Movies You Missed: 'A Face In The Crowd'
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Time for the return of our occasional feature about great movies a lot of people have heard about and heard quoted but haven't actually seen.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CASABLANCA")
HUMPHREY BOGART: (As Rick Blaine) Here's looking at you, kid.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GONE WITH THE WIND")
CLARK GABLE: (As Rhett Butler) Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ON THE WATERFRONT")
MARLON BRANDO: (As Terry Malloy) I could have been a contender.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ALL ABOUT EVE")
BETTE DAVIS: (As Margo Channing) Fasten your seatbelts.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JERRY MAGUIRE")
CUBA GOODING JR: (As Rod Tidwell) Show me the money.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TAXI DRIVER")
ROBERT DE NIRO: (As Travis Bickle) You talking to me?
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHEN HARRY MET SALLY")
ESTELLE REINER: (As Older Woman Customer) I'll have what she's having.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE COLOR PURPLE")
OPRAH WINFREY: (As Sofia Johnson) I ain't never thought I'd have to fight in my own house.
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SIMON: It's Movies You Missed. And this week, 1957 film by Elia Kazan, written by Budd Schulberg, starring a young Andy Griffith before he became a kindly country sheriff.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: One of the greatest characterizations ever put on the screen in the whole history of motion pictures.
ANDY GRIFFITH: (As Larry Rhodes) Maybe I'm just a country boy (laughter). But if the president tries to stop me, I'll flood the White House with millions of telegrams.
SIMON: "A Face In The Crowd." A man plucked from obscurity becomes a national treasure, then a national menace. NPR's Ron Elving, who is only a national treasure, joins us. Ron, thanks very much for being with us.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: Thank you. Good to be with you, Scott.
SIMON: Had you seen this film before we asked you to?
ELVING: Actually, I had not seen the film before you asked me to. I had seen it referred to. And I'd seen clips from it. But I had never sat down and watched the entire two hours and five minutes.
SIMON: It's stunning, isn't it?
ELVING: It is stunning. And it sticks with you, let me just say. It's not the sort of thing you can easily put back out of your mind.
SIMON: Short storyline - Andy Griffith, then best known for his comic monologues, plays Lonesome Rhodes, a vagrant who can sing. He's discovered by a radio producer, played by Patricia Neal, in a small-town Southern jail. She turned him into a media star. He becomes - to use the term of our times - huge. A lot of people find this resonant these days.
ELVING: Indeed. He can not only sing, but he can talk. And can he talk and can he spontaneously interact with an audience to the point where, by the time he has finished with them, the audience is ready to do anything for him. So it begins with them all taking stray dogs over to the sheriff's house and putting them there to humiliate the sheriff. And then it goes on to sending all the kids to his boss's home pool. And it goes on from there to getting the entire country to take a particular kind of medicine and then to being, essentially, the stand-in for - and the coach for - a senator who's running for president and who needs a lot of help.
SIMON: Yeah. There is a point in the film, which I think is often overlooked, where Lonesome Rhodes, working in Memphis, challenges segregation. He seems genuinely admirable then.
ELVING: That's right. He brings out a woman whose house has burned down. She is African-American. And he says this poor woman's lost her house. Let's get some money together and get her a better house and a better place. And huge amounts of money roll in - all in the form of coins. And so he can bring them all out in wheelbarrows. So he makes the transition from radio and being strictly a singer-talker to being a person who has a very strong grasp of the visual and uses the television very well. And he jumps from Memphis to national syndication and enormous numbers in terms of the ratings, which he talks about constantly.
SIMON: A scene now. Lonesome Rhodes has become a household name, symbol of folksy goodness. But one night, he tells the radio producer - the woman who made his career, Marsha...
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GRIFFITH: (As Larry Rhodes) This whole country just like my flock of sheep - rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers, everybody that's got to jump when somebody else blows the whistle (laughter). They're mine. I own them. They think like I do (laughter). Only they're even more stupid than I am. So I got to think for them.
SIMON: Boy, that's chilling.
ELVING: It is chilling. And it is highly effective because it is working for him. And it is also working then for the political interests that he has come to serve. But he has begun to understand that even though somebody else might be the front person who gets elected president, he's going to be secretary of national morale.
ELVING: He is going to be the power behind the throne.
SIMON: Have to put you on the spot - does it make you think of anything now?
ELVING: The comparison to Donald Trump has certainly been made. The first person who made it was Cal Thomas, a conservative columnist in the Washington Times in September 2015, warning Republicans and conservatives that this particular populist was toxic. Not too much after that, Marc Fisher of The Washington Post made many similar kinds of connections early in 2016. And then after the election - after Donald Trump had been elected - many people jumped on the bandwagon and said, hey, we all ought to go back and watch this movie "A Face In The Crowd."
But let us make the distinction. This is not a movie about Donald Trump. He was probably about 10 years old when it was made. It was made in the 1950s. It's about a different time. But it is about celebrity. It is about television. It is about the power of the media. And it's about the power of an appeal to the common person, common man and woman - forgotten man and woman, if you will - and what can happen when somebody is propelled to enormous popularity, which then becomes a kind of populist movement - to move it into politics - and then eventually means enormous power to influence. He says, I can be an influencer. I can be a force.
SIMON: And the film was politically controversial even at the time but in a way that might surprise people now. Directed by Elia Kazan, one of the great directors in Broadway and Hollywood history - but someone who had named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee and was shunned for much of the rest of his career by the Hollywood film community. And when he got a lifetime Academy Award achievement, a lot of people refused to stand.
ELVING: And indeed, this film was shunned at the time when it came out in 1957 - did not get a single Academy Award nomination despite the work by Andy Griffith, by Schulberg, by Kazan and, of course, Patricia Neal, who is brilliant as the woman who discovers him - the Frankenstein who makes him a monster. But at the time, people were highly resentful of Kazan and Schulberg having taken the attitude they took in naming names, as you say, before one of the Red Scare committees. Ironically, they thought they were making a film that was a takedown for another element of the whole Red Scare construct in Washington. And that was a lawyer by the name of Roy Cohn. Now, Roy had been the lead counsel to Joe McCarthy over on the Senate side. And Joe McCarthy's seeking for communists in government and not finding any but thinking that he had. And Roy Cohn then, of course, became a very highly unpopular figure himself but resurfaced in New York where he had many powerful celebrity clients from organized crime to major corporate titans to Fred and Donald Trump, who were also his clients.
SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving, thanks so much.
ELVING: Thank you, Scott. See you at the movies.
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