A FACE IN THE CROWD was a revelation for me. Being a North Carolina boy, being a fan of Andy Griffith is almost de rigueur. And there’s another connection, however minor it is. My stepfather is from Griffith’s home town, Mt. Airy, and is of the same age. All he will admit to is he knew Griffith, though they weren’t friends.

I was entirely unfamiliar with this movie, Griffith’s film debut. I knew of NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS, but not any other films. And I had no idea of his dramatic talents. Familiar with THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW and MATLOCK, not to mention his classic WHAT IT WAS, WAS FOOTBALL, his talents in this film floored me.

The movie is a story of a rise in power, and the eventual descent, of a television star in the early days of this new medium. It was the first to show the coming power of television to make stars, form people’s opinions for them, and even influence the political arena. Directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, it didn’t so much make Griffith a star, he was already on the way, but brought his talents(to borrow a phrase from LeBron James) to a larger audience.

Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes is a drunk, a drifter, and a womanizer that moves from radio to television to national television, all the while growing more powerful and arrogant along the way.

Patricia Neal is here as Marcia Jeffries, his discoverer, a woman who finds him in an Alabama jail and features him on her radio program, A Face In The Crowd, one of those local human interest stories prevalent these days on small television stations. Walter Matthau is Mel Miller, a writer for the television show, Anthony Franciosa as Joey DePalma, a slimy agent, and Lee Remick makes her own film debut as the teenage baton twirler he marries suddenly instead of Jeffries, which begins his downfall. A number of real life names made cameos as themselves, everyone from John Cameron Swayze to Mitch Miller to Burl Ives to Mike Wallace.

Griffith is fine as a folksy singer/commenter on the human condition(ala Will Rogers) as he moves up the ladder to success, hiding behind the genial on-camera persona a man cruel and often vicious to the behind the scenes crew. His fall is abrupt as he voices his real thoughts of the audience and politicians, just as he’s moving into the behind the scenes power of a presidential contender, to the crew over the closing credits of his live show, unaware that his ex-fiance had turned his mike back on.

As I said earlier, Griffith, in this meaty role, amazed me. At times with the Neal character, he seemed vulnerable and uncertain and I wondered if this was real or part of the manipulation. The ending gave me the answer. I was uncertain when I started watching if I could divorce the noble Andy Taylor from the completely amoral Lonesome Rhodes. No problem there.

Liked this one.

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