On Film: "A Face in the Crowd"

Sunday, September 4, 2011

(I'm introducing still another feature to the blog which will highlight how journalism and/or the media is portrayed in movies and books.  Unless more is required for assignments in my program, I will only provide a short synopsis and focus on the main takeaways from the film/book.)

I'm not just an entertainer. I'm an influence, a wielder of opinion, a force... a force! -- Lonesome Rhodes

A disclaimer:  I admit that I probably would never have watched this movie if it wasn't for the repeated linkage former MSNBC (and now Current) commentator Keith Olbermann made between its leading male character (Lonesome Rhodes, played by Andy Griffith) and conservative radio host Glenn Beck.  While I initially took Keith's word for it, I could not give my own educated opinion until I viewed this 1957 Elia Kazan film last week.  To Mr. Olbermann...your judgment was spot on!

This entry is not to bash Mr. Beck or to impugn his ideology but to allow me to introduce some items from the film that fall into the journalism/media category.  If you haven't seen the movie before, I would recommend you stop reading now so I don't spoil it for you.

To set the stage, the Rhodes character is 'discovered' by a northeastern Arkansas radio producer (Marcia Jeffries, played by Patricia Neal) when she brings her show (coincidentally titled 'A Face in the Crowd') to a local county jail.  Rhodes, a drifter incarcerated on a drunk and disorderly charge, says he would cooperate with Jeffries if the sheriff releases him early.  Securing that agreement, he provides a folksy musical interview that Jeffries takes back for her uncle J.B. Jeffries' approval (he owns the radio station) and they eventually hire Rhodes to do a morning show where he first becomes aware of the influence he can wield (in a prankish manner, he 'invites' his listeners to go swimming at the uncle's private pool). A Memphis talent agent becomes aware of the host and brings him to the 'The River City' where he is introduced to the relatively new medium of television.  Discovering its greater potential for manipulating an audience this way, Rhodes flexes this power for good (soliciting viewer donations for a mother of six for a new home) and for spite (antagonizing his show's sponsor to the point of him being fired) and he takes this skill with him to his new role as a supplement pitchman for a television show based in New York City.  He focuses his folksy ways and innate understanding of human psychology towards the slow selling product (he rebrands it as an 'energy' pill) and single-handedly improves its sales--and his program's ratings--to very respectable levels.

Jeffries followed Rhodes, now her lover, every step of the way up the career ladder and accompanied him to meet the new program's financial backer (General Haynesworth, played by Percy Waram) at his luxurious estate.  It was at this meeting where the media savvy Rhodes initially meets Senator Worthington Fuller (portrayed by Marshall Neilan), a potential Republican presidential candidate who is a houseguest at the general's retreat.  Haynesworth's speech (video below) sets an ominous tone for the remainder of the film.

As a drifter, Rhodes lived his life relying on his own instincts and having no one to answer to and he carried that attitude towards his new role of being an 'influence'.  He betrays lingering marriage promises to Jeffries when he elopes with a near-underage girl he recently meets at a statewide baton twirling competition (he was a judge, she was a contestant--and eventual winner) and this strains the relationship with Marcia to a purely business type.  Rhodes is brought in to very highest political circles of power as an advisor to help improve Senator Fuller's public image with potential voters and this spurs him to even grander delusions of his power of persuasion.  His personal life begins to suffer greatly and when he finds his agent and his wife having an affair, he seeks out Marcia for guidance (he earlier called her his "lifeline to truth") and tells her about his plans to fill a cabinet position in a victorious Fuller administration (his newly created role would be 'Secretary of National Morale').  Seeing how Rhodes had transformed into a dangerous megalomaniac (and feeling remorse for her role in that process), Jeffries flees her apartment and stays away from the office the following day where her absence disrupts the preparation of Rhodes' new propaganda spewing "Cracker Barrel" show (the clip below is from an episode airing prior to that day).

In the film's most memorable scene, Jeffries eventually returns to the show's control booth and sits next to the sound engineer who is responsible for monitoring the microphones on the program's set.  She watches what actions are required to turn up the volume and during the end credits--when the sound board is unmanned, she turns on a microphone Rhodes believes to be off, catching him sharing his true ugly feelings towards his viewers with the cast members.  It takes several men a short time to pry her away from the board but the damage was done.  In a not-so-subtle allegory, a montage of irate audience members calling the network is mixed with Rhodes riding a descending elevator (the floors decreasing in number represent the drop in his show's ratings) as he returned to his penthouse apartment for a meeting with backers for Senator Fuller's presidential campaign.  When no one shows up for this event, Rhodes calls Jeffries to visit him and help the fallen host regroup.  Escorted by a former writer for the show (Mel Miller, played by Walter Matthau) who is in town to finish publishing a tell-all book about Rhodes, she goes and tells a drunk, agitated and mentally unstable Lonesome that she was responsible for the microphone incident and that she did it so that he'd never call her again.  The two visitors leave Rhodes' residence and make their way to the street where they catch a cab.  In the background, you can hear Rhodes yelling at Marcia to come back.  They enter the car and drive off, leaving the once-invincible 'influence' to rely upon his own resources to 'reinvent' his career.

Some observations:

  • While this movie was made in the late 1950s, it could--with minor tweaks--be redone today and still retain its relevancy to modern society and media.  Like Father Coughlin during the 1930s and radio/television talkers of today (Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck et al), Rhodes was an extrovert and possessed the natural qualities to use outlets at his disposal in order to try and influence anyone who would take the time to listen/watch.  I place him with those conservative personalities due to his professed allegiance with the Republican senator (and potential presidential candidate).  One can make the argument that liberal politicians (FDR, JFK, Bill Clinton) have used the media effectively to influence the voters when seeking their first or later terms but I cannot honestly come up with left-leaning equivalents in today's media to those aforementioned hosts. 

  • At the beginning of the film, we see Patricia Neal lugging a huge magnetic tape recorder into the jailblock that allows her to do a 'remote' for her radio program (the recording would be played back over the air when she physically returned to the studio).  In today's journalism/media lingo, I don't think such a setup would qualify for that classification.  To be fair, back in 1957, there were no commercial satellites and microwave communications were considered 'cutting edge' technology.  While her setup was an advancement to the prior use of 'tickers' to transfer information great distances, today's reporter has a myriad of tools at their disposal to provide almost instantaneous connectivity with their listeners/viewers.  Digital video/still cameras, portable digital recorders, laptop computers with audio/video software and wireless connectivity to the internet allow information to quickly flow from areas once thought accessible to only the most foolhardy journalists. 

  • To add a sense of media 'legitimacy' to the movie, Kazan added several famous journalists/reporters/'talking heads' for cameos.  Television personalities Sam Levenson and John Cameron Swayze, television journalist Mike Wallace, and radio/print journalists Earl Wilson and Walter Winchell were peppered into the film as audience connections to then-real time events/personalities.  It is almost reminiscent of how CNN allowed several of its on-air personalities to appear as themselves in a Time Warner-funded film "Contact"in 1997.

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