Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Face in the Crowd Today

If Hollywood remade the 1957 film "A Face in the Crowd," its main character would look a lot like Glenn Beck.

Starting out as a guitar-playing country bum, Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes stumbles into a gig as a small-town Arkansas radio show host, full of folksy stories. He quickly finds that his admiring listeners will do whatever he says.

Andy Griffith as Lonesome Rhodes in front of a microphone
(Yes, that is Andy Griffith.)

Soon Lonesome is on a Memphis TV show and has people sending quarters to help a family who lost their house. He also tussles with his mattress-company sponsor, who withdraws sponsorship only to have Lonesome's fans protest and burn a mattress outside the company's doors.

People with picket signs burning a mattress in a trash can
His notoriety propels him to New York and national TV, with a show that's a bit like "Heehaw" crossed with Will Rogers. The show's sponsor is Vitajex, a nostrum with this chemical composition:

Vitajex chemical make up pie chart, 2.5 gr caffeine, 3.5 cr aspirin, 6 gr dextrose
For those who are playing along at home, those measurements are in grains, so each pill contained 228 mg aspirin, 163 mg caffeine and 390 mg dextrose. Four Vitajex a day would max out the aspirin dose limit and equal four to six cups of coffee, which would leave users peppy, if not wired, and feeling no pain. (It's debatable whether it's better or worse than selling overpriced gold like Beck's Goldline sponsor.)

Aside from making a boxcar-full of money, Lonesome's new friends in the business encourage him to raise his sights to shaping public opinion. This takes the form of pushing a particular presidential candidate, with Lonesome helping to reform his image into a duck-hunting man of the people instead of a boring Beltway insider.

Lonesome finally falls from public grace when an open mic during the ending credits of a show exposes his contempt for the public:

To those morons out there, shucks, I can take chicken fertilizer and sell it to them as caviar. I can make 'em eat dog food and they'll think it's steak. Sure, I got 'em like this. You know what the public's like? A cage full of guinea pigs. Good night, you stupid idiots. Good night, you miserable slobs. They're a lot of trained seals. I toss 'em a dead fish and they'll flap their flippers.
The film came out in 1957, and didn't make a big splash, despite the fact that it was created by the same writer and director as "On the Waterfront."

It wasn't nominated for any Oscars, but I'd say it has more to say today than most of its contemporaries.

For an interesting look at films about media mavericks (including "Network," "Bob Roberts," "Pump Up the Volume," "Talk Radio" and "A Face in the Crowd") see the Museum of the Moving Image's short documentary Razzle Dazzle.

1 comment:

Miss Rossbach said...

Interesting read! I don't recall watching the film, so I'll have to see if I can find a copy. Nice connections.