Last year, Warner Bros. reissued a DVD of director Elia Kazan’s 1957 film A Face In The Crowd. The screenplay, by Kazan’s frequent collaborator, novelist Budd Schulberg, is an intense cautionary about power, politics and public manipulation amid TV’s then newly grown influence. All but ignored at the time, Face has gained stature for predicting much of what dominates today’s American discourse. The film’s first-rate cast included Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Anthony Franciosa, newcomer Lee Remick, and Andy Griffith in his first starring film role.
With wise, bucolic Sheriff Andy Taylor still three years away, Griffith becomes boozing, guitar-strumming sociopath Larry Rhodes. Pulled from a Mayberry-like Alabama jail by radio reporter Marcia Jeffries (Neal), he sings, in return for early release, for her local “A Face In The Crowd” program. Impressed by positive response, the station hires him.
Folksy personality “Lonesome” Rhodes becomes a local star before achieving even greater fame at a Memphis TV station. Back-door machinations by Memphis hustler Joey DePalma (Franciosa) bring Rhodes to New York to host a network “Face In The Crowd” sponsored by a bogus energy pill called Vitajex. The show, produced by Jeffries and written by Mel Miller (Matthau), makes Rhodes a cultural phenomenon for whom mountains, ships and roses are named.
The private Lonesome binges on megalomania, bullying his staff until a disgusted Miller quits. The highly-educated Jeffries, intoxicated by her charge’s visceral sexuality, becomes deeply involved with him. He proposes but, fearing her intellect, impulsively weds a teenage Arkansas baton twirler (Remick).
As Jeffries reels from the betrayal, far-right power brokers court Rhodes. They dangle a cabinet post as incentive for him to promote their agenda and rework their chosen presidential candidate, a pompous elderly senator, into a lovable proletarian. To that end, Rhodes creates a new “Cracker Barrel” talk show that, like all 1957 TV talk shows, was live.
His end comes with blinding speed. As a “Cracker Barrel” broadcast ends, Lonesome bids everyone goodnight, smiling and waving at the camera while an announcer adds a voice-over. Only Jeffries and others in the booth hear him calling his fans “guinea pigs,” “idiots” and “morons.” Jeffries, confronting the monster she created, throws a switch that puts his abusive monologue on the air. As betrayed fans vent nationwide, Jeffries and Miller face a hysterical Rhodes. After she admits she put him on the air, Miller, Jeffries’ true paramour, adds his two cents: “You’ll be back…but it won’t be quite the same.”
Schulberg cited the beloved cowboy humorist Will Rogers as an inspiration (Rogers’ son once regaled the writer with tales of his famous dad’s phoniness). But broadcaster Arthur Godfrey surely factored into the idea. Red-haired, freckle-faced and wholesome, his Monday-Friday morning “Arthur Godfrey Time”, launched by CBS Radio in 1945, was the forerunner of today’s talk shows, even Howard Stern’s.
Without a script, Godfrey chatted about anything and everything, sang (badly) with his trademark ukulele, and introduced tunes by a cast of singers dubbed the Little Godfreys. Housewives in the 1950s loved his avuncular informality; men enjoyed his earthy witticisms. In 1946 CBS added “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts”, a weekly, prime-time forerunner to “Star Search” and “American Idol”. The network migrated both shows to TV and later added a weekly prime-time variety show featuring he and the Little Godfreys.
Audiences trusted Godfrey. He declared he’d only advertise products he believed in, and his rambling, informal commercials were so effective that sponsors gladly paid top dollar even if he kidded their products on the air (as Rhodes does in Face). A veteran pilot, he helped increase airline business by declaring that commercial air travel was safe.
At one point, his shows brought CBS an astounding 12% of their revenue. A regular guy on the air, he also showed viewers his 2000-acre Virginia farm and luxury airplane. Godfrey, too, had political ties, having informally advised the 1952 Eisenhower presidential campaign.
Not surprisingly, Godfrey was also a monster, his temper flaring off the air and occasionally during a broadcast. Aware of his profit margins, he routinely baited CBS executives who couldn’t fire their cash cow. He forbade the Little Godfreys from hiring managers, and frequently threatened their jobs at cast meetings.
His “Cracker Barrel” moment came in 1953. Two years earlier, he’d hired 21-year-old singer Julius LaRosa right out of the Navy as a Little Godfrey. Though “Julie” never performed professionally, the program gave him overnight stardom and hit records. After a minor dispute with Godfrey, LaRosa enraged him by hiring a manager. On October 19, after lauding LaRosa’s fame, Godfrey requested he sing “I’ll Take Manhattan”, and when he finished, cheerily announced, “That was Julie’s swan song with us,” catching his audience and LaRosa off guard and sparking a national scandal.
As upset Godfrey fans rallied to LaRosa’s side, Godfrey’s hypocrisy emerged when he arrogantly declared at a press conference that the young star had lost his “humility.” Within days, Godfrey became a target of scandal magazines and comedians. And yet despite later firings and public fiascos, a diminished Godfrey remained on CBS radio until 1972.
Today, the events A Face In The Crowd warned of are routine reality. Every political party has its Lonesome Rhodeses and Godfreys, who use entertainers from Brooks & Dunn to Kid Rock and Bono for photo ops. Former and current presidents endorse pork rinds and country music. They tout family values, tax cuts, patriotism, and a strong, secure America, eviscerating anyone who dares challenge their means to those ends. It wouldn’t surprise me if Karl Rove had his own often-played Face DVD.
As the film ends, Mel Miller, noting Rhodes’ impaired influence, reminds Marcia Jeffries, “We got wise to him. That’s our strength.” Hopefully, given recent polls and an incessant stream of revelations of Washington incompetence, corruption, slimy lobbyists, power-mad televangelists and anti-intellectual poseurs, Americans will get wise again.