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Demagogue in Denim

Today I saw A Face in the Crowd, a 1957 film I had never heard of five days ago, and it blew me away. It was directed by Elia Kazan of A Streetcar Named Desire and Baby Doll (which I loved), and On the Waterfront (which I rather keenly disliked), as well as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and East of Eden (which I should probably see someday). It features the big-screen debuts of Andy Griffith and Lee Remick, as well as Walter Matthau only a few years into his movie career (I believe this was his first non-Western film role).

A Face in the Crowd is about a wandering Arkansas alcoholic with a guitar and a boatload of charisma who rockets to fame as a TV personality, and eventually becomes a potent political force before his mean arrogance brings him crashing back down. The structure is very similar to 1949’s All the King’s Men (and probably many others), but much better here. The cinematography, sets, writing, and most especially the acting are top-notch. This film bombed with audiences when it was first release, and was completely ignored at the Oscars (notables that year include The Bridge on the River Kwai and 12 Angry Men). This is rather too bad, as the film is a masterpiece and a true classic. It doesn’t deserve this obscurity.

You’ve never seen Andy Griffith like this, and after this movie, you never would again. Griffith stuck to much safer roles following A Face in the Crowd. His character, Lonesome Rhodes, is volatile, mean, and sexually charged, but also fascinating and magnetic. I would never have guessed that the man who went on to play the beloved sheriff of Mayberry for many successful television seasons had this sort of persona lurking inside.

I was also amazed by the movie’s continued relevance after 50 years. With television still a growing phenomenon in the late ’50s, this movie was way ahead of its time (a recipe for box-office disaster, I suppose). It put me in mind of such phenomena as (for instance) the influence of Fox News over red state America. Regardless of whether a liberal bias exists in the media, there is no doubt that conservative America gets its opinions from the boob tube, and this movie shows that they have for as long as that medium has existed (remember McCarthy?).

It is a riveting and worthwhile experience for any film buff or student of cultural history, and I’m so pleased it caught my eye when I was checking in the VHS copy at the library earlier this week.

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~ by Jared on February 9, 2007.

3 Responses to “Demagogue in Denim”

  1. <em>You’ve never seen Andy Griffith like this, and after this movie, you never would again.</em>

    You know, Griffith isn’t the only lovable family actor who showed sterling evil qualities. Fred MacMurray, for example, was quite promising as a sociopath before he became a Disney leading man.

    Oh, I have seen Griffith in a later dark role, though. He was a really strange con man in <a href=”http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0598072/”>an episode of <em>Hawaii Five-O</em></a>. He’s played other villains since then, but always for comedy, as far as I know; in that episode, he <em>was</em> amusingly incompetent … but in a really creepy way.

  2. Oh, Fred MacMurray’s darker side is certainly no secret. <i>Double Indemnity</i> is, of course, among my favorite movies of all time, and <i>The Apartment</i> of course is an Oscar-winning classic (both directed by Billy Wilder, interestingly). But MacMurray’s career had him playing these kinds of characters pretty much concurrently . . . He was in <i>The Shaggy Dog</i> before he was in <i>The Apartment</i> and the zany <i>The Egg and I</i> was much earlier even than that. Today I think he is equally famous for both types of roles.

    I’m not sure I’d call that <i>Hawaii Five-O</i> episode “dark” from the description (or the show in general, for that matter), but I didn’t mean to suggest that Griffith was never a villain after <i>A Face in the Crowd</i>. What I meant was, he stuck to much “safer” roles that were not as likely to generate controversy or, more importantly, to flop.

    The very next year he starred in a much bigger hit, <i>No Time for Sergeants</i>, in which he basically played Gomer Pyle. This was, interestingly, Don Knotts’ first film appearance as well.

    I do find it ironic, though, that after making this movie, Andy Griffith went on to spend most of his career in television, where he was a pretty big hit.

  3. <em>But MacMurray’s career had him playing these kinds of characters pretty much concurrently</em>

    That’s true in the case of the two movies you mentioned, circa 1960. But I think if you compare the string of roles he played before that point with the string of roles he played after that point, the career change is pretty dramatic. <em>The Apartment</em> was pretty much the last time he was seen in public without flubber or some other adorable sidekick.

    <em>What I meant was, he stuck to much “safer” roles that were not as likely to generate controversy or, more importantly, to flop.</em>

    I guess the reason I don’t see it that way is that he got his start in comedy (and then playing <em>No Time for Sergeants</em> on Broadway). <em>A Face in the Crowd</em> was already out of character for him in 1957. And virtually everything he did after that was in television … which made the typecasting almost inevitable.

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