In a small town in Arkansas, Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) works for her uncle, the owner of a local radio station, as a roving reporter doing a program called “A Face in the Crowd,” where she interviews plain, ordinary folks. When the movie opens, she has decided to go to the county jail to see if there is anyone of interest there. Because Sheriff Big Jeff Bess is sweet on her, she has no trouble getting access. After several inmates turn away from her attempts to get them to tell a story or sing a song, the sheriff suggests the new guy with the guitar, arrested on drunk and disorderly. When the deputy goes over to wake him up, someone hollers out, “Better watch him. He’s mean.” Sure enough, when the deputy kicks him, the inmate, Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith), turns around with a face full of hate. He softens up, however, when he sees Marcia. Still, he refuses to cooperate until he knows what he will get out of it. The sheriff promises to let him go in the morning. Suddenly, Rhodes becomes quite charming. As he picks up his guitar, Marcia, speaking into the tape recorder, talks about how she majored in music at Sarah Lawrence College, where she learned that the real American music comes from the bottom up. “When George Gershwin played in New York,” she says, “it was black tie, but the real beginning of it was by folks that never owned a tie.”
We might call this populist music, which comes from the lower classes and is somehow more authentic and genuine than the elitist music that comes from the scions of well-to-do families, who study at musical conservatories, learn to read sheet music, and acquire a theoretical understanding of the subject. Furthermore, Marcia limits this observation to American music, because part of the ideology of America is the belief that anyone with talent can make it, there being no class barriers to hold him back. Another part of that ideology is a faith in the common folk, those that never owned a tie, to determine through the democratic process what kind of government they will have and who shall preside over it. It is this ideology that underlies what follows.
Continuing with her introduction, she nicknames him “Lonesome Rhodes.” He tells her he needs to warm up first, and in doing so, puts on a great performance, which Marcia secretly tapes, and which turns out to be quite a hit when played on the radio. His ability to be great in an unscripted, unrehearsed, spontaneous manner dovetails nicely with Marcia’s populist theory of music.
Marcia is so fascinated with Lonesome’s performance that she has failed to ingest the crucial information provided to her and to us right at the beginning, that he is mean and selfish. But that is not the worst of it. People who are consistently mean and who always want to know what’s in it for them are easy to deal with. You simply avoid them. But the way Lonesome switches to a completely opposite personality (the one we usually associate with Andy Griffith) in an instant, becoming charming, friendly, and funny, is what makes such people unnerving. These are the kind of people we should really avoid, but often fail to do so because their affable side is so appealing.
Part of Lonesome’s appeal is his ability to speak to the cares and joys of ordinary people, especially working class, to whom he shows great affection. Eventually, he becomes so popular that he is offered a spot on the Grand Ole Opry by a theatrical agent who compares him to Will Rogers, saying that Lonesome is not merely someone who can sing catchy songs and tell funny stories, but someone with power. He accepts the offer, taking Marcia with him, as his “girl Friday.” As they board the train, he waves goodbye to his fans in that little town in Arkansas, turns around and says, “Boy, I’m glad to shake that dump.”
Now, a lot of us make an effort to get along with people, sometimes pretending to like them more than we actually do. But most of us keep our actual feelings to ourselves, perhaps revealing them only in quiet moments at night, while talking to a close friend. But there is something detestable about someone who smiles one minute and sneers the next, who feigns affection for someone, only to express utter contempt for him as soon as he is out of hearing.
Marcia is stunned by Lonesome’s remark. He assures her he was just joking, saying, “You ought to know better than to believe everything I say.” The irony is that he is actually giving her good advice, but only if she reverses its intended meaning. She smiles, thinking that she should not believe him when he says something that sounds mean, when, in fact, it is when he is being nice that she should not believe him.
His first night on the set, he brings out a poor black woman whom he found wandering the street late at night because her house burned down and she and her children had nowhere to go. He asks everyone to send in fifty cents to help out. The plea turns out to be wildly successful. This scene drives home the point that he could be a force for good, if he wanted to, but his real motive is manipulative, just a way of making himself popular. In fact, later in the movie, he calls an African American waiter a “black monkey.” But at least the woman got herself a new house.
The success of his show leads to businesses wanting him to advertise their products. His methods are unorthodox, but vastly more successful than the usual kind of commercial. As he becomes increasingly successful and popular, even having a ship and a mountain named after him, he starts having an affair with Marcia. She is in love with him, but he continues to fool around with other women, and a wife even turns up. He promises to get a quickie divorce in Mexico, but then comes back married to Betty Lou Fleckum (Lee Remick), a seventeen-year-old majorette.
During all this, we see that there are two kinds of people. On the one hand, there are the poorly educated, working-class people who are all taken in by Lonesome’s shtick; on the other hand, there are the well-educated, sophisticated members of the professional class who merely see him as someone that can be useful to them. Marcia is a bit of both, her mind clouded by having fallen in love with him. In other words, this is an elitist movie. While it primarily is telling the story of a man that is dangerous because of his powers of persuasion, its subliminal message is that it is the lower classes that are dangerous, because they are the ones who fall for Lonesome’s act, and they can vote in elections just like everyone else.
This danger becomes manifest when General Haynesworth gets Lonesome to consult with Senator Worthington Fuller on his presidential campaign. Along with a bunch of big shots, they watch a boring, platitudinous presentation on film. Fuller admits, “I know that’s not what the American people want to hear, but I think I know what’s best for them.”
Now, Fuller certainly has an elitist attitude, but it is not the same elitist stance as that of the movie, a stance that is represented by Mel Miller (Walter Matthau), a writer assigned to Lonesome, but who doesn’t have much to do, because Lonesome never works from a script. In other words, we normally associate elitism with liberalism and progressivism, with the Democratic Party. But it would be a very different movie if Senator Fuller were a Democrat. That is to say, it would be a very different movie if Fuller were hiring Lonesome to help him push a liberal agenda, say, advocating desegregation, universal health care, and more aid to education. And it would be different in a bad way, at least from the standpoint of the leftwing orientation of this movie, for it would put liberals in a bad light, showing them to be cynically employing a huckster like Lonesome Rhodes to manipulate the public for their own political ends. Therefore, it is essential that Fuller be a rightwing conservative.
Actually, the word “elitism” so strongly connotes liberalism that the term “conservative elitism” almost seems to be an oxymoron. There is such a thing as a conservative elitist, of course, but he is referred to by other names, Rockefeller Republican, Wall Street Republican, establishment Republican, or simply moderate Republican. A major difference is that liberals are more comfortable with the idea that educated professionals should run the government, whereas conservatives tend to have an anti-intellectual philosophy in which the ordinary man is best suited to run things. As a banner displaying one of Lonesome’s quotes says, “Nothing is as trustworthy as the ordinary mind of the ordinary man.”
When Fuller appears on Lonesome Rhodes Cracker Barrel Show, designed to showcase the senator in a way to make him acceptable to just plain folks, Lonesome asks him what his opinion is on the subject of “more and more and more social security,” understood in the broad, generic sense to include not only Social Security proper, but also welfare and unemployment insurance. Fuller answers that people worry too much about security, protection, coddling from the cradle to the grave, which weakens the moral fiber. He talks about how Daniel Boone never needed unemployment insurance or an old-age pension. All he needed was his axe and his gun. And so, Lonesome Rhodes is the means to getting the gullible yahoos in the audience to elect a man like Fuller, who promotes the rightwing agenda of dismantling the welfare state.
As noted above, Mel represents the movie’s elitist liberal standpoint, but in an understated way. We never hear Mel express a political opinion. We simply observe that he is not taken in by Lonesome, who is the subject of the exposé he is writing, Demagogue in Denim, and he does not like Fuller, saying, “He has the courage of his ignorance.” Since Mel’s positions are unstated, it is easy to identify with him, because we can just fill in the blanks with our own views. Marcia thinks that Mel is going too far, that Lonesome is still basically a decent country boy who is overwhelmed the powerful people that surround him. In addition to representing the liberal elite, Mel also plays the role of the nice guy whose frustration is that girls, even the nice ones, always seem to go for the scoundrels. In other words, he is in love with Marcia.
The threat of a Fuller presidency becomes even greater when Lonesome says Fuller will make him Secretary for National Morale, effectively making Lonesome the power behind the throne. Marcia finally realizes how dangerous Lonesome is. In the control room during a live broadcast of the Cracker Barrel, after Lonesome has been talking about guns, God, and family in connection with Senator Fuller, Marcia turns the stage microphone back on after the show is supposedly over, and people across the nation hear Lonesome refer to them as morons and idiots, saying they are so stupid that he can make them believe anything.
This is not the typical open-mic situation, in which a politician is caught making an injudicious remark when he did not realize the microphone was picking up what he was saying; and which the newspaper headline compares to “Uncle Don,” the host of a children’s radio show, who supposedly referred to his young listeners as “the little bastards” after he thought the show was over, although that story is now thought to be apocryphal. Unlike those situations, this is no accident. America is saved from Lonesome and a Fuller presidency by a deliberate act of will, by Marcia’s intervention. In other words, now that Marcia is of the same opinion as Mel, she too represents the movie’s political point of view, that it is the liberal elite that must save America from being taken in by rightwing populism.
Mel tells Lonesome that he will probably be on television again after a cooling-off period, because a lot of people have short memories, but it will never be the same. Soon there will be someone else that reminds them of Will Rogers. We even see a scene in which Joey DePalma (Anthony Franciosa), who helped Lonesome hustle his way to the top as his New York agent, has a new client ready to step in and take Lonesome’s place. Actually, this is the one weak spot of the movie. A man like Lonesome comes along once in a lifetime. And even if DePalma’s new client were just as talented as Lonesome, the public would not be ready for anyone even remotely like him for a long time.
At the end of the movie, Mel tells Marcia, who feels guilty for having been the one to create this Frankenstein monster, “We were all taken in. But we get wise to him. That’s our strength. We get wise to him.” In other words, liberal elites like Mel and Marcia get wise to him, but it is up to them to protect the gullible public from themselves by writing books like Demagogue in Denim or by turning the sound back on to reveal the real person behind the façade. Or by making movies like A Face in the Crowd.
Theoretically, there is no reason that Senator Fuller could not have been a Democrat. Lonesome did not believe in anything but himself, and so he would have been just as glad to ask Fuller, “What do you plan to do about poverty in this country?” to which Fuller would reply, addressing the sorts of issues appropriate for 1957, “We need to end racial discrimination, guarantee health care for the elderly, and provide federal aid for education.” And then, Marcia, being a far right conservative, horrified at the creeping socialism that this would entail, turns on the microphone while Lonesome is insulting his audience, thereby ruining Fuller’s chance of being president and all but guaranteeing the election of a Republican.
In general, Democrats would probably not have liked such a movie. First, it would have suggested something hypocritical and manipulative about elitist Democratic politicians. Second, there would have been nothing frightening to Democrats about the senator’s political agenda. Of course, that hypothetical agenda was eventually enacted, but we have to imagine ourselves as being in 1957 when the movie was made. And third, the hero (Marcia) would have been a conservative Republican.
But would not this version have been most pleasing to the people on the right? After all, Republicans go to the movies and buy tickets just like Democrats, so it would seem that money could be made catering to their attitudes and values. And just as liberals would not have cared for my imagined, right-wing version, I suspect conservatives didn’t care for the left-wing movie that actually exists.
One explanation is that Hollywood is predominantly liberal in its politics, something conservatives are always claiming. But movies with a conservative slant do get made from time to time. After all, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead was made into a movie in 1949, which is actually quite good. And since that movie also starred Patricia Neal as a Rand heroine, espousing her own version of the will to power right along with the men, her persona would have been just right for the conservative version of A Face in the Crowd that my imagination has conjured up.
Perhaps the problem is that the left-wing agenda that I imagined for a liberal Senator Fuller just would not have been as scary to conservatives as the right-wing agenda of the senator in the actual movie. And it needs to be scary for dramatic purposes. So, let us imagine something a little scarier, something suitable for present-day politics. Fuller could come out and say that we need to repeal the Second Amendment, declare a second amnesty for illegal immigrants, and provide federal funds for abortions. I think that would present a more frightening specter of liberalism for the conservative audience, who would cheer when Marcia turned on the microphone and saved the day.
As there are enough conservatives in this country to elect a Republican president, control Congress, elect conservative governors and state legislators, there are enough conservatives to buy tickets to see a conservative version of A Face in the Crowd for it to make a profit. And a lot of us Democrats would be perverse enough to buy tickets too, for the sheer masochistic thrill of it all. And the way Hollywood is not shy about producing remakes, with alterations to suit the times, the movie is ripe for another treatment. I feel certain that we will never see a remake of this movie, at least not the conservative version that I am thinking of, but as to what this feeling of certainty is based on, I cannot say.
Perhaps we liberals really do control Hollywood after all.