Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 12, 2019)
For many of us, Andy Griffith came into our lives as small-town sheriff Andy Taylor on the actor’s eponymous TV series. Of course, he morphed into elderly attorney Matlock eventually, but without a doubt, The Andy Griffith Show remained as his main claim to fame.
It also set up our perception of Griffith the person, as it became easy to confuse the actor with his laid-back, “aw shucks” TV character. Griffith boasted other facets to his acting talents, though, as seen in 1957’s A Face In the Crowd.
Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) hosts an Arkansas radio show entitled A Face In the Crowd, and she uses this broadcast as a way to showcase the musical talents of “common folk”. She discovers a drifter named Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes (Griffith), and he quickly becomes a popular sensation.
As Lonesome’s fame increases, so do his aspirations. Lonesome rises through the media ranks and envisions a career in politics as a populist, even if his true beliefs go in a different direction.
Had I written this review in 2009, I’d have taken a different approach, but since I’m doing it in 2019, it becomes impossible to ignore comparisons between Lonesome and the current inhabitant of the White House. Perhaps “impossible” stretches the possibilities, but given the similarities between the paths Lonesome and Trump took to political power, it’d feel odd if I didn’t confront that particular topic.
Granted, Lonesome doesn’t actually run for office, as he remains the man behind the curtain, but he still taps the desires of the so-called “common man” and feigns beliefs he doesn’t possess. Both he and Trump also share a path to power driven by media domination.
Lonesome exploits a more primitive media and resides in an earlier society where misdeeds actually matter, though. When Lonesome reveals his true beliefs, his career dies, whereas the laws of political gravity don’t seem to impact the current administration.
In addition to the similarities between Crowd and the modern climate, the film acts as a precursor to 1976’s Network. Both aim barbs at media and both feature “lone prophets” at their cores.
However, Lonesome offers a much uglier character than Network’s Howard Beale. Although both tap into mass audiences via their blunt comments, Lonesome acts as a much more contrived personality. Beale states his case because he suffers a mental breakdown, whereas Lonesome knows exactly how he manipulates his audience.
Because of this, Network becomes more of a satirical criticism of media, whereas Crowd splits its time between that subject and its political bent. This wider view doesn’t make Crowd better than Network, but it offers a different viewpoint.
And it’s a viewpoint that holds up well after more than 60 years. As noted, the media landscape of Crowd differs considerably from our current circumstances, but the barbs and criticisms remain relevant.
As noted, Crowd brings a different view of Griffith, as Lonesome shows a darker side of the actor’s repertoire. He probably plays Lonesome in too broad a manner, but Griffith still manages to get to the scheming heart of the faux populist.
On the negative side, the movie takes too long to end, as it dallies forever even after Lonesome’s fate seems sealed. Also, a TV writer played by Walter Matthau gets stuck with too much moralizing and exposition, traits that make his scenes a drag.
Even with these drawbacks, though, Crowd continues to offer a solid critique of politics and the media. It remains a strong production that hits most of its targets.