There’s no denying that A Face in the Crowd captures aspects of Trump’s character—Rhodes’s vulgarity, his volatile mixture of ego and insecurity, and his instinctive mastery of mass media are all eerily familiar. Yet the similarities go only so far. Like Trump’s, Rhodes’s populism is a means to an end, but at least he comes by it more credibly, having walked the dusty byways of northeastern Arkansas and spent long nights in its drunk tanks.
Schulberg and Kazan’s real achievement wasn’t anticipating Trump. It was appreciating, at the dawn of the television era, how susceptible the American public would be to his pitch. As Trump’s first term comes to a close, A Face in the Crowd is worth revisiting—less for what it reveals about the president than for what it says about the rest of us.
Populism of questionable authenticity was not invented in 2015, and no party has a monopoly on snake oil. As much as Lonesome Rhodes may remind contemporary Americans of Donald Trump, he was modeled on one of the nation’s most famous Democrats: Will Rogers.
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A famously down-home wit, Rogers was one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood when his small plane crashed in Alaska in 1935. A few years later, Rogers’s son Will Rogers Jr. was chatting one night with a fellow Hollywood scion, Schulberg, the son of a successful Paramount producer. Rogers Jr. was contemplating a congressional run in 1942.
Both men had served in the military during World War II and knew something of privilege, the real world, and phonies. Drinks were imbibed. Too many drinks. They were two princes reflecting on it all. Schulberg later recounted the conversation for the film critic Richard Schickel.
“My father was so full of shit, because he pretends he’s just one of the people, just one of the guys,” Rogers told Schulberg. “But in our house the only people that ever came as guests were the richest people in town, the bankers and the power-brokers of L.A. And those were his friends and that’s where his heart is and he (was) really a goddamned reactionary.”
“Jesus, Will,” Schulberg replied. “You’d better keep your voice down, because you can’t knock Will Rogers … You can’t win without Will Rogers.”
Rogers Jr. did win the House seat, with the help of his father’s ghost. But his lament about his fraudulent papa stuck with his friend and inspired “Your Arkansas Traveler,” the best story in Schulberg’s 1953 collection, Some Faces in the Crowd.
The collection was published the year before Schulberg’s Hollywood breakthrough, On the Waterfront. Directed by Kazan, the film was instantly hailed as a classic, winning Academy Awards for screenplay and director.
Following that success, Schulberg and Kazan teamed up again, this time to adapt “Your Arkansas Traveler” for the screen. On the page, Schulberg’s story had been a cautionary tale about how television could warp the ego and make a man forget where he came from. The film, they decided, ought to deliver a more forceful condemnation of the medium and the power it could grant to a clever demagogue.