Andy Griffith (later to become the lovable Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry) made his screen debut in 1957’s “A Face in the Crowd” written by Budd Shulberg from his short story “Your Arkansas Traveler”, and directed by Elia Kazan.
Shulberg and Kazan were an award-wining writer and director infamous for naming names before HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee). Kazan followed up his testimony with the award-winning anti-union and pro-informer film “On the Waterfront”.
Spoiler Alert: This is a 60+ year old film, so it’s hard to spoil a plot at this late date, but you probably haven’t seen it. If you want to see it and be surprised, read the next paragraph but skip the one after.
“A Face in the Crowd” starts with a radio program on a small-town Arkansas station. The conceit is to interview ordinary folks and give them their 15 minutes of fame. The host decides to check out the county jail for an interview subject and stumbles upon Larry Rhodes, a drifter doing a week for public drunkenness. Rhodes is coarse and considered dangerous by the other jail denizens. He comes alive on mic with homey language and improvised songs. She dubs him “Lonesome Rhodes” and together they rise to stardom, first as a folksy Will Rogers-type and then as a dangerous demagogue. Fame and fortune go to his head as he becomes advisor to a presidential candidate.
It becomes clear that he’s on his way to a fall. The question is how and when that will come. He sells out his trusted advisor (Marcia Jeffries, played by Patricia Neal), eloping to Mexico with a 17 year-old after proposing to Marcia. Marcia brings about his fall by leaving him on a hot mic during the closing credits of his TV show as he tells his fellow cast members what he really thinks of the flock of sheep he leads.
Is Lonesome Rhodes a stand-in for Senator Joe McCarthy? McCarthy was a bumpkin from Grand Chute, WI before he rose to infamy with the Army-McCarthy Hearings in the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations. He fell from grace when the Army’s legal counsel, Joseph Welch, finally said, “Have you no sense of decency, Sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” Is this Kazan and Shulberg expressing their guilt for naming names and being unwilling or unable to stand up to Sen McCarthy and his ilk? Is Marcia the courageous one who stands up when Shulberg and Kazan fail to do so? Is Marcia Joesph Welch?
[McCarthy, like current Rep George Santos, “embellished” his resume. He was mocked as “Tail-gunner Joe” for his made up tales of WW II daring. The fictional Rhodes, like ex-president djt, expressed contempt for his followers and has a line in the film almost the same as djt’s infamous line about being so popular he could shoot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue and get away with it.]
In 1982,Orson Welles was asked about Kazan by a French reporter and replied, “Elia Kazan is a traitor. He is a man who sold to McCarthy all his companions at a time when he could continue to work in New York at high salary, and having sold all his people to McCarthy, he then made a film called On the Waterfront which was a celebration of the informer.”