Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A Face in the Crowd

If challenged to determine the top five movies ever made, with social satire centered on a rising star as the dominant theme, most lists would be populated with such timeless treasures as Citizen Kane, Meet John Doe, Network, Being There, The Candidate, Dave, Bulworth and Bob Roberts, among many more.

However, among the most provocative in this genre is the little-known and rarely-seen A Face in the Crowd (1957). Directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, the film stars Andy Griffith (in his first screen role), Patricia Neal, Anthony Franciosa, Walter Matthau and Lee Remick. A scathing and cynical cinematic satire, the plot relates the fictional account of Lonesome Rhodes, a charismatic folk-singing sociopath manipulated into the national spotlight as a media superstar only to disintegrate when his true character is exposed.

A Face in the Crowd was simply ahead of its time when released during the Eisenhower era and flopped at the box-office. The film remained in obscurity for many years, but is finally enjoying an overdue and welcome renaissance on DVD. Bijou friend and colleague John McElwee last year wrote an incisive and entertaining commentary on this timely classic and has graciously consented to our sharing with you an edited version. The entire article can be enjoyed at John's captivating site Greenbriar Picture Shows.

Revisiting A Face in the Crowd

By John McElwee

So many writers condescend to the fifties. There's talk of naiveté and that more innocent time prior to worldliness we're supposed to have attained in a crucible that was the sixties. Was A Face in the Crowd another of those films they just couldn't handle on first-run (along with Ace In The Hole, Vertigo, Touch Of Evil, and others) or are historians selling us a bill of goods that folks were too dumb then to get it the way we do now? Latter meditations on A Face in the Crowd are all about its chilling prophecy and our dark world of media and politics it foregrounded. Never mind which elected official embodies Lonesome Rhodes. They all have (or still do) depending on who you read.

Maybe we need reminding that director Elia Kazan himself regarded A Face in the Crowd as satire. He lived long enough to see his japery do service for agendas with shorter life spans than a black-and-white flop made fifty (two) years ago and, not surprisingly, giving audiences a better time now than it did when playing new. Were they indeed too willfully ignorant (another modern critic's description of 50's viewers) to get the joke he was telling? Kazan's memoir confessed of the film's "exaggeration" falling to earth at the end, but he thought it great fun up to that point. So do I, and I'm even okay with its overwrought finish.

A Face in the Crowd is a blast of an outrageous comedy for those willing to give obvious modern parallels a rest (sure it's loaded with them, but why keep hammering it?). F.I.T.C. may be the fastest 125 minutes on record (for me, repeated viewings go like lightning). Bad guys are right-wingers, natch, part (most!) of why film journalists have loved it since. What was old is new again, especially when it conforms to politics agreeable to cinéastes. Trouble is agenda driven hectoring (Kazan saw Reagan coming!) that sucks out laughter the director and writer intended. Entertainment once sat a row ahead of social posturing in films. You could still accommodate both as late as 1957, hard to believe in the face of weekly screeds opening (and dying) nowadays from filmmakers inspired by what Kazan and Budd Schulberg did so much better with A Face in the Crowd. Besides, what do such young pups really know about the fifties? I don't pretend a firm understanding of television five decades back, as I was just getting a grip on Ruff n' Ready at the time. We can only guess as to how well-aimed Kazan and Schulberg's skewering was, for how much comparative research can anyone do vis-à-vis Lonesome Rhodes and presumed models Arthur Godfrey, Tennessee Ernie Ford (those names primarily evoked), and others as barely represented on kinescope today?

Part of what sends A Face in the Crowd over the top is its absolute conviction that television watchers are saps for all its devices, even off the chart boisterous Lonesome, who surely would have exhausted real-life viewers long before Patricia Neal pulled the switch and exposed him (I'm going to assume you've all seen F.I.T.C., but if not, go and get it now!). If television's such a "cool" medium, how does a loudmouth like Lonesome pull sixty-five million viewers a week, as the film proposes? That's a conceit that proves Kazan was exaggerating, for I know not of any on-air personality up to 1957 that managed numbers so great.

Audience disbelief of Lonesome (after all, could patrons imagine being taken in like cretins depicted in the movie?) might have helped sink Kazan's ship among exhibitors and their public. Some took it out on Andy Griffith, derailing a dramatic career promised in the trailer. "I don't know what to think of this picture except in my opinion it has too much of Andy Griffith," said showman Wayne Goodwin of Butler, Indiana. "He got very tiring before the picture was over."

Griffith obviously did his job too well, with comedy the actor's avenue of retreat from then on. Exhibitors also took A Face in the Crowd to task for not using color. "The picture didn't draw," reported Harold Muir of Davision, Michigan's Midway Theatre. "Too long and no star power," to which he added the unkindest cut of all: "Just another big flop in black-and-white, which is no better than TV." (And did it help that he chose The Bowery Boy's Spook Chasers as his co-feature?)

Wishful modern thinkers say A Face in the Crowd touched a nerve in 1957. My indication is that it simply tanked, but not from lack of trying. Those pill-popping Madison Avenuers in Kazan's film were not unlike Warner sales personnel handed such impossible goods. Andy Griffith was unknown outside of Broadway's No Time For Sergeants and a humor LP about hicks watching football. Kazan hadn't tasted red ink since 1953's Man On A Tightrope, his last three pictures being major hits. Interviews at F.I.T.C.'s May 1957 opening found him nose-thumbing at WB backers. Jack Warner has no veto power, said Kazan. "Warners cannot cut A Face in the Crowd", he added. "They cannot touch it." The director boasted that his "Newtown Company works out of a three-and-a-half room office in a Broadway building, and doesn't need a big goddamned lot." He'd cast with input from nobody (promising a "refurbished" Patricia Neal, a blurb she might not have appreciated) and saw a fast approaching day when independents would finance their own productions and not depend upon major studios.

LIFE magazine had suggested he cut A Face in the Crowd from its intended three-hour length down to two plus five minutes, and Kazan complied. He was watching out for some of what was his money at stake. Thirty-seven and one half percent of Baby Doll had belonged to him, and that earned profits of $1.1 million. A Face in the Crowd would lose $756,000 and break Kazan's winning streak. Warners was heroic in efforts to promote it. There was a major tie-in at Brooklyn Dodgers games the week of opening, and Andy Griffith started a seventeen-city tour on May 13. Disc jockeys interviewed Kazan and Schulberg and spun a Capital record album spotlighting "Mama Guitar," "Free Man In The Morning," and other would-be song hits from the film (I'd love to have that platter, but it's rare as a hen's tooth). Domestic rentals were a sobering $873,000, with foreign a worse $450,000.

Ownership of A Face in the Crowd was split evenly between Kazan and Warners, with the negative reverting to Newtown after general release. Part of why the film became so obscure for years afterward was uneven distribution and hard-to-locate prints. Its television availability was via Kazan's syndication handler, Charlou Productions, which offered A Face in the Crowd with Baby Doll and nothing else, a decidedly awkward sell to broadcasters more inclined to buy features in bunches. I recall a nearby university renting A Face in the Crowd from a small 16mm distributor during the mid-nineties and receiving the God-awfulest banged-up print I've ever walked out on (its first five minutes missing altogether!). Warner's DVD is welcome (and widescreen) relief from such atrocities, A Face in the Crowd being but recently accessible to wider and deserved acclaim after decades of neglect.

Kazan had shot most of A Face in the Crowd's interiors at NYC's renovated Biograph building, which had dated from way back when. Now it was the Gold Medal Studios, its environs providing ready access to Gotham talent Kazan preferred and avoidance of twenty to forty percent overhead tacked on at Burbank. A Face in the Crowd was said to have trimmed nearly five hundred thousand off its budget by virtue of shooting at Gold Medal and was finished at a relative bargain negative cost of $1.7 million, with eighty sets built in NYC, according to Kazan. F.I.T.C. has the look of something carrying twice that price tag. There would be a month of location filming in Piggot, Arkansas as well, a town of 2,500 that never dreamed of movie people using their courthouse, train depot, and football field for backdrops.

Visiting city press had fun with local misunderstandings when a call went out for kids to bring their dogs to be "shot", and teen baton twirlers were starry-eyed when asked to perform, at length, for a key sequence. Kazan donated $8,700 to complete a swimming pool started by the WPA in 1935. Piggot's 609 seat Carolyn Theatre got A Face in the Crowd just three days behind its Broadway premiere on May 31, 1957, an event they've celebrated on several anniversaries since. What small town ever forgets a movie made on its streets? This one had a fiftieth commemoration last year. Two hundred and fifty people showed up at the Community Center for a banquet and screening. Patricia Neal attended. Many citizens who'd appeared as extras in A Face in the Crowd were there. Those baton twirlers now approaching their seventies reminisced. "My youth has returned," said one of them. "It could have been yesterday when we did that." The local high school reunion's theme was Not a Face in the Crowd. Whatever this picture means to the rest of us, it can't hope to live and breathe with the intensity it does for the people of Piggot. How many such rural locales can claim proprietary interest in such a classic film?

"And now, Shelton Cigarettes, Best Friend Dog Food and Vitajex bring you the voice of grass-roots wisdom: Lonesome Rhodes on the Cracker Barrel." In this clip from the film, Lonesome has achieved TV stardom and now seeks political power by grooming Senator Fuller for the Presidency.
A Face in the Crowd can be seen May 11 on Turner Classic Movies where you can also purchase the DVD. John McElwee's current essays and observations on classic film history can be enjoyed anytime by visiting Greenbriar Picture Shows.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

FYI, Piggott is mispelled in your article. The town is very proud to have been a part of this landmark production. Visitors to the Matilda and Karl Pfeiffer Museum and Study Center can see where the swimming party was filmed at the house and where Neal and Griffith were when he used the telephone in that scene. In later years, the pool in that sequence was changed to a pond that houses wildlife, as Mrs. Pfeiffer was a big conservationist of nature.