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Yale Film Colloquium: A Face in the Crowd (Elia Kazan, USA, 1957)

  • Whitney Humanities Center 53 Wall Street New Haven, CT, 06511 United States (map)

Part rags-to-riches cautionary tale, part political thriller, and part doomed romance, A Face in the Crowd—from director Elia Kazan and On the Waterfrontwriter Budd Schulberg—foretold how mass media, celebrity, commerce and politics would become forever intertwined, in a way that was almost incomprehensible upon its release in 1957 and is all too common now.

Andy Griffith sneers, cackles, shouts, sweats and monologues as Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a booze-soaked drifter and singer doing a couple of days in jail for disorderly conduct. Lonesome is “discovered” by Marcia Jefferies (played by Patricia Neal), who produces a segment for a radio station in rural Arkansas. He sings a song for her, she lights up, and his rise to the top begins.

Kids love his songs, women love his plainspoken charm, working men love his grit and honesty, and advertisers love the profits they make off him. But beneath his seemingly simplistic language lies a master manipulator, able to get almost anyone to give him exactly what he wants, and as corrupt as his power allows him to be.

When a New York Senator with presidential aspirations enters Lonesome’s orbit, the veneer of his folksy wisdom falls away altogether. In its place is a dark, creepy lust for power. Soon Lonesome is screaming about being named “Secretary for National Morale” and putting together a crew of street thugs to ensure his bidding is done. It’s a portrait of power that’s found not at the barrel of a gun, but at the end of a cathode ray tube.

Despite the pedigree of Elia Kazan, who had become one of the hottest directors in Hollywood after making A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, andEast of Eden, and rising stars like Griffith, Neal, and Walter Matthau, A Face in the Crowd didn’t make much of an impact when it was released in 1957. People didn’t get it. Influential reviewers thought it outlandish that mass media, and television in particular, had the power to sway national politics.—Trunkworthy