Most know Andy Griffith best from his popular show, The Andy Griffith Show, and his later years on Matlock. However, few realize that his screen debut came in 1957 in the film by Elia Kazan, A Face in the Crowd. Here, Griffith is a downtrodden young man found in jail with enormous talent for winning over his audience. The story is a tale of the rise and fall of a star.
In rural Arkansas, Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) runs a radio show called A Face in the Crowd, where the focus is to feature everyday individuals from all walks of life. Looking for interesting characters to entertain her listeners in the local jail, she finds Larry (Griffith), locked up for being drunk and disorderly. Without putting on any aires, he is a naturally charismatic entertainer and becomes a regular on Marcia’s radio station. He begins to test his influence and power and outright tells off his advertisers, gaining greater and wider popularity with his audience. Soon, he gets his own television show, becomes the face advertising a new product and starts throwing his influence into politics. All the while, he and Marcia have a painful, complicated romance and she can’t stand to watch him become everything he once resented.
In this film, Andy Griffith is a very different character than most may be used to seeing him. He’s not at all like wholesome Sheriff Taylor, but loud, boisterous and often drunk, sometimes off of his own power. I was stunned and captivated by his opening scene in the jail; he’s half drunk, sweaty, loud, surprisingly cheerful and openly rebellious to his jailers. From there on, Lonesome only got more interesting. While in front of his audience, he can always keep up his act, winning them over every time. He becomes a savvy advertising man, reeling people in for a bogus product. There are scenes where he is lost in emotional pain and others where he is full of wolf-like lust for teenage girls. Like Marcia, who also sees all sides of Larry, we begin to love him but can’t believe how low he can go.
A Face in the Crowd was completely snubbed at the Oscars. I’ll admit, that I see many flaws in the film. Pacing towards the end becomes a monotonous whirlwind of Lonesome’s rise and the advertisement montage for Vitajex feels silly and could now be a mock ad for Viagra. However, I cannot believe Andy Griffith received no recognition for his stunning lead performance. Kazan was nominated for outstanding directorial achievement by the Director’s Guild of America and the film has been added to the National Film Registry.
This film may be hit and miss with film fans. I would wholly recommend this for any Elia Kazan, Andy Griffith or Patricia Neal fans. This may not be the best of Kazan’s films, but it’s still powerful with strong themes about power and the influence of mass media.
“I’m not just an entertainer. I’m an influence, a wielder of opinion, a force… a force!”