Andy Griffith R.I.P. — time to revive ‘A Face in the Crowd’

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The news of Andy Griffith’s death at the 86 on Tuesday produced an outpouring of affectionate tributes for his role as one of the most beloved television stars of all time.

“The Andy Griffith Show” had an easy-going charm that made it popular with viewers of all ages, during the original run in the 1960s, and in syndication ever since.

The portrait of small-town North Carolina life was warm and sentimental but the show’s mix of rural eccentrics, young and old, made it stand out from much blander sitcoms of the period, such as “The Donna Reed Show.”

Griffith only made a few movies, but he is assured a place in Hollywood history for his sensational work in the 1957 Elia Kazan film “A Face in the Crowd.”

The star’s death and the fact that we are in the middle of another media circus/presidental election makes this the perfect time to rent the DVD.

19 years before Paddy Chayefsky went after the excesses of TV in “Network” writer Budd Schulberg and director Kazan were horrified enough by the relatively new medium to create “A Face in the Crowd.”

The movie was made at a time when smart people were starting to worry about the negative impact of television on almost every aspect of American life — in particular, the way that TV was changing political campaigns (and even the choices of potential national candidates).

Kazan and Schulberg looked at the issue three years before John F. Kennedy brought a new youthful “charisma” to the presidential race, changing some of the ground rules of what the public looked for in a leader, because he used TV so brilliantly as an image-building tool.

Everyone knows the story of how radio listeners believed the sweaty and far-from-charismatic Richard Nixon won his election season debates with Kennedy, but that the vastly larger audience that saw the debates on TV thought the cool and handsome senator from Massachusetts was the winner.

“A Face in the Crowd” is about the creation of a national celebrity out of a rather sleazy backwoods country singer named “Lonesome” Rhodes.

A small-town radio personality played by the wonderful Patricia Neal discovers Lonesome in an Arkansas jail and turns him into a local star. Soon, he becomes a regional sensation via a Memphis TV show. Lonesome is brought to New York where he builds a huge national audience and thoughts of a political career.

A key scene involves the critiquing of some footage of a national political aspirant by corporate types and ad men.

One of these hucksters says, “Instead of long-winded public debates, the people want capsule slogans: ‘Time for a change!’ “The mess in Washington!’ ‘More bang for your buck!’ (They want) punchlines and glamour!”

Andy Griffith plays Lonesome in a truly scary performance — the moral opposite of the country sheriff he would become on TV in the next decade.

“A Face in the Crowd” was a financial disaster in 1957, but has been elevated over the years in the same manner as another cynical “flop” that year, “Sweet Smell of Success.”

Kazan and Schulberg were free to attack TV 55 years ago because the movie studios saw the relatively new medium as their enemy.

Now that the same global corporations own film production companies and broadcast and cable TV networks it would be much tougher to mount a major film that is this savage about the way “home entertainment” has changed every aspect of private and public life in this country. Not to mention the millions (billions?) that are wasted every year on trashy, negative TV commercials by office seekers.

“A Face in the Crowd” still has the power to provoke.

Joe Meyers

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