[NOTE: This film also airs on TCM on Monday morning, Sept. 13th, 2010, at 1 a.m. ET, and earlier in all other time zones]
By Chuck Ross
One of the best movies about the power of TV and how the unscrupulous can take advantage of that power is on TCM tomorrow, Thursday, Aug., 26, 2010. Chances are that many of you have never heard of it, but it’s a movie well worth watching, either live or via DVR. (It screens at 8 p.m. ET, and earlier in all other time zones.)
It’s called “A Face in the Crowd,” and you’ll never believe who it stars: Andy Griffith, in a raw, powerful performance that’s as unlike his role as Sheriff Andy as it would be to imagine Mother Teresa playing Don Corleone.
Not particularly well-received upon its release just before Memorial Day in 1957, James Woolcott, in Vanity Fair, revisited the film upon its 50th anniversary in 2007 in a column that carried the title "An Unforgettable Face."
The introduction to that piece said that "the dark tale of media manipulation still resonates."
Besides a tour-de-force by Griffith, the film stars the radiant Patricia Neal, who died earlier this month at age 84. In the recent New York Times obituary about Neal it mentioned that her performance in “A Face in the Crowd” displayed an acting range that had previously eluded her.
That’s not surprising, considering that the film was directed by Elia Kazan. “A Face in the Crowd” was the last film Kazan made during the 1950s, when his movies made a huge impact on the medium. It was the decade when he also directed “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “On the Waterfront,” “East of Eden” and “Baby Doll.”
Actors films all: Brando, James Dean, Steiger, Vivien Leigh, Kim Stanley, Eli Wallach, Karl Malden, Julie Harris, Jo Van Fleet, and Carroll Baker.
Kazan, who had started as an actor himself and was a co-founder of the Actors Studio, was, above all, an actor’s director.
Besides Griffith and Neal, you’re in for a treat watching a remarkably vibrant performance by Anthony Franciosa as the man who becomes Griffith’s agent and Lee Remick in a terrific movie debut. Remick, 21 at the time, plays a spirited 17-year-old baton-twirling teenager who gets Griffith’s character hot and bothered. And Walter Matthau, in only his fourth picture, has a juicy part as a writer with an acid tongue who is under-appreciated by all the other characters in the film..
In his "An Unforgettable Face" piece for vanity Fair, Woolcott wrote, “A time capsule from the pioneer days of television, when the cameras and sets looked Soviet-bulky and the production values were strictly Salvation Army, ‘A Face in the Crowd’ grits with a documentary charm, presenting cameo appearances by then familiar granite heads such as Walter Winchell, John Cameron Swayze and Mike Wallace (who has outlived everybody), postcard snaps of Norman Rockwell small-town Americana, and anxious political palaver whose sinister tone seems drawn from the demagogic specter of Red-baiting senator Joe McCarthy, who died the year ‘A Face in the Crowd’ was released but whose influence lingers today, an enduring toxin in the bloodstream. ‘A Face in the Crowd’ peered into a glass darkly at the prospect of a mob mentality that might rise from the mud and follow the tune of a malignant Pied Piper.”
The writer of “A Face in the Crowd” was Budd Schulberg. Schulberg also wrote Kazan’s “On the Waterfront,’ which won the Oscar for Best Picture for 1954.
Both Kazan and Schulberg were considered pariahs by many in Hollywood. They met after both had testified before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and both admitted that they had once been associated with the Communist Party. And both had named names of others they knew who had such associations. And neither man regretted that he had named names.
Besides its political bent, one of the film’s wonderful satirical elements is its portrayal of the relationship between advertising and TV.
I think “A Face in the Crowd” survives as one of the best films of 1957. I consider it in many ways a companion piece to the pungent look at PR agents and columnists which was released a month to the day after “Face”—“Sweet Smell of Success.”
In the spring of 1958, the handing out of Academy Awards was televised for the first time. These Oscars were for films made in 1957. Both “A Face in the Crowd” and “Sweet Smell of Success” were not nominated in any category. The movie that basically swept many of the Oscars that year was David Lean’s “Bridge on the River Kwai.”
“Made during the middle slumbers of the Eisenhower era, Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd… retains its status as one of the most provocative, unplaceable vagrants—or is it mongrels?—of American moviemaking,” Woolcott wrote in the Vanity Fair piece. “It’s a perennial in-between. It didn’t behave then, and it doesn’t quite belong now…. As Richard Schickel observes in his gung-ho biography of Kazan, published in 2005, ‘The film has never achieved wide popularity, but it has never disappeared, either. It keeps nagging away at us. At some of us, at least.’ "#