Greeted by mixed reviews and disappointing box office returns, 1957’s A Face in the Crowd has since earned classic status in the minds of many film scholars. In 2008, A Face in the Crowd was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. Scripted by Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront) and based on his short story “Your Arkansas Traveler,” A Face in the Crowd begins with local radio producer Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal, The Subject Was Roses) in search of interview subjects for her show, “A Face in the Crowd.” At the town jail, holed up in the drunk tank, she comes upon an enigmatic drifter named Rhodes (Andy Griffith), with a decent voice, a guitar, and charisma to spare. Declaring him ‘Lonesome’ Rhodes, Marcia quickly realized that his folksy charm is just what her station needs. Lonesome becomes an immediate hit, and it’s not long before big city media wants a piece of this country bumpkin who has captured American hearts.
Rhodes eventually ends up in New York City, spinning his down-home wisdom to the entire country on TV. As his popularity grows, Lonesome becomes an advisor to Washington politicians, and his future seems bright. But can this aimless womanizing rogue adjust the rough edges of his personality for the bright spotlight of fame? Or will his growing ego doom him to failure? By 1957, televisions were proliferating American households, and A Face in the Crowd takes a microscope to whole concept of celebrity and fame, exposing how easy it is for those that are driven by money and power, to appear to be someone or something they aren’t.
Whether it was Gentleman’s Agreement, A Streetcar Named Desire, or On the Waterfront, Elia Kazan developed a reputation as a director whose films had something to say about the world. A Face in the Crowd is no exception. A rather scathing indictment of the than burgeoning media culture, Schulberg flushes out the characters well. Lonesome, Marcia, and the rest aren’t stereotypes; instead, they’re like us with good and bad qualities. This makes the story easy to invest in, and its message powerful, even more than sixty years after the film’s theatrical release.
The cast is outstanding from top to bottom, and a big reason A Face in the Crowd continues to resonate today. Patricia Neal is excellent as Marcia Jeffries, the Arkansas radio show producer who finds Lonesome, and puts him on the road to stardom. Neal conveys a real sense of conflict when Marcia, taken in by Lonesome’s charms, becomes his occasional lover, while attempting to maintain her independent, career woman status. Walter Matthau (A New Leaf) turns up as Mel Miller a circumspect staff writer for Lonesome’s TV show. Mel is quiet, but openly skeptical of Rhodes and the TV medium. Anthony Franciosa (The Long Hot Summer) is a businessman and key player in Rhodes’ rise who has motivations of his own. In her first film, Lee Remick (The Blue Knight) is seventeen-year-old Betty Lou Fleckum, a high school baton twirler Rhodes marries on a whim.
Making his own film debut, Andy Griffith is unquestionably the star of A Face in the Crowd. Considering that just three years later Griffith would begin his turn as home-spun sheriff Andy Taylor on TV, his work here is stunning. When the cameras are on, there are hints of the same homespun philosophy Andy Taylor would become known for, but Rhodes is mostly a hard charging, hard drinking guy with little use for small town values, and the small-minded people that hold them dear. Rhodes has no moral center, and no conscience. He’s in it for himself, end of story. For anyone who knows Andy Griffith strictly as Andy Taylor of Mayberry, or perhaps the rumpled criminal defense attorney Ben Matlock to watch A Face in the Crowd, the Griffith here is not the one known to legions of fans, but a talented actor showing us the range of his abilities. As much as I’ve enjoyed The Andy Griffith Show over the years, I can’t help but wish Griffith had pursed more dramatic roles, it would have been interesting…
Presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Criterion’s restored 4K digital transfer looks superb. Grain is apparent but not overdone, texture is consistent, and contrast is pleasing throughout. The result is a pleasing representation of the image, and the film-in-motion.
The LPCM mono audio track sounds authentic throughout. The overall quality is strong, and dialogue is concise and clear. The score is written by Tom Glazer, and features songs songs sung by Andy Griffith. English SDH subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
- Interview with Ron Briley (HD, 20:43) Interviewed for Criterion in 2018, author of The Ambivalent Legacy of Elia Kazan: The Politics of Post HUAC Films, Ron Briley discusses Kazan’s social and political background, the impact that his HUAC testimony had on his career, and some of themes and political overtones in A Face in the Crowd.
- Evan Dalton Smith (HD, 19:43) Interviewed for Criterion in 2018, Andy Griffith biographer Evan Dalton Smith discusses the actor’s early career and his difficult transformation into the character of Lonesome Rhodes.
- Facing the Past (HD, 29:10) Produced in 2005 for the previous Warner Bros. DVD release, this documentary focuses on Elia Kazan’s political activities, particularly his association with the Communist party, his difficulties after his HUAC testimony, and the evolution of his career. Naturally, there’s much focus on A Face in the Crowd. The documentary uses clips from the film, as well as archival interviews with Actors Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, and Anthony Franciosa, as well as screenwriter Budd Schulberg, and film scholars Leo Brady and Jeff Young.
- Trailer (HD, 2:19) A remastered vintage trailer.
- Booklet: A 30-page illustrated booklet featuring critic April Wolfe’s essay “American Character,” “About Screenwriters,” by Elia Kazan, and a New York Times Magazine profile of Andy Griffith from 1957.
A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Movie title: A Face in the Crowd
Director(s): Elia Kazan
Actor(s): Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal , Anthony Franciosa, Walter Matthau, Lee Remick , Percy Waram
Genre: Drama, Music