“Goodnight, you stupid idiots. Goodnight, you miserable slobs.”
When A Face in the Crowd opened in 1957, it flopped at the box office. Despite having an Academy Award-winning director, Elia Kazan, who already had Gentleman’s Agreement, A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, East of Eden, and Baby Doll to his credit; despite having a script by screenwriting’s poet laureate, Budd Schulberg; despite having a plethora of bona-fide and soon-to-be stars, including Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Lee Remick and Walter Matthau; the film, which deals with the marriage of convenience between old school politics and new school TV, touched a nerve in moviegoers in the 1950s. Before there was Network and Magnolia and Bamboozled, there was only the misunderstood and late-to-be-appreciated A Face in the Crowd.
Based on Schulberg’s short story “Your Arkansas Traveler,” the film tells the story of the rise and fall of a charismatic hillbilly named Lonesome Rhodes (Griffith in his film debut). He’s discovered by a reporter, Marcia Jeffries (Neal), who has a radio show called “A Face in the Crowd.” Rhodes plays the guitar and carries a mean tune, and his folksy manner and way with a song prove irresistible to Marcia and red state America.
Rhodes effectively hides the wolf he is in threadbare populist’s clothing. As someone from the wrong side of the tracks, he believes that those who hold the purse strings and reins of power are responsible for keeping him down. Since the majority of citizens feel as he does, Lonesome Rhodes becomes their spokesman, the voice of the voiceless, and moves from radio to TV, from Arkansas to New York City, in no time flat. He makes enemies along the way, as any rising star might, but his egoism precludes self-analysis, let alone slowing down, for fear that his dumb-luck momentum might be curtailed, his man-of-the-people masquerade revealed.
In our media-saturated culture, we’ve grown accustomed to being dished the dirt on our cultural icons. But the 1950s were a more innocent time, and naïveté, willful ignorance, defined the rules of the game as they were played in that era, which enabled a cornpone character with bad intentions like Lonesome Rhodes to emerge unexamined from the woodwork.
Rhodes’ success at moving merchandise attracts the attention of several plutocrats. One of them, General Haynesworth (Percy Waram), is convinced the singer’s common touch isn’t being used to the max, and believes Rhodes is the perfect vehicle to help promote the candidate for President he’s supporting, a dimwitted Senator named Worthington Fuller (Marshall Neilan).
“Lonesome Rhodes could be made into an influence, a wielder of opinion, an institution,” declares Haynesworth, “positively sacred to his country, like the Washington Monument. My study of history has convinced me that in every strong society from the Egyptians on the mass had to be guided with a strong hand by a responsible elite. Let us not forget that in TV we have the greatest instrument for mass persuasion in the history of the world.”
Backed by Haynesworth’s capital and connections, Rhodes becomes a national treasure. When he marries 17-year-old drum majorette Betty Lou Fleckham (Remick in her film debut), Marcia tells him, “Betty Lou is your public, all wrapped up in ribbons in a cute little package. She’s the logical culmination of the great love affair between Lonesome Rhodes and his audience.”
Rhodes works his magic on Senator Fuller, coaching him in the ways of the modern world: “Politics have entered a new stage: television. Instead of longwinded public debates, the people want slogans. ‘Time for a change!’ ‘The mess in Washington!’ ‘More bang for a buck!’ Punch lines and glamour!”
The more power Rhodes accrues, the more he craves, and his scorn for the little guy grows exponentially, but he never lets his real intentions, his true self be known; at least not to the folks in TV land.
Rhodes introduces Fuller to his television audience and cons them into believing the Senator is someone they can trust. When a soundman tells Lonesome he’s off the air, although still onscreen as the credits roll, he unleashes his contempt.
“I’m glad that’s over. I’m gonna start shooting people instead of ducks. Fuller, the great hunter,” mocks Lonesome. “He’s shaking like this.”
Marcia has come to the station — and is at her wit’s end. She runs to the empty sound booth and turns up the audio so that Lonesome’s listeners can hear what she hears, so that his fans can know the man she has known too well and too long.
“Sell that stuff about a man among men to those morons out there? Shucks,” says Lonesome, “I sell them chicken fertilizer as caviar. I can make them eat dog food and think it’s steak. Sure, I’ve got them like this. You know what the public’s like? A cage full of guinea pigs. Goodnight, you stupid idiots. Goodnight, you miserable slobs. They’re a lot of trained seals. I toss them a dead fish and they’ll flap their flippers.”
The staff runs to the sound booth, but removing Marcia’s hands from the volume controls is like removing a barnacle from the hull of a sinking ship.
Patricia Neal wrote in As I Am: An Autobiography:
My big moment in the film comes at the end, when my character realizes what a bastard the singer has become. He’s in the final moments of his TV show, smiling sweetly under the closing credits. Secure in the belief that the sound has been cut off, he snidely berates his audience as mindless clods. I’m in the control room and seize the opportunity to expose him by turning the sound back on, allowing those fans to see what he really is …
A Face in the Crowd explores themes of mass media and the cult of personality, and how the ability to shape public opinion had reached new heights (or depths) with the advent of an innovative medium beamed into every home. When Kazan and Schulberg were consolidating their thoughts on the film, they visited Capitol Hill and Madison Avenue. “We got the feeling that people were manipulating in the crudest way [other] people’s thinking,” observed Kazan, “and I feel that still. I think people are … being made to think in a way they wouldn’t ordinarily think.”
While the media’s power to skew perception is the essence of A Face in the Crowd, the film’s subject is Lonesome Rhodes, who has several real-life antecedents: Arthur Godfrey, a ukulele-playing radio host, who made a name for himself during the FDR years, before crashing and burning on TV in the 1950s; and Will Rogers, a plain-spoken, lasso-twirling cowpoke who was America’s favorite homespun philosopher in the 1920s and ’30s. Budd Schulberg spoke with Will Rogers Jr. about his dad, and the conversation went something like this: “I was talking about my old man, and he was talking about his father, and he said, ‘My father was so full of shit, because he pretends he’s just one of the people, just one of the guys … but in our house the only people who ever came as guests were the richest people in town, the bankers and the powerbrokers of L.A. And those were his friends and that’s where his heart is and he [was] really a goddamned reactionary.'”
Kazan and Schulberg were “friendly witnesses” during the HUAC anti-communist witch-hunt of the early 1950s. Being on the wrong side of history should have been a heavy cross to bear, but A Face in the Crowd can in part be seen as penance for naming names. Although Kazan wrote in his autobiography A Life, “The truth is that within a year I stopped feeling guilty or even embarrassed about what I’d done,” he also said, “I truly believe that all power corrupts.” More to the point, Kazan told Richard Schickel in 1990 about A Face in the Crowd, “It anticipates Reagan. And I can’t say anything better than that.” Not to be outdone, the film also presages the rise of George W. Bush, who, like Reagan and Lonesome Rhodes, is another empty suit with fascistic leanings fronting for a “responsible elite.”