Sunday, January 25, 2015

A FACE IN THE CROWD


If you only know Andy Griffith as the much-loved sheriff on The Andy Griffith Show, it’s time you got to see how truly versatile and accomplished an actor he really was. To see him at his best (or worst, according to how you look at it), one need only witness his star-turning performance as the glad-handing, slithering, power-hungry anti-hero in the highly charged film A Face in the Crowd.

Adapted for the screen by Bud Schulberg from his short story Your Arkansas Traveler (one of several tales within his Faces in the Crowd collection) and produced and directed by Elia Kazan, this 1957 drama begins in a small Arkansas town, where, on a warm summer morning, Marsha Jeffries (Patricia Neal), the local radio station’s roving reporter, lugs her then state-of-the-art reel-to-reel recorder to the one-room jail house, her sights set on interviewing its current collection of vagrants, drunks and drifters for her show.

Among them, Griffith’s Larry Rhodes, who has just spent the first of seven nights in the clink on drunk and disorderly charges. When the sheriff offers to release him the following morning in exchange for playing a couple of tunes on his guitar for Jeffries' show, Rhodes flashes his good ol’ boy, Cheshire cat smile, and turns on the charm. It’s Marsha who dubs him "Lonesome", though he’s far from it, but the name sticks. And though the Sarah Lawrence graduate is certainly smart enough to know better, she falls hard.

The segment airs, leaving listeners and sponsors wanting more. But Lonesome is already out and about to thumb his way to nearby St. Joe. Finding him proves easy enough, and by the next morning he’s on the air dispensing advice, turning out a tune or two, recalling a highly fictionalized version of his early years in Riddle, Arkansas.

Before long the whole town is tuning in, and in two scenes that surely inspired the "coat/commode" incident in Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, we see how much power this not-so-good-ol’-boy wields; a power that does not go unnoticed by those in the ‘biz’.

You can see the drifter’s wheels turning, when a Mr. Abe Steiner comes calling. Evoking the first of several references to Will Roger’s style, the Memphis-based theatrical agent woos the local celebrity with promises of fame and fortune, all just a train ride away.

Fast-forward to the fan-studded platform at the local train station, where, thanks to a little help from Mr. Steiner, Larry and Marsha (whom Rhodes describes as his ‘little Girl Friday’) board a Pullman bound for the bluff city and a sweet TV deal.

The sexual tension between the two is palpable, and unfettered by any hometown morals or consequences, the here-to-fore level-headed producer gives in to the con man’s charms. Pleased that he’s broken her chilly exterior, he flashes that that irresistible smile of his and notes, with more than a little satisfaction, “Marsha:short for marshmallow. Not a cold fish.”

As it turns out, Rhodes has smile and style just made for TV. Viewers are charmed by his folksy manner and Arthur Godfrey-like ad-libbed commercials that poke fun at the sponsor. Godfrey did it with Lipton’s chicken soup (“There’s plenty of noodles in there, and there’s chicken there too. You won’t find it, but it’s there.”)

Lonesome’s target is Luffler’s, a local mattress store. As sales soar and ratings spike, everyone wants ‘in’, including the sponsor‘s “office boy” Joey DePalma (Anthony Franciosa), who’s not above some under-the-table hijinks  as he cashes in on this cash cow (“Illegal? Honey, nothing's illegal if they don't catch you.”). That’s Rhodes kind of thinking, and in a blink, Steiner’s out and DePalma's in as Rhodes agent of choice.

Only station staff writer Mel Miller (Walter Matthau in an early role) seems wary of this golden goose. But his warnings of trouble in River City are no match for the con man’s con, and in no time at all, DePalma has put together a TV deal that sends Rhodes and company to New York City, where Rhodes becomes a coast-to-coast sensation as the star of a network version of the Memphis show, sponsored by Vitajex, an over-the-counter, mostly aspirin and sugar supplement with floundering sales.

Once in New York, Rhodes quickly and single-handedly revamps the ailing Vitajex’s look (“Let’s make them yellow: the color of sunshine and energy”) and ad campaign with some dubious claims that include Viagra-like benefits. Once again, Rhodes rides a wave of unprecedented popularity, his face no longer a face in the crowd, but a bona fied national personality: the go-to person for christening ships, fronting telethons and dispensing grass roots hokum to an ever-expanding and adoring audience.

It doesn’t take long before Rhodes ego, greed and power take over, and his “awe, shucks” fa├žade begins to crack, revealing the portrait behind this then modern-day Dorian Gray.

To tell you more would be to rob you of some of the most interesting plot lines in the film, including one Betty Lou Fleckhum (Lee Remick in her first film role), a pretty underage drum majorette from Piggott, Arkansas.

Will Rhodes receive his comeuppance? Of course he will. But it is the when and how and by- whom of it that make A Face in the Crowd one of my all-time favorite flicks.

Watching Andy Griffith as he pushes his character closer and closer to the edge, is positively mesmerizing. Two pivotal scenes, one involving a “reaction” machine, the other, capturing the moment of truth, will leave you breathless.

A Face in the Crowd is loaded with powerful performances including Patricia Neal’s, who was no second fiddle to Griffith in the acting department. You’ll also be treated to some tip-of-the-hat cameos featuring. Among others, Burl Ives, Mitch Miller and Faye Emerson, TV newsmen Mike Wallace and John Cameron Swayze, newspaper legends Walter Winchell and Earl Wilson, and my personal favorite, publisher, humorist and What’s My Line regular, Bennett Cerf.

While A Face in the Crowd was Griffith’s first big-screen performance, it was far from his last. He would go on to star in a cluster of Film and Broadway productions, including No Time for Sergeants, Destry Rides Again and Onionhead. But it would be his role as televisions’ affable sheriff Andy Taylor that would make him a household name. Over the years he produced and/or starred in several other series, the most successful of which was Matlock, a country-lawyer-themed drama that, like The Andy Griffith Show, remains a television programming staple.

Andy Griffith returned to the big screen in the 2007 Adrienne Shelly film, Waitress, and again, in 2009’s Play the Game, but it is this small, black and white milkshake of a film, with its sharply-drawn characters, plot and performances, that remains as viable and potent today as it was nearly sixty years ago.