Illustration by Matthieu Bourel; Photographs from AF Archive; Alamy; Everett Collection; Ronald Grant Archive

For its evening programming on January 20, 2017, Turner Classic Movies, a network known for its commitment to the cinematic canon, not its politics, made a pointed scheduling decision. The channel would be airing A Face in the Crowd.

On any other Friday evening, it would have been an unremarkable choice. Though not a critical success in its own time, the 1957 film, written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan, has since been heralded as a masterpiece, praised by François Truffaut and preserved by the National Film Registry. The movie tells the story of Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a charismatic, populist entertainer with a dark side, who uses the new medium of television to rise to the pinnacle of American power. TCM swore it had chosen the airdate simply to mark the birthday of Patricia Neal, who co-starred in the film. The fact that it was also Donald Trump’s Inauguration Day had nothing to do with it.

The network would hardly have been the first to make the connection between Rhodes and Trump. Cinephiles and politicos alike saw Trump’s political career foretold in Schulberg and Kazan’s fable. Just a few months after Trump entered the race, the conservative writer Cal Thomas devoted an entire syndicated column to the resemblance between Griffith’s demagogue and candidate Trump.

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.

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.

Schulberg and Kazan spent the summer of 1955 thick in research. “Five days a week, like a steady job, throughout the summer of ’55, we sat in on product-group meetings, TV program conferences and rehearsals,” Schulberg later wrote. “We lunched and dined and drank and talked with everybody we could induce to hold still for us.” They interviewed network presidents, directors, writers, performers, account executives, technicians, electricians—anyone who could help them understand the changing landscape.

They also consulted politicians, who were busy trying to figure out the new medium. Schulberg and Kazan met with Senators Lyndon B. Johnson, Al Gore Sr., and Stuart Symington, who were proud of the new TV studio that had been set up in the basement of the old Senate Office Building. “You have to watch your eyes now,” LBJ told them. “That TV camera is right in your face … If you don’t hold your eyes steady, people will say, ‘He’s shifty.’ ”

The filmmakers paid particular attention to one of television’s most popular personalities at the time, the folksy Arthur Godfrey, who in 1955 was hosting variety shows such as Arthur Godfrey and His Friends on CBS. A July 19 memo from Kazan to Schulberg, part of Schulberg’s papers at Dartmouth, reads like an oppo file on a political rival, detailing Godfrey’s shift from cheap hamburgers to fine imported caviar as his star rose.

To play their own version of Godfrey, the filmmakers turned to Andy Griffith, a seemingly unlikely choice given the wholesome roles—Andy Taylor, Ben Matlock—that would later define his career. Even at the time, Griffith was a long shot; his résumé was thin, and competition for the part was fierce. But Schulberg and Kazan were willing to hear him out.

One night, at Gallaghers Steakhouse, on 52nd Street in Manhattan, Griffith met with the filmmakers. He asked if they had ever heard of Oral Roberts, the charismatic preacher. They hadn’t. Griffith grabbed Kazan’s head in his hands and reenacted one of Roberts’s faith-healing sessions. “HEAL!” he yelled at Kazan. He got the part.

The film begins with a young radio producer, Marcia Jeffries (Neal), discovering Griffith’s Rhodes sleeping off a bender in the local jail. Jeffries is the host of a radio program called A Face in the Crowd, in which she hands a microphone to locals and lets them tell their stories. From an initially cranky Rhodes she coaxes an impromptu song that thrills her listening audience and earns him a regular slot on the station.

In short order, he has the entire town eating from his hand as he dispenses hard-earned wisdom and spins tall tales about his hometown of Riddle, Arkansas, which no one can seem to find on a map. His stories aren’t true, but they feel true. They’re not unlike what Trump, in The Art of the Deal, called “truthful hyperbole”: “an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.”

Jeffries falls for the talent she has discovered, but she is not the film’s love interest. As Kazan wrote to Schulberg in 1956,

This story is of love and betrayal between LR and the people of the country. He speaks for them and at first is their partisan. So they fall in love with him. They reward him with their love and then their esteem and dollars. These spoil him. He begins to despise them … This is the CENTRAL STORY, all the other stories are subordinate.

Rhodes soon jumps from local radio to national television, relying on the same combination of the homespun and the irreverent to charm and titillate. On his variety show he plays loud music, tells wild yarns, and generally rejoices in violating television’s, and society’s, rules of propriety. The network execs fear they’ve created a monster. But the viewers can’t get enough of his act.

As his popularity soars, Rhodes becomes a sought-after pitchman. Asked to shill for Vitajex, an over-the-counter energy pill with sluggish sales, he rebrands it as a proto-Viagra that can turn any man into a Casanova. Soon Rhodes acquires a teen-beauty-queen wife—Miss Arkansas Drum Majorette 1957—and an unhealthy obsession with his numbers. “See the new ratings this morning?” he asks Jeffries. “Just picked up another million.”

Rhodes becomes so popular that a presidential candidate seeks his advice. “We’ve got to face it, politics have entered a new stage, a television stage,” an adviser has told the candidate. “The people want capsule slogans. ‘Time for a change.’ ‘The mess in Washington.’ ” Rhodes coaches the staid candidate through a populist pitch for entitlement reform. “Why, Daniel Boone wasn’t looking for unemployment insurance and old-age pension. All he needed was his ax and his gun and a chance to hew a living out of the forest with his own hands.” For his consulting work, Rhodes asks only that he be offered a newly created Cabinet position: secretary for national morale.

The writer and the director were convinced they had another hit on their hands. They didn’t. Critics shrugged, and the box office disappointed. (The film was so unsuccessful, in fact, that it effectively ended Griffith’s movie career, consigning him to the very medium A Face in the Crowd assailed.) “I thought it was going to tap a very responsive chord,” Kazan wrote to Schulberg. “Apparently I miscalculated.”

The problem, as diagnosed by The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, was that audiences found Rhodes unbelievable. The public, he wrote, would never be snowed that easily—they would be “finished with him” before a real-life Rhodes could do nearly so much damage.

Time, of course, would prove Crowther wrong and the filmmakers right. Though the film arrived just as television was saturating the country—in 1950, fewer than 10 percent of American households had a set; by the end of the decade, nearly 90 percent did—the two men intuited how susceptible the American public would be to this form of mass communication and the ways it could be used to corrupt the nation’s politics.

Indeed, to the extent the film got it wrong, it was by not being cynical enough. “We came away with a feeling that television is neither monster nor panacea,” Schulberg wrote in TV Guide in 1957.

A demagog [sic] with a commanding rating could menace our democracy. But a moment of televised truth, a single shot of conspiratorial whispering behind hands, can prick the conscience of a nation more effectively than a dozen righteous editorials. Television is not a morality. It is an instrument—the most persuasive in the history of communication—for great good and great evil.

To demonstrate their finding, Kazan and Schulberg had to devise a fitting comeuppance for their antihero. In perhaps the most famous scene in the film, a hot mic captures Rhodes bragging on the set of his show about his hold over his easily duped audience.

Those morons out there? Shucks, I can take chicken fertilizer and sell it to them for caviar. I can make them eat dog food and 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.

In the film, the reveal results in Rhodes’s downfall. As Kazan put it, “He is unmasked—irretrievably so—before the nation.” In real life, it’s not clear that demagogues are subject to the laws of physics. Trump’s infamous boast that he “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters”—while intended as a compliment to his loyal supporters—is not so different from calling them trained seals. And, of course, Trump had his own hot-mic moment, the Access Hollywood tape, on which the candidate bragged about grabbing women by their genitals. Many observers, including on the Trump campaign, thought the tape would be the end of his candidacy—surely the public would react as the vox populi did in A Face in the Crowd: “Why, he’s a monster!” “We’ll fix you, jerk.” The Trump campaign took a momentary hit, but the crowd eventually moved on to other distractions and entertainments.

A Face in the Crowd paints an unflattering portrait of the viewing public’s gullibility and distractibility, but it held out hope that the American people could be made to see through a figure like Lonesome Rhodes. Kazan recognized his mistake in retrospect. In the age of mass media, a skilled demagogue like Rhodes can rise to great heights and defy any easy moral arc as long as the public continues to sit back and enjoy the show. In a 1958 letter to Schulberg, Kazan wrote, “We conceived Face in the Crowd as a ‘warning to the American people.’ ” To that end, they made Lonesome Rhodes play the heavy and take the fall, letting the rest of us off the hook. “We should have been showing that LR was us.”


This article appears in the November 2020 print edition with the headline “Still Falling for It.”

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.