I first became aware of this film back in 1999, when Elia Kazan received an Honorary Oscar and they showed clips from several of his movies, and my first response to the clip from this film was "Willikers, is that Andy Griffith?!" Yes, indeed it was. This was before he was Mayberry's sheriff - before, in fact, he was even somewhat typecast as a "good guy." He was mostly known for stand-up comedy at this point, but this was a completely - COMPLETELY - different role than he would ever play for the rest of his career.
The film begins in a small town somewhere in the Ozarks. It's set in the year it was released, 1957, when people were starting to do a lot less listening to the radio and a lot more watching television. Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), whose uncle owns the local radio station, is in search of material for her radio show, "A Face in the Crowd," in which she interviews everyday schmoes or, as some might call them, "real Americans." She goes to the local jail, in hopes of finding a colorful character or two, and meets Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith), who is in for a week on charges of drunkenness and disorderly conduct. Working out a deal with the sherrif for an early release, Marcia persuades him to talk for a few minutes and sing a song with his "Mama Guitar." She instantly senses something very special about him, and convinces her uncle to hire him for the morning radio show. Convincing Rhodes, who she has unofficially named "Lonesome Rhodes," is another matter altogether. She manages to, however, mostly by assuring him that if he doesn't like it he can leave, with a plane ticket to wherever he was walking to when she found him.
Lonesome agrees and is a huge success on the radio. He has keen powers of observation and a way of talking to people that convinces them he speaks their language. He pulls a couple of stunts that help him realize the kind of sway he has over people and that he can get them to do just about anything he says. It isn't long, though, before television comes calling. He is offered a job on a Memphis channel, and when he and Marcia board the train, he makes a snide comment under his breath and she sees the first true glimpse of who he really is. She was shocked but accepting of his drunkenness and womanizing, but this is her first clue that he's a fraud.
Things go well on Memphis television, crossing paths in the process with Mel Miller (Walter Matthau in a surprisingly dramatic turn), one of his staff writers, and Joey DePalma (Anthony Franciosa), an office boy who becomes Rhodes' agent. Mel and Joey are basically foils for each other, Mel being the overlooked conscience of the film and Joey being in a lot of ways the devil on Lonesome's shoulder (not that he needs one). He has conflicts with one sponsor and gets in bed with another, Vitajex, using his skills of persuasion to turn a pill that is mostly sugar and has almost zero nutritional or health value into the biggest thing since sliced bread. He soon finds himself with a nationally televised show and a penthouse in New York.
Despite his protestations that he loves Marcia and needs her, he pretty much shoves their personal relationship down the toilet (as well as any lingering audience sympathy for him) by marrying a 17-year-old baton twirler that he meets when judging a contest in his hometown. Marcia stands her ground, though, and at least claims what she deserves from their business relationship.
In what is the next logical step in his ascent, he starts taking meetings with a politician who is trying to run for President and coaching him on how to better sell himself. He has a new show called "Lonesome Rhodes' Cracker Barrel" (no, really) where he and a bunch of other fake hicks chew the fat about politics. He invites the politician, Senator Fuller, to come and sell his ideas on the show. At this point, it's hard to imagine how much further up the ladder Rhodes can go, and as a viewer you're not sure you want to see it happen; it's only a matter of time before the tide starts to turn against him.
I'd like to remind you, in case you forgot since I mentioned it above, that this guy is played by National Treasure ANDY EFFING GRIFFITH. You have NEVER seen him like this, unless you've already seen this movie. It's incredible!
He gets a painful but satisfying (for the viewer) slap in the face when his small town child-bride turns out not to be as innocent as she first seemed. This drives him to seek solace in Marcia's bed, but thankfully before anything can happen he shows her his true face, his true ambitions, and what he really thinks of his followers. She sees for the first time what a monster she created and sets out to destroy him. It doesn't take much - just like in modern times, there are few things that change people's perceptions about a public figure more effectively than a microphone left on when someone thinks it's off. In a fairly obvious, but nonetheless clever, metaphor, in the time it takes Rhodes to ride the elevator from the upper-floor studio to the ground floor to get in his car and go back home (where he's supposed to have dinner with all kinds of powerful people), his stock with the public plummets along with him. The switchboards are on fire with people calling to complain about him, his agent has lined up a replacement for him, and he gets home to find that absolutely no one has shown up for his dinner party. He's finished, and only half an hour has passed since the microphone incident.
This movie is a brilliant bit of writing that I'd stack up against The Greatest Screenplay Of All Time, Network, and the two films have similar themes. Both of them involve how people are manipulated by the media, particularly television. I'm going to say this, and I realize this may make a few of you tune out, but it is no accident that Keith Olbermann's nickname for Glenn Beck is "Lonesome Rhodes." I am going to be generous and give Beck at least the benefit of the doubt that he at least believes in (some of?) what he is spewing. Perhaps that is too generous, but I am reluctant to think less of any actual human being. But the similarity in the hold that has over his audience is frankly chilling. Here was a guy (I'm talking about Rhodes now) who came from nothing, had no possessions that didn't fit in his rickety suitcase, reeked of ignorance (by which I mean literally without education), had virtually no morals, and had no friends. And yet he went from that to being one of the most powerful men in America, simply because he spoke to people like he was "one of them."
I can't say enough about the performances in this film. You are seriously not prepared for how skeezy and manipulative ANDY FRICKIN' GRIFFITH is in this movie, and yet he still manages, at some points, to be likable. Patricia Neal is outstanding. I once went to see this at an arthouse theater in Nashville, and she was in attendance and answered some questions. She sat right behind me during the movie and I kept hearing her soft, husky laugh in my ear. Walter Matthau owns every scene he is in, and despite the fact that this is not one of the comedic roles he's better known for, you can totally see from this performance what he had that made him a huge star. Anthony Franciosa is near diabolical, turning his friendly office boy role into someone who has even more power than Rhodes. And Lee Remick, in her big screen debut, takes a tiny bit of screen time and makes an authentic character out of her baton-twirling Barbie doll role. Of course, it helps when Elia Kazan is calling the shots. He made many famous and great films, but this one is definitely my favorite of his.
I'll leave you with this scene and remind you (again!) that this is the man little Ronnie Howard used to call "Paw." And I will also take this opportunity to express my deep straight-girl crush on Patricia Neal, who is absolutely gorgeous in this scene.