Finding new films to review has been a bit tricky the past few months, and it looks like that will remain the case for a while. This gives me the opportunity to do a series I’ve wanted to do for some time. Unlike many of the people I attended film classes with (I will not name any names), I love black and white films. To me, a black and white palette emphasizes the actors and their performances more. Without a vivid spectrum of color, there aren’t as many objects in the frame to distract from the expressions. Shadows feel richer and bright lights harsher. Anyway, I’m going to talk about a lot of black and white films in the near future, and my analysis will be deeper than our typical reviews on this blog, so expect me to delve into plot points and provide in-depth examination of the characters.
For the first entry in this series, I decided to finally check out a film that has been recommended to me by friends and relatives countless times over the past decade or so: A Face in the Crowd. The film was directed by Elia Kazan (A Streetcar Named Desire and On The Waterfront) and written by Bud Schulberg. It tells the story of Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a drunkard who is discovered by a local radio journalist named Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) when she shows up to interview inmates of an Arkansas jail. Rhodes is just staying temporarily to sleep off a bender, and is initially reluctant to participate in Jeffries’ program. When Rhodes finally does perform, Jeffries is impressed by his raw personality and soon offers him a full time gig at the station. His antics win over the local audience and attract national attention and he soon begins using the power of the media to satisfy his worst impulses. Who does that sound like?
There is an undeniably Trumpy nature to Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes when he has a captive audience. When Rhodes encourages the people of a rural Arkansas town to dump unwanted mutts in a mayoral candidate’s yard, it’s hard not to think of then candidate Trump convincing his supporters to call senator Lindsey Graham at all hours during the 2016 Republican primary. Rhodes is also a racist who pretends to care for African Americans living in poverty in order to to pull off a publicity stunt. On air, he also pretends to have great respect for women (though, the 1950s version of respect this film presents is problematic) and feigns a love of community and faith. Despite this persona, which he uses to successfully court viewers to gain high ratings, great wealth and even political influence, he also participates in suggestive ads for a tonic called Vitajex. The sexuality in these ads is about a week’s drive from subtle and presents women as eager prey. His fans forgive this though, which is similar to how Trump’s supporters rail at the immorality of Democrats but ignore their candidate’s crude and boastful persona and the numerous claims of sexual harassment and assault made against him.
There were instances when I wondered if the filmmakers were even aware of how offensive they were making Rhodes when they told this story. It’s not a stretch to imagine that some aspects of Rhodes’ character are even more offensive through 2020 lenses. On a related note, as someone who is fascinated with the history of motion picture ratings and censorship, there were moments (mainly those featuring sexual dialogue) that I couldn’t believe made the final cut 63 years ago. Kazan was no stranger to censorship of his films, but it feels like he really got away with something here.
Rhodes’ arc bears strong resemblance to the media manipulation practiced by the current occupant of the White House, but even as thoughtful as the script is, it wouldn’t be nearly as terrifying without Griffith’s stunning performance. Ironically, Griffith would end up adopting a professional persona similar to the one Rhodes uses when he’s on camera. Thanks to his stint in Mayberry that would begin only five years after this film’s release, Griffith would forever be seen as folksy, trustworthy, honest, family-friendly and even, depending on who you ask, conservative and devout. I’ll let those who want to research Griffith’s record of political endorsements find the answer themselves to the question of whether or not he was conservative, but it is clear he did not want to make a career out of the darker demands this role placed upon him. If he did, however, A Face in the Crowd proves he would have been very good at it.
The film also features great performances from Patricia Neal and Walter Matthau as well as top notch direction (once again) from Kazan. The latter knew when to avoid being too flashy, and how to stay out of the way of the actors who were providing plenty of intensity on their own. But two moments really stand out from a technical aspect. The first is when Rhodes returns to the Arkansas town that launched him into stardom. The festivities include letting him judge a competition between high school drum majorettes. One majorette in particular (played by Lee Remick) catches Rhodes’ eye, and the editing (by Gene Milford) throughout the entire competition emphasizes his interest in her, a 17 year old girl, without making his interest (and her reciprocation of it) seem cool. It also demonstrates the completion of a disturbing circle. Marcia discovered Rhodes while interviewing subjects for a show called A Face in the Crowd. Now, Rhodes is conducting a different sort of interview with far less professional intentions. It feels sinister, predatory and gross. It should.
The other technically superb moment involves Rhodes’ downfall. Yes, despite how dark and prophetic this piece gets, it is still Hollywood and naive enough to think that someone like Rhodes will eventually hit a limit to his power and say something that goes too far. Four years after “I could shoot someone in the middle of Times Square…” and we’re still waiting for the awful comment/action that ends a demagogue’s reign. In Kazan’s film, the line “I can make ’em eat dog food and they’ll think it’s steak” is among the words spoken in a two minute clip that ends Rhodes’ media dominance. Anyway, after his words air on live television (without him realizing), he boards an elevator to travel from the top of the building to the bottom. The numbers of each floor lighting up in succession are intercut with viewers calling the network to complain about Rhodes’ on air conduct and network executives scrambling to react to the fallout. His career is dead by the time he reaches the first floor. It had to be riveting in 1957. It’s a fantasy today.
In terms of problems I had with the film, well, it was made in the 1950s. I get the feeling it was ahead of it’s time in terms of its commentary on sexism and racism, but it’s still dated and problematic. We witness a racist outburst from Rhodes, but elsewhere, the script itself treats African Americans only as props or plot points. While we are supposed to be disgusted by how Rhodes treats women, the film also seems to want us to laugh at the over-the-top Vitajex commercials rather than just be disgusted by them. Many of Rhodes’ early radio segments, and scenes demonstrating his influence over housewives who have their radios tuned to his show, are also framed in a sexist manner. Still, A Face in the Crowd is an extremely relevant film and a complex, challenging one. Whether you decide to watch it will depend heavily on how much more MAGA-esque behavior you can stand to witness. I was already at my limit, so this wasn’t the most enjoyable viewing experience, but watching Rhodes’ downfall at the end was cathartic.