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Mayberry Machiavelli

The self-congratulatory legacies of ‘A Face in the Crowd’

In any debate about the vintage movie that most accurately predicted Donald J. Trump’s presidency, director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg’s 1957A Face in the Crowd is the hands-down winner among the cognoscenti. And not without reason, since it’s the tale of a crude and increasingly megalomaniacal TV star turned rambunctious, sinister demagogue. The big difference between fiction and reality is that Andy Griffith’s Lonesome Rhodes gets brought down by his own hardscrabble fan base when he’s only beginning to set his sights on a future in Washington, D.C.

The movie’s morale-boosting finale—in which a pipe-smoking Walter Matthau confidently pronounces, “We get wise to him. That’s our strength. We get wise to him.”—was a cheat at the time, and rings awfully false today. But the movie’s premise obviously doesn’t, and the proof isn’t only in the pudding. It’s in the Oval Office, tweeting bilge and ranting about witch hunts in between hosting rallies more scarily virulent than any previous president has ever thrived on.

That’s what people pleased by their film-maven acumen would have the rest of us believe, anyhow. But what does it mean to feel gratified that Trump’s presidency vindicates a sixty-one-year-old movie whose reputation goes on vacation whenever a Democrat is in the White House? A Face in the Crowd’s primary appeal is to the liberal audience’s sense of superiority—panicked superiority—to the rubes who can be gulled by a Lonesome Rhodes or a Donald Trump. Unlike the masses, we didn’t need to get wise to them; we always were.

Letting sophisticates pat themselves on the back for being smarter than the hoodwinked yokels out there isn’t the movie’s ostensible reason for being, of course. A Face in the Crowd solemnly sets out to dramatize the perils of an unscrupulous media star’s ability to manipulate his public to murkily nefarious political ends. It’s a stridently self-devised mission statement that gets chewed over in Schulberg’s dialogue to increasingly glutinous effect. Rhodes’s rise confirms the intellectual Matthau’s worst suspicions well before Patricia Neal, as our run-amok back-roads galoot’s discoverer and enabler, catches on that she’s created a monster.

Still, if we’re judging A Face in the Crowd as agitprop, its ostensible reason for being looks flimsy today. What sort of warning is rigged to make its target audience feel smug? Answer: too many of them, at least on film, with Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove as the eternal Exhibit A. Yet an irony that’s easy to overlook is that admiring any cautionary tale’s uncanny anticipation of real-world events amounts to saying the work failed in its educational purpose. The genre’s whole point—the justification for the hyperbole—is to end up as the ultimate form of fake news, once the big public is alerted to the dangerous shape of things to come.

But either the big public doesn’t heed the ominous bulletin—or, more charitably, the lesson doesn’t stick. Congratulations for guessing right about to whom tomorrow will belong are basically a sick-joke consolation prize, although neither Kazan nor Schulberg lived to see Trump elected and take their bows. You can’t help suspecting that they’d have been delighted to: despite the Academy of Motion Picture Arts’s indifference to the film—interestingly enough, it didn’t score so much as a nomination in any category, despite Kazan’s 1950s renown—they knew those tuxes would come in handy someday.

Canon Fodder

A Face in the Crowd isn’t the only alarmist fable that’s gotten a new lease on life in the Trump era, beginning with the most famous of them all. No doubt, George Orwell devoutly hoped that 1984 would be a curio someday. And it was—right on time: a chic reference in a TV commercial, not a dour guide to all tomorrow’s tyrannies. But then came November 8, 2016, “alternative facts,” Fox News’ full-blown transformation into the administration’s Ministry of Truth—and the resurrection of Orwell’s dystopian satire as present-day prophecy got another spin around the block.

Another suddenly no-longer-moldy oldie was It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis’s ripped-from-tomorrow’s-headlines 1935 preview of the rise of an American Hitler—based, like the antihero of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (1946), on Huey Long. That’s what can happen to a supposedly dated novel whenever a new homegrown ogre starts angling to take the “was” out of swastika. Unlike virtuous Orwell, though, Lewis had enough of a carny streak in him that he would have likely relished getting to cackle “I told you so” whenever his book jumps from antique to evergreen.

It’s true that Orwell’s novel is a universal byword. Not only the book’s overall vision but its subsidiary concepts—Newspeak, Big Brother, Room 101, and all that—have stayed embedded in our political lexicon for seventy years and counting. On a cruder level, Lewis’s title, if nothing else, gave us a catchphrase for made-in-the-U.S.A. totalitarianism. And the import of that phrase’s narrative refutation—it can happen here— has proven to be a useful instant civics class ever since. Carny streak or no carny streak, there’s also not much doubt that Lewis—no less than Orwell—meant to sound the tocsin in earnest, stimulating his readers to get scared witless by the preview of coming attractions and stop it from materializing in reality.

By comparison, A Face in the Crowd is the property of a coterie: a sizeable one, but a coterie nonetheless. It was a box-office flop in 1957, and the critics weren’t bowled over either.

A Face in the Crowd’s primary appeal is to the liberal audience’s sense of superiority—panicked superiority, but superiority nonetheless—to the rubes who can be gulled by a Lonesome Rhodes or a Donald Trump.

Few if any Kazan scholars would put it in the same league as the director’s other collaboration with Schulberg, 1954’s On the Waterfront—famously made to defend both men’s testimony as friendly witnesses to the House Un-American Activities Committee, but too vivid at its brawny best to register as the didactic-yet-frantic puppet show its successor more discernibly devolves into. Nor is Face ever rediscovered by film scholars for aesthetic reasons—that is, because some critic has made a revisionist case for its genius as filmmaking, as opposed to its ever dingier pertinacity.

Instead, A Face in the Crowd gets hauled out of mothballs as a peculiar form of comfort food whenever a discomfiting upsurge in right-wing populism—never its left-wing variant—is threatening the cognoscenti’s equanimity. No slouch at seizing on belated topical relevance wherever he could find it, Kazan himself wrote in 1988 that he and Schulberg had predicted Ronald Reagan. In later years, not only George W. Bush but, more plausibly, Sarah Palin have been likened to Lonesome Rhodes. But then came Trump and his MAGA legions, provoking ululations that Lonesome and his conned audience had finally been matched up with the man and the tribe’s ideal real-life doppelgangers.

Regrettably, the parallels don’t add squat to the movie’s very debatable merits. If its plot seems less far-fetched than it once did, that doesn’t make the muddled execution of said plot any brainier or more perceptive. All the same, watching A Face in the Crowd today does do a lot to illuminate the nature of Trumpism’s appeal—just not in the way Kazan and Schulberg intended.

They were catering to a vein of liberal despondency, alienation, and hysteria that was gaining currency in the 1950s. At least in liberalism’s more hoity-toity precincts, it’s never entirely gone out of fashion since: a suspicion that Aaron Copland’s common man is a dangerously uneducated yahoo who deserves opprobrium, not a fanfare. A Face in the Crowd is a Hollywood milestone mainly for its Eisenhower-era transformation of “We, The People” into “They, The Rabble,” leaving only the civilized minority represented by Matthau and Neal as reliable judges of what’s best for the country.

The Unpopular Front

Such anti-populist scaremongering is an attitude that would have been unfathomable—or at worst, unsayable—for leftist filmmakers in the egalitarianism-championing, Tom Joad days of the Great Depression and World War II. But it’s remained a pervasive one ever since—at least whenever the big public turns wayward, as big publics will, and backs the wrong man on horseback.

Taking refuge in hauteur as balm for losing an election is never attractive in a democracy, but it’s an unmistakable reason for A Face in the Crowd’s durability with the kind of people Trump’s own voters most despise. The contempt on display for easily misled heartland cretins—most effectively voiced, in a perniciously neat touch, by Lonesome himself—is so flagrant that you can’t help understanding, and even sympathizing with, the reasons Trump’s base exults decades later in returning the insult a thousandfold.

The first third or so of the movie is juicy, promising stuff.

Then came Trump and his MAGA legions, provoking ululations that Lonesome and his conned audience had finally been matched up with the man and the tribe’s ideal real-life doppelgangers.

Pert, well-educated Marcia Jeffries (Neal), who produces a human-interest radio show called “A Face in the Crowd” for the Arkansas radio station her uncle J.B. owns, discovers guitar-playing tramp Larry Rhodes stinking up the county jail on a drunk and disorderly charge and coaxes him into performing. (The nickname “Lonesome” is her invention; its eponym is so delighted at Marcia’s wit that Griffith lets out the first of a few too many huge, gappy-lipped, teeth-baring guffaws.) She’s so captivated by his impudence, off-the-cuff songsmithing, and unpredictably alternating churlishness and exuberance that he’s soon holding down a regular morning slot on KGRK and drawing more fan mail than the station’s ever seen.

These sequences were partly shot in Piggott, Arkansas—renamed “Pickett” for the occasion—and the South always did get Kazan jazzed right out of his penchant for thesis-mongering. The camera observes the locals recruited as extras with a pleasure in regional quirkiness that isn’t marred (yet) by condescension, and the atmosphere of torpor and unaddressed needs nicely magnifies the disruptively sensual side of Lonesome’s appeal. Lower-depths virility wreaking havoc on straitlaced values was a familiar motor in a whole strain of 1950s stage and screen Americana, from Tennessee Williams— whose own work with Kazan, easily outdoing Schulberg’s in artistry and abundance alike, was a creative peak for both men—to The Rainmaker, Picnic, and even The Music Man. Even so, Griffith’s candid carnality whenever he’s sizing up Patricia Neal (and getting her number) can leave you incredulous that this gleeful, braying satyr would soon be benignly raising Ron Howard’s Opie on The Andy Griffith Show.

A Face in the Crowd

Going to the Mattresses

Rhodes’s earliest fans are housewives, disarmed by his folksy understanding of a drudgery their own husbands are oblivious to. Their replacement once he’s famous by hordes of squealing teenage girls, however, makes it clear that Kazan and Schulberg were hardly championing women’s lib avant la lettre; more likely, they simply believed that women’s heads were more easily turned. But all of Pickett is soon enjoying his anti-authoritarian pranks, from urging everyone to bring their stray mutts to the sheriff’s house—demoting him from mayoral candidate to dogcatcher—to inviting the town’s parched kids to enjoy Uncle J.B.’s swimming pool. All jolly enough, but the new gleam in Rhodes’s eye advertises his dawning recognition that he can get people to do whatever he tells them to.

Then he’s upgraded to hosting a local TV show in Memphis. That’s where Matthau shows up as cynical egghead Mel Miller, a Vanderbilt ’44 grad —the merit badge that, like Marcia’s Sarah Lawrence degree, gives him hilariously automatic credentials with the goody-goody audience—who’s been hired to write the scripts that Lonesome proceeds to ignore on the air. Rhodes mocks his show’s mattress-manufacturer sponsor, too, and his grinning on-camera prediction that he’ll be fired for his irreverence sends his supporters into the streets to burn the company’s boss in effigy and threaten a boycott of the brand.

But Lonesome is all set to quit his abortive showbiz career and go back to being a hobo until a hungry-eyed, disheveled Neal keeps him in town by inviting him into her bed, which was pretty sexy stuff for 1957. That’s just about the last good scene in the movie, though—together with Matthau’s glum reaction when he spots Lonesome’s suitcase outside her hotel-room door the next morning and figures out he’s the also-ran.

Things have already begun to go awry with Tony Franciosa’s introduction as a fast-talking office boy who’s got starmaking ambitions and seizes on the publicity over Lonesome’s duel with his sponsor to make good on them. In short order, Fanciosa is bringing Rhodes up to New York to sell the owner of a pharmaceutical company whose flagship product is a placebo named Vitajex on giving his new client a national TV platform. Lonesome himself closes the deal by inventing a new ad campaign that sends Vitajex’s sales skyrocketing by marketing it as an enhancer of sexual potency—commodifying his own carnality, as a later generation would say.

Boobs and Tubes

Here’s where Kazan and Schulberg start really leaning into their agenda—or rather, their two agendas, which don’t mesh as well as the filmmakers may have thought. On the one hand, they can’t resist overindulging the chance to vent their hatred of TV, including burlesque Vitajex commercials whose overkill goes from moderately amusing to leadenly annoying. But they’re also warming up for their big message that the medium’s ability to turn a Lonesome Rhodes into someone able to influence millions is a political menace. That’s the argument thuddingly announced when General Haynesworth—Vitajex’s paleocon owner—explains, “In every strong society from the Egyptians on, the mass had to be guided with a strong hand by a responsible elite. Let us not forget that in TV we have the greatest instrument for mass persuasion in the history of the world.”

So he recruits Lonesome to humanize an unlovably blue-blooded White House aspirant named Senator Worthington Fuller for the heartland audience’s benefit. Lonesome cheerfully obliges by rebaptizing him “Curly” Fuller and hosting him on a folksy chew-the-fat show devoted to current events and named Lonesome Rhodes’ Cracker Barrel. This is some of the least convincing stuff in the movie, partly because Cracker Barrel looks dreary enough to bore a scarecrow. Now that Lonesome’s been established as a threat, Kazan and Schulberg can’t even be bothered to make him seem charismatic anymore. Since they want to put the movie’s audience at odds with Rhodes’s TV one, continuing to highlight their bête noire’s talent was simply too risky.

Their one bit of ingenuity is that the millions supposedly being swayed to vote for a reactionary stuffed shirt by this charade are discussed—and insulted—almost entirely in the abstract.

What they’re indicting Rhodes for isn’t his dangerous ideology—he doesn’t have one—but his ability to appeal to and influence an electorate the filmmakers don’t understand, have no sympathy for, and devoutly wish would stay docile.

We don’t see them reacting to Lonesome’s new role as a conservative shill the way we did during his zesty Arkansas radio routines. The only representative of the “common man” onscreen is his stooge Beanie, a fellow dirt-roads vagabond with whom he’s been reunited on a parodic version of This Is Your Life. Beanie is also stolen from Walter Brennan’s role as Gary Cooper’s sidekick in Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe, but it’s a hallmark of self-styled bold movies to brush past their derivative origins.

“He’s stupid. He’s got no mentality,” Lonesome tells his new aristocratic cronies, as Beanie himself complacently nods. These are the very qualities, we’re told, that make him the ideal barometer of the electorate’s taste. It doesn’t occur to the filmmakers to dissent from this view, and why should it? Their villain is voicing their own opinion of the average voter, after all.

As for the common woman, she gets two stand-ins. One is the first Mrs. Rhodes, who turns up looking for a payoff to keep mum about her existence. Although she’s actually fairly shrewd about her ex’s flim-flam act, the movie can’t resist playing her for comic effect as a countrified harridan anyway. More memorably, the other common woman is Lee Remick—in her big-screen debut—as sunnily baton-twirling drum majorette Betty Lou Fleckum, who catches Lonesome’s eye on a triumphant return trip to Arkansas and swiftly becomes the second Mrs. Rhodes.

By now, though, pretty much every incident in the movie is a trigger for a lecture, compelling Neal (who works heroically hard to sell her character) to explain to Griffith, “Betty Lou is your public, all wrapped up with yellow ribbons into one cute little package. She’s the logical culmination of the great twentieth- century love affair between Lonesome Rhodes and his mass audience.”

Note the key adjective—“mass”—that scuttles this speech’s already vestigial acquaintance with how human beings talk. It would be nice if the filmmakers at least let their token innocent reject her idol in a meaningful way, but Betty Lou turns out instead to be one more easily corrupted tramp. At this level, the whole problem with Kazan and Schulberg—and it’s true of On the Waterfront too—is that they’d rather stack a deck than man one.

Didactic Decor

One of the best-known lines in A Face in the Crowd—and one often cited in connection with Trump—is Matthau’s early assessment of Lonesome Rhodes: “I’ll say one thing for him. He’s got the courage of his ignorance.” By the same token, Kazan’s film often has the courage of its cowardice. Rhodes never actually expresses any extreme or inflammatory political views—which, again, many in the audience might agree with, ruining the whole point. Senator Fuller is characterized as “the last of the isolationists” and deprecates Social Security, but wanting to bring back Herbert Hoover is pretty pallid as diabolism goes. Even after his makeover, he’s got no resemblance to the postwar right-wingers, like Joe McCarthy or Richard Nixon, who were actually prospering by capitalizing on the (ever-selective) conservative resentment of elites.

For a supposedly topical movie made three years after Brown v. Board of Education and set partly in the South, A Face in the Crowd’s handling of race is gingerly, self-congratulatory, and ultimately bogus: décor, not a theme. The era’s other great hot-button issue—Communists vs. anti-Communists vs. anti-anti- Communists, and so on—isn’t referenced at all. Given their own histories, Kazan and Schulberg knew better than to go near that one.

Ultimately, then, what they’re indicting Rhodes for isn’t his dangerous ideology—he doesn’t have one—but his ability to appeal to and influence an electorate the filmmakers don’t understand, have no sympathy for, and devoutly wish would stay docile. (They certainly don’t suggest any other way besides Lonesome’s to communicate with America’s vulgar masses effectively.) Kazan and Schulberg don’t admit it, but they aren’t altogether different from General Haynesworth in believing that “a responsible elite” needs to keep its hand on the tiller. They just want it to be the decent, enlightened elite that’s got no use for a Lonesome Rhodes even as a cat’s-paw. And it’s this elite that Matthau’s and Neal’s characters exemplify once they join forces to bring him down.

Back in 1949, as it happens, Hollywood had come out with a much better movie about a far more plausible Southern demagogue in the late-populist vein: Robert Rossen’s screen adaptation of All the King’s Men, to which Kazan’s broadside is more indebted than most people recognize. The triangle of sardonically compromised Mel Miller, besottedly compromised Marcia Jeffries, and hubris-driven Lonesome mimics the triangle of sardonically compromised Jack Burden, besottedly compromised Ann Stanton, and hubris-driven Willie Stark so devotedly that Robert Penn Warren—never mind Rossen—could have sued. But what a difference eight years made.

Even now, All the King’s Men can discomfit old-school liberals because so much of Stark’s program, like Huey Long’s, is bound to sound pretty good to us: better schools, improved infrastructure, free health care. It’s perfectly clear why his “hick” constituency would go on backing him even after his authoritarian tendencies are manifest. He’s doing them a lot of good, and to hell with the elites’ disdain.

The Pavlovian deterioration from Willie Stark to Donald Trump is that Trump doesn’t need to deliver on his promises for his base to stay loyal, because “To hell with the elites’ disdain” is now his and their war cry. But Trump wouldn’t have struck the resentful nerve he did if those elites hadn’t been disparaging, mistrusting, and mocking Lonesome Rhodes’s audience for more than half a century. A Face in the Crowd marks the point where that attitude first went public, and that the movie is still being cited today to legitimize the same tribalism just brings things full circle.

Egghead Ressentiment

Candidly tendentious anti-populism was a novelty in a Hollywood whose leading liberal lights had gotten all blubbery over The Grapes of Wrath in 1940. Between All the King’s Men and A Face in the Crowd, however, the liberal establishment—its Left Coast branch, especially—hadn’t only been traumatized by the HUAC hearings and the forthright yahooism of McCarthy’s appeal. They’d also been confounded by Dwight D. Eisenhower’s two defeats of their egghead prince, Adlai Stevenson, in the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections. And intellectuals truly believed back then that Ike was the ninny and not the genius of the two.

In the 1950s, people like my own Adlai-loving parents—proud as punch of their hard-won postwar college degrees—cherished the story of a woman calling out “Governor Stevenson, all thinking people are for you,” and his witty reply, “Madam, that’s not enough. I need a majority.”

Watching A Face in the Crowd today does a lot to illuminate the nature of Trumpism’s appeal—just not in the way Kazan and Schulberg intended.

That comeback should have been excoriated instead of celebrated; it’s one of the most indefensible things ever said by anyone asking Americans to vote for him. But it was a pivotal moment in defining liberalism’s new aloofness from the people whose wisdom an earlier generation of Democrats had sworn by.

Purely as a document, A Face in the Crowd is most fascinating for its frenzied equation of television’s advent—that is, TV’s mid-century challenge to movies as the dominant mass-entertainment medium— with the end of civilization as Hollywood (Hollywood!) knew it. What could be more comical than Jack Warner’s studio producing an indignant defense of mandarin values against the vulgar majority? Yet movieland has kept up its self-serving indictments of TV’s potential to induce nationwide zombieism for decades, from 1976’s Network to 1998’s The Truman Show.

That isn’t A Face in the Crowd’s only legacy, though. You can see its influence on, among other movies beloved by people who couldn’t tell Loretta Lynn from Minnie Pearl, Robert Altman’s Nashville. Condescension is Altman’s default mode whenever his affectations of empathy—hell, curiosity—about the anthropological specimens he’s come to Music City, U.S.A., to misrepresent fall through. One reason that Nashville’s lazy intimation of the dawn of American-style fascism in its shock-value finale is so atrocious is that there’s no sense of anything meaningful being lost; a kinder, gentler Hitlerism seems to be what these stumblebums deserve, if not what they’ve pined for all along. Why should Altman care, though? They were all a long way from Malibu.

In all senses, they still are. Nowadays, liberals have every right to feel as unnerved by Trump’s malignant brand of populism as A Face in the Crowd tells them they should have been all along. The heartland’s great red-state unwashed are bound to look scary when the man with the ultimate soapbox is urging his followers to size up the coastal elites as potential bars of soap. Kazan and Schulberg’s sins in doing their bit to foster a cultured minority’s prejudice against the uneducated hooligans are petty by comparison. But they did do their bit to poison the American well we all drink from and piss in at the same time.