A Face in the Crowd (1957)

Directed by Elia Kazan

Warner Bros.

The homespun southern charm of an overnight media celebrity enthralls the nation through television even as he becomes corrupt, bitter, and political.

Lonesome Rhodes (Andy “Matlock” Griffith’s first serious role) is a local drunk discovered by radio host Marcia Jefferies (Patricia Neal) for her show “A Face in the Crowd”; the immediate popular response quickly leads to Rhodes landing a regular radio show, a local tv show, and a national show in quick succession, all under the production of love-interest Jefferies. Even politicians want in on his accessibility. Can Rhodes maintain his meteoric rise?

With its overtones invoking cultural phenomenon from George W. Bush to the cult of American Idol, “A Face in the Crowd,” maintains an astonishing relevancy even as a 50-year old self-conscious “message movie.”

The highlight is a supporting performance by Walter Matthau as a writer on Rhodes’ national show who also falls in love with Jefferies; he cynically comments on the action without having the confidence to interfere. Besides biting wit, Matthau conveys the frustration of Cold War intellectuals unable to find a way out of the national chaos percolating around them during the anti-Communist 1950s.

The role is an important one as a Kazan movie is inevitably seen in light of his decision to name names to the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC), the organ for official McCarthyism, particularly as Budd Schulberg, Kazan’s screenwriter on this picture and “On the Waterfront” also acted as a “friendly witness” against alleged Communists. The Matthau character shows the self-hatred at an inability to create a viable third way.

But this is just an additional layer. The film itself is an intensely prescient and entertaining look at the power of television to mesmerize America, showing the new technological version of “bread and circuses” years before the Kennedy-Nixon debates proved that someone’s television performance could be decisive in a national election.

—Staff writer Scoop A. Wasserstein can be reached at