A Face in the Crowd (Elia Kazan, 1957) The cyclical rise and fall of media pundits makes this prescient movie diatribe against the dangers of television consistently fresh and relevant. Sure, it might have been talking about Arthur Godfrey (at the time), but it fits the bill for "The Glenn Beck Story," too. A rube gets built up as a "voice of the people," and then, given money, power and a platform turns into a little cathode-ray god, his TV-face just being make-up over a manipulative withered soul drunk for power...or love...or advantage over his neighbor. It's why Keith Olbermann always referred to Beck as "Lonesome Rhodes" on his old MSNBC show—that's the "aw-shucks" nom-de-tube of the character in the movie—but it could be any of the flash-in-the-pan sensations over the years, like Morton Downey, Jr. (Remember him? Good, if you don't), briefly, Jerry Springer, or any of the kiss-and-televangelists who've grabbed the spot-light, only to have scandal take it back, shine it on them, and see them scurry back, cockroach-like into the wood-work ...until they think people have forgotten. Alex Jones is merely the latest example and, showing that life reflects art, spends a goodly amount of time during his meltdowns huckstering "health" formulas and other shiny objects.
So, in celebration of the latest "Lonesome" Rhodes, let's take a look back at A Face in the Crowd...even though the story is still being played out ad nauseum by Jones and his inevitable future issue in an endless cycle of hucksterism and snake-oil.
It's the dark side of a Frank Capra "every-man" movie. Capra always flirted with fascism in those films, but Budd Schulberg's screenplay tackles it head-on: Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) discovers an Arkansas drunk, Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith, never more brilliant than he is here) in a small-town jail, and coerces him to sing on a local radio station. He develops a following, and soon wins a sponsored television gig in Memphis, then moves up to New York. His folksy homilies and willingness to make fun of his sponsors endears him to the public at large, and soon his influence begins to spread, attracting political machines who want to attach their candidates to "a man of the people." In a time before "red states" and "blue states" divided rural and urban political boundaries, it was still a goal to reach the "real" America in the heartland. While Rhodes gains his following, he also starts to spend his capital in his sequestered private life: he begins an affair with Jeffries, then throws her under the tour bus for a cheerleader. At this point, Rhodes thinks he's Teflon, and nothing can besmirch his reputation.
But, he who lives by the sword, dies by it. A microphone deliberately unmuted shows his true colors to a public fed only the rouged mask, and "Lonesome" Rhodes begins the quicker descent down the hill of notoriety. No homily can save him. No tears. No hysterics. No more. Hopefully, he has some gold stashed away.
It's a cautionary tale...for everybody. Edward R. Murrow not only suggested television could be "merely wires and lights in a box," but that it could also be a weapon. And in a world where to exploit can lead to success, it's primed and cocked. It's just an instrument, at the beck and call of those who would use it to reach into our homes and our hearts. The message of A Face in the Crowd, although a might heavy-handed in presentation at times, still applies today, just as it did in the past, and just as surely as it will in the future.