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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.