It's hard to imagine what audiences thought of "A Face in the Crowd" in 1957.
This story still speaks volumes about fame and power and the mass hordes who blindly provide it. While the screenplay's deadly aim focused on the power of television, a fast-growing medium in the 1950s, the message goes beyond that today and can be applied to politicians, talk-show hosts and celebrities who have done nothing except use their fame to become more famous. And the masses still lap this stuff up, providing the fuel that these people thrive on.
It's something Budd Schulberg got right, but in the 1950s, this type of cynicism didn't always play well with the public.
But before discussing this, the story is pretty straightforward. Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) plays a small-town radio reporter with a popular series called "A Face in the Crowd." A trip to the local jail turns up Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, full of bravado and sleeping off a bender. He grabs a guitar and immediately shows his genius for improvised entertainment. Jeffries sees ratings and convinces the station to give Rhodes his own show, which quickly succeeds. His homespun, on-air demeanor wins over fans. When the show is picked up nationally and aired on TV, his fan base skyrockets, although most are unaware of his increasing addiction to power and fame and his cavalier opinion of the people who give him this.
The film, beyond Neal, is filled with fresh faces. Audiences today are familiar with Griffith and his gentle Andy Taylor from his 1960s TV show. But this was his film debut, and today we can marvel at his range as an actor. Walter Matthau and Lee Remick are also appearing early in their career. These new faces actually may have hurt its appeal; even Neal wasn't a big star at this point, so today we can relish the fine job being done across the board but perhaps not then.
Director Elia Kazan was no stranger to the entertainment world. By this point he had won two Oscars, yet his agreement to testify during the McCarthy era certainly tainted his image. Kazan and Schulberg worked together on "On the Waterfront," and "Face" has an even harder core.
Which leads me to the point about cynicism, and two other films from the 1950s come to mind. "Ace in the Hole" was Billy Wilder's biting look at a news story that is literally turned into a media circus in order to sell newspapers and gain fame. "The Sweet Smell of Success" shows what lengths a publicist will sink to in order to gain publicity for a client. These films, along with "Face," nail their topics with relentless power, but their tones turned off audiences who didn't shy from drama but would turn away from it if there was no strong protagonist or redeeming idea to follow.
My only criticism is that "Face" suffers from making its point too early. On a recent viewing (my third) on the big screen, I found myself satisfied by the 90 minute mark but felt restless for the final 30 minutes, thinking that the screenplay had made its point and was chugging toward an inevitable climax that didn't surprise or involve me. If anything, Griffith's searing performance also runs on one speed -- at most times fascinating yet wearisome at others. The monster had been created, and while the monster was not to be liked, he wasn't nearly as compelling at the end. I felt this diminished the overall power of the film, despite how spot-on its observations were -- I mean, when the story talks about how politicians should change their image and tap into the power of television, who would have thought that three years later the presidential election would turn on a TV debate?
Despite my criticisms, this is still a great film, well-made with a strong cast. If audiences in 1957 weren't sure what to think, today it's clear that Schulberg understood exactly what he was writing and that fame and power and influence haven't changed much in 50 years.