On a recent episode of The View, Whoopi Goldberg prescribed a viewing of 1957’s A Face in the Crowd as a way of understanding Donald Trump’s unaccountable popularity among a small segment of the populace. The movie explains more than that, actually. A primer on the ease and dangers of American demagoguery, A Face in the Crowd sets its sights on a drunk drifter and takes him all the way up to the position of political kingmaker. Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith) goes a long way on cornpone aw-shucks charm, most of which he consciously ladles on. Rhodes has a sharp, shrewd mind, and people underestimate him at their peril; he has an instinctive comprehension of the relatively new medium of television, and he uses it to sell products — energy pills, candidates. Same thing.
Rhodes is discovered in an Arkansas jail by radio reporter Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), and soon enough she regrets her role in “making” him (she even dubs him Lonesome). Rhodes segues from radio to a local TV station to a major New York network. He can’t seem to step wrong. His listeners/viewers love his honesty, and when he ridicules his first sponsor, a mattress company, sales of their mattresses rise 55%. Marcia and one of Rhodes’ writers, Mel Miller (Walter Matthau), look on in dismay. They know Rhodes is starting to rot behind the mask. There he is on his top-rated show, enabling a senator’s explanation of why Social Security is un-American. Daniel Boone, after all, wouldn’t have needed it.
Griffith’s hungry, lunging performance (it was his film debut) is a shock and a revelation to anyone who knows him primarily from The Andy Griffith Show or, God knows, Matlock. Rhodes wasn’t the last villain Griffith played, but it was most likely his most vulnerable and recognizable. Rhodes’ impish, vulpine grin and ferocious cackle — Whitman’s barbaric yawp in full frightening effect — complete the mask, the face that the crowd wants to see. In one respect, it’s the audience’s fault for buying into Rhodes’ patter, because they need someone to believe in, someone to give that power to. If it isn’t him, it’ll be someone else. The audience is gullible but also fickle, and is always looking for a reason to discontinue its belief.
Budd Schulberg’s script verges on didactic at times but never quite tumbles over. As sociopolitical satire, the movie was decades ahead of its time, even scooping 1976’s Network. The acting, especially by Griffith and Neal, is witty but primal at times, almost Kabuki-like (also note Neal’s silent-horror-film method of indicating distress by clutching her face). There were moments when I was afraid on behalf of various characters in a room with the raging Rhodes, even though, aside from a bar fight he gets into (but doesn’t start), he’s never particularly violent. He’s never too far away from hysteria, though. One of the film’s virtues is showing us the burden of Rhodes’ cult of personality. He got where he is by artificial honesty, and now he can’t ever say what he truly feels or it’s all over. I’m not sure what, if anything, that says to us about Mr. Trump, but it bears remembering no matter who steps up to a podium to sell us a pill, a candidate, or a war.