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Sunday, October 12, 2008

Revisiting A Face In The Crowd

So many writers condescend to the fifties. There’s talk of naiveté and that more innocent time prior to worldliness we’re supposed to have attained in a crucible that was the sixties. Was A Face In The Crowd another of those films they just couldn’t handle on first-run (along with Ace In The Hole, Vertigo, Touch Of Evil, and others) or are historians selling us a bill of goods that folks were too dumb then to get it the way we do now? Latter meditations on A Face In The Crowd are all about its chilling prophecy and our dark world of media and politics it foregrounded. Never mind which elected official embodies Lonesome Rhodes. They all have (or still do) depending on who you read. Maybe we need reminding that director Elia Kazan himself regarded A Face In The Crowd as satire. He lived long enough to see his japery do service for agendas with shorter life spans than a black-and-white flop made fifty (one) years ago and, not surprisingly, giving audiences a better time now than it did when playing new. Were they indeed too willfully ignorant (another modern critic’s description of 50’s viewers) to get the joke he was telling? Kazan’s memoir confessed of the film's "exaggeration" falling to earth at the end, but he thought it great fun up to that point. So do I, and I’m even okay with its overwrought finish. A Face In the Crowd is a blast of an outrageous comedy for those willing to give obvious modern parallels a rest (sure it’s loaded with them, but why keep hammering it?). F.I.T.C. may be the fastest 125 minutes on record (for me, repeated viewings go like lightning). Bad guys are right-wingers, natch, part (most!) of why film journalists have loved it since. What was old is new again, especially when it conforms to politics agreeable to cinéastes. Trouble is agenda driven hectoring (Kazan saw Reagan coming!) that sucks out laughter the director and writer intended. Entertainment once sat a row ahead of social posturing in films. You could still accommodate both as late as 1957, hard to believe in the face of weekly screeds opening (and dying) nowadays from filmmakers inspired by what Kazan and Budd Schulberg did so much better with A Face In The Crowd. Besides, what do such young pups really know about the fifties? I don’t pretend a firm understanding of television five decades back, as I was just getting a grip on Ruff n’ Ready at the time. We can only guess as to how well-aimed Kazan and Schulberg’s skewering was, for how much comparative research can anyone do vis-à-vis Lonesome Rhodes and presumed models Arthur Godfrey, Tennessee Ernie Ford (those names primarily evoked), and others as barely represented on kinescope today?

Crass TV and crude commercialization were familiar movie targets to those (few) seeing A Face In the Crowd first-run. Whenever big-screen characters passed through family rooms, there’d be ancient cowboys and/or noxious pitchmen on the tube (or no set at all, if a Warner pic). Television was the enemy and Hollywood maintained a scorched earth policy when portraying it. Jack Warner probably slapped knees laughing at A Face In the Crowd (at least until he saw earning receipts). Lonesome Rhodes was cinema’s offspring of merry fools whose participation in TV was prima facie evidence of their idiocy. Clifton Webb’s one-time silent era Dreamboat was a character who’d been revived for tele-idiots willing to watch anything, with Howard Keel’s Callaway (Went Thataway) an imbecilic cowboy put over by sharpers Fred MacMurray and Dorothy McGuire, who found it easy pulling wool over home audience’s eyes. Hollywood didn’t mind insulting those gullible enough to abandon its feature output for junk served free at home. Part of what sends A Face In the Crowd over the top is its absolute conviction that television watchers are saps for all its devices, even off-the-chart boisterous Lonesome, who surely would have exhausted real-life viewers long before Patricia Neal pulled the switch and exposed him. If television’s such a "cool" medium, how does a loudmouth like Lonesome pull sixty-five million viewers a week, as the film proposes? That’s a conceit that proves Kazan was exaggerating, for I know not of any on-air personality up to 1957 that managed numbers so great. We had a daily program out of Charlotte, Carolina Calling, that featured much beloved Arthur Smith, a name you’d know had your residence been within WBTV’s signal coverage. He was homespun, low-key, and performed for umpteen years to folks who loved him (and still do). If Lonesome had a real-life (good guy) counterpart, it might have been Arthur, though I doubt Kazan and Schulberg were ever specifically aware of him or other video performers singing and philosophizing throughout the South. Audience disbelief of Lonesome (after all, could patrons imagine being taken in like cretins depicted in the movie?) might have helped sink Kazan’s ship among exhibitors and their public. Some took it out on Andy Griffith, derailing a dramatic career promised in the trailer. I don’t know what to think of this picture except in my opinion it has too much of Andy Griffith, said showman Wayne Goodwin of Butler, Indiana. He got very tiring before the picture was over. Griffith obviously did his job too well, with comedy the actor's avenue of retreat from then on. Exhibitors also took A Face In the Crowd to task for not using color --- The picture didn’t draw, reported Harold Muir of Davision, Michigan’s Midway Theatre. Too long and no star power, to which he added the unkindest cut of all … Just another big flop in black-and-white, which is no better than TV (and did it help that he chose The Bowery Boy’s Spook Chasers as his co-feature?).

Wishful modern thinkers say A Face In The Crowd touched a nerve in 1957. My indication is that it simply tanked, but not from lack of trying. Those pill-popping Madison Avenuers in Kazan’s film were not unlike Warner sales personnel handed such impossible goods. Andy Griffith was unknown outside of Broadway’s No Time For Sergeants and a humor LP about hicks watching football. Kazan hadn’t tasted red ink since 1953’s Man On A Tightrope, his last three pictures being major hits. Interviews at F.I.T.C’s May 1957 opening found him nose-thumbing at WB backers. Jack Warner has no veto power, said Kazan. Warners cannot cut "A Face In The Crowd", he added. They cannot touch it. The director boasted that his Newtown Company works out of a three and a half-room office in a Broadway building, and doesn’t need a big goddamned lot. He’d cast with input from nobody (promising a "refurbished" Patricia Neal, a blurb she might not have appreciated) and saw a fast approaching day when independents would finance their own productions and not depend upon major studios. LIFE magazine had suggested he cut A Face In The Crowd from its intended three-hour length down to two plus five minutes, and Kazan complied. He was watching out for his money at stake, after all. Thirty-seven and one half percent of Baby Doll had belonged to him, and that earned profits of $1.1 million. A Face In The Crowd would lose $756,000 and break Kazan’s winning streak. Warners was heroic in efforts to promote it. There was a major tie-in at Brooklyn Dodgers games the week of opening, and Andy Griffith started a seventeen-city tour on May 13. Disc jockeys interviewed Kazan and Schulberg and spun a Capital record album spotlighting Mama Guitar, Free Man In The Morning, and other would-be song hits from the film. Domestic rentals were a sobering $873,000, with foreign a worse $450,000. Ownership of A Face In The Crowd was split evenly between Kazan and Warners, with the negative reverting to Newtown after general release. Part of why the film became so obscure for years afterward was uneven distribution and hard-to-locate prints. Its television availability was via Kazan’s syndication handler, Charlou Productions, which offered A Face In The Crowd with Baby Doll and nothing else, a decidedly awkward sell to broadcasters more inclined to buy features in bunches. I recall a nearby university renting A Face In The Crowd from a small 16mm distributor during the mid-nineties and receiving the awfulest banged-up print I’ve ever walked out on (its first five minutes missing altogether). Warner’s DVD is welcome (and widescreen) relief from such atrocities, A Face In The Crowd being but recently accessible to deserved acclaim after years of neglect.

Kazan had shot most of A Face In The Crowd’s interiors at NYC’s renovated Biograph building, which had dated from the silent era. Now it was the Gold Medal Studios, its environs providing ready access to Gotham talent Kazan preferred and avoidance of twenty to forty percent overhead tacked on at Burbank. A Face In the Crowd was said to have trimmed nearly five hundred thousand off its budget by virtue of shooting at Gold Medal, a negative cost of $1.7 million, with eighty sets built in NYC, according to Kazan. F.I.T.C. has the look of something carrying twice that price tag. There would also be a month of location filming in Piggot, Arkansas, a town of 2500 that never dreamed movie people would be using their courthouse, train depot, and football field for backdrops. Visiting city press had fun with local misunderstandings when a call went out for kids to bring their dogs to be "shot", and teen baton twirlers were starry-eyed when asked to perform, at length, for a key sequence. Kazan donated $8700 to complete a swimming pool started by the WPA in 1935. Piggot’s 609 seat Carolyn Theatre got A Face In the Crowd just three days behind its Broadway premiere on May 31, 1957, an event they’ve celebrated on several anniversaries since. What small town ever forgets a movie made on its streets? This one had a fiftieth commemoration last year. Two hundred and fifty people showed up at the Community Center for a banquet and screening. Patricia Neal attended. Many citizens who had appeared as extras in A Face In the Crowd were there. Those baton twirlers now approaching their seventies reminisced. My youth has returned, said one of them. It could have been yesterday when we did that. The local high school reunion’s theme was Not a Face In The Crowd. Whatever this picture means to the rest of us, it can’t hope to live and breathe with the intensity it does for the people of Piggot. How many such rural locales can claim proprietary interest in such a classic film?

Photo Captions:
Andy Griffith --- The Next Big Thing In Dramatic Stars
Elia Kazan Directs Griffith and Patricia Neal
Kazan and Griffith Receive Warner Sales Force Visitors on New York Set
Winners and Losers: A Face In The Crowd and Forthcoming Monster Hit No Time For Sergeants
Our Own Liberty Theatre Plays Up NC's Own Andy Griffith For a Summer 1957 Run
A Little Of How A Face In The Crowd Was Sold
Charity Premiere at New York's Globe Theatre
Kazan Points At Nothing In Particular For Griffith and Budd Schulberg At The Opening
Song Sheets: Where Are They Now?
Andy Drops In On a Washington, DC Record Hop TV Show To Promote F.I.T.C.
Kazan and Team Receive Arkansas Key To The State From Governor Orval Faubus
When All Else Fails, Sell It With Batons!


Blogger preston122 said...

NYC's Film Forum had a special event this past March which included Patricia Neal and Budd Schulberg, plus some of the Piggot, AR folks from the film. The podcast is still available:

12:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For those that didn't already know WBTV's Arthur Smith wrote the theme music for DELIVERANCE, "Dueling Banjos", which apparently Warner Bros. thought was an old traditional bluegrass classic in the public domain. Smith pursued litigation and won against

5:30 PM  
Blogger Vanwall said...

I used to try and convince people Andy Griffith gave one of the greatest performances in movie history in this film, but all they ever saw was his Hicksberry stuff, and later, Matlock - it was a Sisyphean task which I generally failed at, sadly. AFITC was also my favorite Patricia Neal film, as it was as much about Marcia's gradual disintegration as it was about Lonesome's sudden way to the same result. Franciosa and Matthau also gave some of their better performances in supporting roles, before they were top-billers. Lee Remick was virtually unchanged for the 30 years or so - but I'lll always remember this little round-heels best of all.

If you were fortunate enough to catch the late, great Adrienne Shelly's "Waitress" in theaters last year, Griffith gave what I felt was Oscar quality support work as Old Joe, a randy geezer who was looking out for Jenna, the main character, in ways mysterious. Best of all, there's a scene where Joe is reading from an advice column in the local newspaper, and he whips out that evil grin and voice from his Lonesome Rhodes persona, and cackles "I love living vicariously through the pain and suffering of others" - how can you not love that face, I ask you?.

10:12 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Andy still had it in him late in his career... anybody here see the CBS TV movie "Murder in Coweta County," in which he plays John Wallace to Johnny Cash's Sheriff Lamar Potts? THERE's an incredible depiction of controlled evil - sinister, yet sublime. Well worth checking out.

10:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My aunt was just regurgitating that old cadswollop about the Fifties, adding that It was "a danderous time to be Jewish in America".HUH?

5:42 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Some would argue that Griffith's performance is not that much of a stretch as he has often been known to be more like 'Lonesome' than 'Sheriff Taylor'.

He certainly was the night I met him.

1:19 PM  
Blogger onlyanirishboy said...

Wait a minute! How did LIFE write about a 3-hour version? Was this in a review, which would imply that the version shown to critics was much longer than what we now have? There's no indication that this film was first released in a road show version, which were often longer than the general release version. (It may have been TIME that years later, when "ISADORA" was shortened after its poor initial reception and renamed "The Loves of Isadora", that encouraged people to see it before it got reduced still further to a version called "I LOVE IZZY.") Anyway, Schulberg has always pointed to Will Rogers as his inspiration, having been bemused by the contradiction between his homespun image and his polo-playing lifestyle. Rogers had enormous public platforms in the 30's, including being #1 at the box office and a widely-syndicated daily column -- unlike Godfrey, who at his peak had two top-rated TV shows, and Ernie Ford, who was essentially a one-hit wonder (Sixteen Tons) -- but was an ardent Democrat. (It also tends to be forgotten that Rogers always thought of himself as an Indian, being born in Indian Territory to part-Cherokee parents) The film that supposedly is based on Godfrey is Jose Ferrer's "The Great Man."

6:03 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi onlyanirishboy --- My understanding was that Kazan ran a pre-release cut of "A Face In The Crowd" for LIFE editors to gauge their reaction. I don't doubt there were a number of contacts he had in NYC who saw the film and offered suggestions.

11:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Griffith's chilling performance places this movie in the "unwatchable" category for me to this day. He was brilliant all right, almost too brilliant. My mind can't handle the contrast of characters, so I must give up reruns of The Andy Griffith Show or this movie. I choose the latter.

6:50 PM  

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