Following Andy Griffith's passing Tuesday, many people are remembering his role in Elia Kazan's 1957 film A Face in the Crowd both for his great performance as Lonesome Rhodes, a demagogic populist media personality and for the way Budd Schulberg's script predicted the rise of Glenn Beck.
"Andy Griffith channels Glenn Beck in 1957," tweeted New York and Vanity Fair contributing editor Joe Hagan, who included a video that begins to explain the comparison. In it, Griffith's drifter-turned-media darling Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes describes his scheme to help elect a senator running for president so he can earn a place in the administration:
Discovered by a do-gooder reporter while sleeping off in a bender in a drunk tank, Rhodes turns his charming "every man" spiel into a career that eventually brings him a national television show. Quickly Rhodes becomes a demagogue, making and breaking politicians and businesses, drunk on power as he spews a populist message but is secretly contemptuous of his viewers. Here's another clip in the trailer, also making the rounds today, that shows Rhodes talking behind the backs of his fans:
The Lonesome Rhode-as-modern-day omen comparisons began decades later. In 1990, director Elia Kazan said Rhodes foreshadowed Ronald Reagan's rise. As television and cable news grew up, the comparisons grew stronger. James Wolcott revisited the film in Vanity Fair in 2007 and described how the morality tale didn't take quite as well in the early days of television as it did later, when Griffith's ominous personality grew more familiar:
While contemporary reviewers scoffed at the prospect of a hayseed fireball like Lonesome Rhodes becoming a national sensation, Kazan-Schulberg's depiction of the packaging and marketing of fake authenticity now looks prophetic, if a trifle overcooked ... The militant gullibility and brassy confidence of today's elite opinion-makers produce more harm and folly than anything conjured in A Face in the Crowd. Because they possess influence. They're professional dupes.
By 2008, these "professional dupes" had a star among them in Beck. The New Yorker's Nancy Franklin made the most elegant case for comparing Lonesome Rhodes to Beck in her 2009 review of Beck's Fox News show. She begins subtly by emphasizing Beck's similarities to Rhodes without mention of the latter character. "[L]ike many an egomaniac throughout history, [Beck] takes pains to present himself as a regular guy, shrugging his shoulders and saying, 'But what do I know?'" She adds: "Beck looks cherubic, with his boyish crewcut, his rubbery, expressive face, his wide eyes, and his seemingly innocent smile, but he has a wizened heart and a sulfurous outlook on American life and politics." She hammers home the point by emphasizing these details -- his repackaging and his appearance in contrast with his vitriolic personality -- in Rhodes's character when she finally brings up the film:
At the end of the Elia Kazan–Budd Schulberg movie “A Face in the Crowd,” the Arkansas opportunist and petty criminal who has been repackaged, by a radio broadcaster, as a guitar-playing professional hayseed called Lonesome Rhodes (played brilliantly by Andy Griffith), and who has been consumed and ruined by fame, shows his true colors when he bad-mouths his audience over an open mike. The nation abandons him, and, as the movie ends, he’s shouting, unheard, into the night. These days, because of the Internet, it’s not so easy to get rid of a demagogue. Long after Beck leaves radio and TV, his sound bites will still be with us."
In commenting on the film's prescience, she shows some foresight of her own by predicting Beck's post-Fox career as a host of a subscription-based show streamed over the Web. Beck's show remains alive on the Internet.
Rhodes, as Franklin says, meets his downfall when the credits are rolling at the end of his show and he's pictured, but not heard, on screen as he discusses his viewers' stupidity. Patricia Neal's character turns his microphone on, exposing him to America. It's another good scene we've seen passed around:
Beck's exit from Fox was far less dramatic, but given the heights he'd once attained, it was pretty notable. Probably no one gets more credit for furthering the comparison over the years than Beck's antagonist, TV host Keith Olbermann who regularly referred to Beck as "Lonesome Rhodes" (or, if he took a big breath, "the mythical homespun aw-shucks-TV-totalitarian-Lonesome-Rhodes Glenn Beck") even in moments where he wasn't discussing the film. Olbermann made the same prediction as Franklin when he gleefully discussed Beck's exit from Fox News as his ratings collapsed. The host admits that Beck's exit isn't quite as superb as Rhodes' but for inspiration in his eulogy, he turns to the advice an ad-exec gives Rhodes as he laments his future. Olbermann says:
A little more dramatic than simply quitting to go to Pay Per View, with possibly the same outcome. It's given to ad exec Walter Matthau to answer the question Lonesome Rhodes asks after his dramatic fall: "What's going to happen to me?" "Suppose I tell you," says Matthau, "exactly what's going to happen to you. You'll be back on television only it won't be quite the same as it was before. After a cooling off period someone will say, 'Why don't we try him again in an inexpensive format? People's memories aren't too long.' And in a way he'll be right. some people will forget. Some won't. You'll have a show. Maybe not the best hour, top ten, maybe not even top 50. You'll have a show. It just won't be quite the same as it was before. Then a couple of new fellas will come along and your fans will be flocking around them. Then one day, someone will ask, 'Whatever happened to what's his name? You know the one who was so big? The number one fella a couple years ago. He was famous. How could we forget a name like that?'"
You can see why Olbermann likes this imagining of Beck's fate. (Though he did deliver the tale of resurrected shows from Current, a network to which he moved from the larger MSNBC, and from which he's since left in his own dramatic exit.)
"I had never heard of Lonesome Rhodes," Beck tells me. "I had never seen the movie....As soon as I heard that, I watched it....Lonesome Rhodes and I, I guess, had a few things in common. He was a drunk. I'm in AA; he wasn't. He, at the very beginning, said things that he believed -- I think. I'm not really even sure on that. I used to not say the things I believe."
Griffith is better remembered, of course, for his turn as Sherriff Andy Taylor, and that too, is a reason people revisit Kazan's film: It's a look at Griffith, in his first film performance, turning in a totally different kind of role from the ones he was later known for. And while Griffith put in an amazing, layered performance as Rhodes, it's the prescience of A Face in the Crowd that's got media-watchers taking about the film today.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.