, there has to be some kind of successful collaboration between performer and director. Even if they hate each other’s guts, that special spark is essential for art captured on film. There are some actor-director combinations that succeed so brilliantly that they become famous in and of themselves. Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. David Lean and Alec Guinness. Frank Capra and James Stewart. Their styles just seem to mesh perfectly.

One of Pickford's best films.
One of Pickford’s best films.

That’s what it was like for Marshall Neilan and Mary Pickford. Neilan directed some of her finest films and that’s saying a lot considering the quality of Pickford’s output. Pickford’s films were often humorous and whimsical with a dash of Victorian darkness thrown in for contrast. Neilan was able to push whimsy to the limit and invent charming little scenes that showcased Pickford’s talents as a comedienne. His laidback style worked well with Pickford’s sensible, take-charge ways and the Neilan-Pickford sets were merry places to work. That fun shows in every frame.

So why isn’t Neilan remembered as one of the greats? Well, Neilan had started as an actor and had rapidly worked his way to the director’s chair but it soon became clear that he had a problem with alcohol abuse. Now there were plenty of alcoholics working in Hollywood but Neilan showed that he was incapable of controlling his binges and would often be AWOL on the set, leaving stars and crew high and dry.

Neilan directed Pickford's remarkable double performance in "Stella Maris"
Neilan directed Pickford’s remarkable double performance in “Stella Maris”

To make matters worse, he intentionally picked fights with studio brass for the sake of… nothing. I am eternally baffled by people recounting these tales of unprofessionalism and outright meanness as though they are amusing anecdotes. Try insulting the guy who signs your checks and see how well your career goes. The worst of his antics were at the newly-formed MGM and they were made even less charming by Neilan’s practice of openly shouting anti-Semitic insults in the direction of Louis B. Mayer.

(There is also a tale, breathlessly told, of Neilan threatening Mayer with a licorice pistol. The story stinks to high heaven and I am calling baloney on it. Any story of an actor or director standing up to a Big Bad Producer that sounds a little too much like something that would happen in the movies—and has no witnesses—is almost always just a lot of hot air. I think whoever told the story saw Adam’s Rib a few too many times.)

Even Mary Pickford, possibly his biggest fan among the big box office stars, eventually found Neilan’s lack of commitment intolerable and his career slide lower and lower until he was washed up as a top level director.

Neilan with Griffith
Neilan with Griffith

(Neilan loved the ladies and the ladies loved him but I find the recounting of who did what with whom to be tedious and in direct violation of my no-personal-life-unless-it-directly-impacted-a-particular-film policy. Suffice to say, Neilan was rarely lonely.)

This career suicide is made all the more frustrating upon viewing his work. One of the best comedy (not slapstick) directors in the business, Neilan had a way of cleverly communicating with his audience, as if he was taking them aside for a shared joke. He also managed the difficult feat of being whimsical without tumbling into twee, at least not too often. Neilan was undone by his own hubris but it is a shame to see such talent go to waste.

After a stint in poverty row productions, Neilan’s career as a director ended in 1937. Two decades later, he appeared in A Face in the Crowd and passed away the following year. Neilan’s career was a disaster of his own making but he showed so much promise that it is hard not to speculate on what might have been.

22 Replies to “After the Silents: A Face in the Crowd (1957)”

  1. This is one of my all-time faves and for all the reasons you mentioned. Andy Griffithis mesmerizing and would have walked away with this entire movie if it weren’t for the astounding performances by Patricia Meal and Walter Matthau. THis film definitely deserves to be more well known.

    Thans for including info on Marshall Neilan, too. I don’t know much about his career, but I will be paying closer attention from now on. 🙂

  2. A brilliant movie and a scary, razor-sharp performance by Griffith. He goes full sociopath and convinces this viewer there’s no help for him.

  3. Still one of the great film performances for the ages and yup, anyone who only knows Andy from his comedies and Matlock needs to see this and be floored by his work. Double this one up with Network for an interesting set of timeless media-themed movies.

  4. The match up of role and actor like Griffith with Rhodes don’t come along every day. As frightening as it is impressive. I hang onto Walter Matthau for dear life when I watch this movie. He assures me I might possibly still be sane.

  5. This movie blew me away the first time I saw it earlier this year. Griffith is mesmerizing. And Patricial Neal’s performance is so multi-dimensional and complex. It gives me the shivers how accurate, and as you point out timeless, this film is.

    Great post (not that I could ever say antying bad about a post that references a KH movie, of course…). Great movie.

    1. Yes, Griffith gets a lot of the attention (which he deserves) but the movie wouldn’t have been nearly as successful without Neal. I saw an interview with her and she was talking about the soundboard scene, where she has thrown herself across it and is holding on. Apparently, none of it was faked and all those guys really were trying to peel her off and failing. I believe her because the scene looks amazing and not the least bit movie-ish or fake. Then she giggled and said it was a good scene. Yes, it was. 🙂

  6. Great write-up. One thing I would add (without getting into politics); early on, Rhodes isn’t just getting into “minor mischief”, he’s also using his power to try and help people in need. That’s part of why Marcia stays with him even after he starts getting drunk on his own power; it’s not just that she loves him (even though, as you point out, she doesn’t trust him), it’s that she remembers the good he’s done and hopes he can do again.

    1. That’s an interesting point but I would argue that his assisting the woman to get a new house was not motivated by anything other than creating a splash on Memphis television. Rhodes tried to show that he was anti-establishment by coming to the aid of an African-American woman (very controversial in Memphis circa 1957) but at near the end of the film, he screams racially-tinged insults at his waitstaff. Just as his early prank of helping out kids by giving them permission to swim in his boss’s pool was intended to manipulate and win over minds, his assistance to the woman in Memphis was a calculated stunt.

  7. Wow. Neilan was fascinating in a troubling way. Thanks for the details on his career, which I knew virtually nothing about. On the other hand I’ve seen ‘A Face in the Crowd’ countless times and agree with your commentary. Griffith is superb and goes where one is not expecting so he leaves you raw with shock. As for Patricia Neal – few could muster the kind of honesty she did. She is so truthful in fact that what Rhodes turns into in this picture feels like a complete violation on a visceral level.

    Anyway – I just rewatched Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole” and kept thinking that on a double bill with “A Face in the Crowd” would be too much to take, but still a terrific one-two punch.

    Wonderful commentary on a key film of the 1950s.

    Aurora

  8. Great post on a provocative film that’s never been mainstream popular but still gnaws away at popular culture. It’s hard to know what to ‘do’ with A Face in the Crowd. I think it speaks to ideas that we like to think we’ve overcome (image manufacturing and media manipulation and so on) but haven’t really – and that’s an uncomfortable truth to admit.

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