While I do not own a 4K Blu-ray player, it’s hard to imagine Criterion’s new release of Elia Kazan’s A Face In The Crowd looking any crisper.
Its very timely 2019 arrival into the Criterion collection feels almost coincidental given that the film -- Kazan’s best, depending on who you ask -- could have easily been Criterionized at any point since the collection’s laserdisc inception in 1984, beginning with the release of the spiritually similar Citizen Kane. I suppose another way of looking at it is that A Face In The Crowd is becoming an increasingly glaring omission.
A Face In The Crowd, Kazan’s second collaboration with screenwriter Budd Schulberg, is something of a cautionary Frankenstein tale aimed at the still young ‘television age’ and its disconcerting powers of influence, the effects of which were still far from fully apparent in the mid-50s era of the film’s production. In an age when entertainment, advertising, and politics were beginning to jumble in frightening new ways, television was a trusted household medium, in that people genuinely took its content at its word, making it ripe for weaponization, particularly in the hands of the charismatic.
Andy Griffith, in his thunderous on-screen debut, is electric as ‘Lonesome’ Rhodes, a song and dance rambler with a gift for the gab. Opposite Griffith is the magnetic Patricia Neal as Marcia Jeffries, a radio DJ who discovers Rhodes in a prison cell while Alan Lomax-ing for undiscovered ‘field’ talents.
In introducing Rhodes to an audience that grows in mass by the minute, Jeffries unwittingly creates a monster out of a seemingly lovable everyman, not only revealing his unfortunate underlying megalomaniacal nature, but also the malignantly destructive influence of the dangerously prevalent new medium as a vehicle for mass bamboozlement.
Kazan’s epic rise and fall tale, based on Schulberg's short story, ‘'Your Arkansas Traveler'’ (from a collection entitled Some Faces In A Crowd), makes for a prophetic dystopic watch, but as a character study of a man who grows addicted and transformed by the attention that televised fame offers, A Face In the Crowd really shines. There’s a great scene in Terry Zwigoff’s Art School Confidential when a now-famous art college graduate returns for a student:celebrity-alumni q&a. After a slew of horrible-person answers, Marvin Bushmiller is asked by a student, “Why are you such an asshole?” Bushmiller, played by Adam Scott, responds plainly, “I am an asshole because that is my true nature… The difference between you and me is that I have gained the freedom to express my true nature.”
As this is a rise and fall story in the most structurally innovative of senses, I don’t mind ‘spoiling’ that there is indeed a massive fall element to the meteoritic Lonesome Rhodes story. Film lovers my age will recognize the ending as played out by The Great Gabbo on The Simpsons, but those far older and more steeped in the history of entertainment broadcasting may be familiar with the infamous ‘Uncle’ Don Carney scandal or perhaps the Arthur Godfrey affair.
The Uncle Don myth refers to a disproven urban legend attributed to a variety of child entertainers over many years. It goes that one day immediately following the airing of a radio broadcast but before actually leaving air, an oblivious Uncle Don supposedly uttered ‘that ought to hold the little bastards.’ No such recording exists, but whether or not such an incident occurred, or if he was merely suggesting to a lady companion, ‘Let's go make some little bastards’, as one source claims, doesn’t lessen the endurance of the story or make it any less potent as a climax to the great swindler Lonesome Rhodes story.
It’s an all-around incredibly executed film well-worthy of favorite film status. Griffith is nothing short of titular, and Patricia Neal delivers a genuinely heartbreaking performance that seems to bear the weight of the film on her face at all times. Even a young Walter Matthau in his fourth onscreen appearance pops up to offer his sobering mug.
But what anchors all these supreme elements together is the priceless collaboration of Elia Kazan and Bud Schulberg, who are following a rather tough act with their previous and first collaborative effort, On The Waterfront - Criterion’s other Kazan offering. It was during the making of that when the two friends and fellow name-namers first bonded over their shared anti-communist ideals and discovered an inspired creative relationship.
While all of these elements surely should have added up to a well-earned victory, the 1957 warm reception of A Face In The Crowd was not to be. These days countless cineastes praise the film as a gem, but in the late 50s, as many talking heads in Criterion's supplements will attest to, people did not want to see Kazan succeed. And yet, few can deny that the bizarre blend of energies surrounding the McCarthy trials somehow resulted in two remarkable films. While I have yet to dive into Criterion’s release of On The Waterfront, I imagine much of the content spread throughout its two discs is devoted to this salacious-to-this-day subject.
As for this brand spanking new disc, or perhaps on your Criterion Channel, the story of Kazan and his wars against both his McCarthyist attackers against himself and the Hollywood Ten as well as with The Hollywood Ten themselves, is recounted well in an interview with Ron Briley, author of The Ambivalent Legacy of Elia Kazan.
The next interview, care of biographer Evan Dalton Smith, is dedicated to the star power of Andy Griffith, who took to the silver screen as Lonesome Rhodes like a house on fire, only to immediately turn his back on cinema and join the medium his starring film feared so dubiously in a similarly titular role. Further reading on the Andy Griffith story can be found in the booklet, which includes an interview from 1957, detailing Griffith's disturbingly invested commitment to his sociopathic debut role.
My personal favorite supplement is a 30-minute featurette from 1995, called Facing The Past, which features interviews with geriatric actors Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, and Anthony Franciosa, screenwriter Budd Schulberg, and relatively young film scholars Leo Braudy and Jeff Young. The booklet, as always, is a great read. In addition to the interview with Griffith, you can also find Kazan’s moving introduction to the published screenplay, praising his dear collaborator and friend.
All in all, the essayists, as well as the many talking heads who appear throughout the supplements, offer great insights into the film without making too big a meal of the frightening parallels the film bears to current American affairs; wherein politics and showmanship have united so completely it’s getting tougher to differentiate where one ends and the other begins.
I’m particularly fond of one paragraph from an essay by April Wolfe, which speaks to the means employed by self-ordained leaders and other such self-obsessed public personality types. In Wolfe’s words:
“Schulberg’s inspirations for Rhodes were homespun politicians and entertainers like Huey Long and Will Rogers, but especially radio and television host Arthur Godfrey. In his heyday in the forties and early fifties, Godfrey had been the consummate pitchman. His monologues were extemporaneous, meandering but endearing, and he projected for his audience an image of veracity, primarily by frequently assuring the folks at home that they could, in fact, trust him. (It never stops being surprising how effective this tactic of convincing one’s followers of a claim simply by repeating it over and over can be.)”