The tale of Lonesome Rhodes is a cautionary one. Written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan, the 1957 film A Face in the Crowd revolves around Rhodes, a drunk with a gift for guitar playing, singing, and folksiness. Arkansas radio producer Marcia Jeffries discovers Rhodes in an Arkansas jail while airing a live broadcast titled A Face in the Crowd for her uncle’s radio station.
Patricia Neal plays Jeffries and Andy Griffith plays Rhodes.
Seeing the appeal of the down-home Rhodes, Jeffries creates a radio show for him. Soon, Rhodes skyrockets, ultimately getting a television show in New York City. Fame infects Rhodes, who grasps his power with deftness. When a general sees up the potential for Rhodes to affect the electorate, he matches the celebrity with Senator Worthington Fuller whom Rhodes dubs “Curly” to make him more accessible to the plain-speaking, God-fearing, simple-minded voter.
Jeffries falls for Rhodes’s lusty approach to life. When Rhodes returns home to Piggott, Arkansas to judge a drum majorette contest, he catches the attention of 17-year-old Betty Lou Fleckum. And vice versa. Jeffries is heartbroken, when Rhodes comes back to the Big Apple with Fleckum as his bride.
Lee Remick plays Betty Lou.
It arks her first real step toward realizing that Rhodes barrels through life like a tornado without any regard to others and with one goal in mind—satisfaction. He is no different than when Jeffries discovered him in the jail.
Schulberg penned a description of his research for the New York Herald Tribune, which published the article about a week and a half before the film’s premiere in late May. Research included conversations with “200 TV personalities, TV directors and producers and advertising directors.”
Television, according to Schulberg, represented a powerful force for public opinion but a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands. “I’m encouraged to think that in Lonesome Rhodes we have hit on a truly representative figure. Naturally our Lonesome must be an individual in his own right, but from our talks it does seem that he represents the dynamic-mercurial quality of TV success.”
When Jeffries reaches her breaking point with Rhodes, she raises the sound level over the closing credits of his show, thereby uncovering Rhodes’s real self, displayed by his vocalizing nasty descriptions of his audience. Those who adored him withdraw their devotion faster than Jesse James leaving a robbery. When Jeffries reveals her part in his demise, Rhodes, from his penthouse, screams at Jeffries not to leave him; accompanied by former Rhodes writer Mel Miller, author an upcoming exposé Demagogue in Denim, Jeffries disappears into the Manhattan night.
Walter Matthau plays Miller.
Kazan filmed the drum majorette contest on the Piggott High School football field in Piggott, Arkansas. “The northeast Arkansas community was chosen because of its connection to the legendary Ernest Hemingway, who lived and visited there when married to Piggott native Pauline Pfeiffer,” states Arkansas.com. “Otto ‘Toby’ Bruce of Piggott, a friend of and assistant to Hemingway, heard of the project after meeting Schulberg in Key West while visiting the author. Bruce suggested Piggott, director Elia Kazan and Schulberg visited, and they decided it was the place to shoot.”
The 1990s CBS situation comedy Evening Shade mentioned Piggott High School’s football team as an opponent of the Evening Shade team coached by Wood Newton, former quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Burt Reynolds plays Newton; football credentials dotted Reynolds’s body of work, including playing college football and starring in two football-themed films in the 1970s—The Longest Yard and Semi-Tough.
Another football connection to A Face in the Crowd—Griffith’s legendary stand-up comedy routine What It Was, Was Football, which depicts an unknowing person’s introduction to the gridiron. Griffith concludes, “And I don’t know, friends, to this day, what it was that they was a-doing down there, but I have studied about it, and I think that it’s some kindly of a contest where they see which bunch-full of them men can take that punkin [sic] and run from one end of that cow pasture to the other’n [sic] without either getting’ knocked down or steppin’ in somethin’!”
A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on September 2, 2016.