A Face in the Crowd
Directed by Elia Kazan
Elia Kazan’s film A Face in the Crowd utilizes populist themes— but in his films, these themes are presented dramatically opposite from other populist films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or Meet John Doe. Those films’ director, Frank Capra, explores the power the everyman has against the corporate machine (Richards 1976). Whereas Capra glorified his everyman protagonists, Kazan demonized his. Kazan’s Lonesome Rhodes, played by the publicly adored Andy Griffith, uses his populist appeal to propagate big business’s capitalist agenda. By feeding on the ignorance of the common man, Rhodes and his corporate sponsors manipulate and take advantage of a populist public. When Lonesome Rhodes first meets the executives of Vitajex, Kazan shows the audience just how manipulative the “Lonesome Rhodes” performance is. Through the use of acting direction and counter shots, Kazan shows the audience that the scheme behind the “Lonesome Rhodes” act is to take advantage of populist ideas for the advancement of capitalism.
Kazan dramatizes populism in Griffith’s performance by having him exude the characteristics of the common man. He’s charming, he’s engaging, and he’s common. The casting of Griffith alone is enough to pull on the sympathies of the public as people adore him. But Kazan’s direction in this scene shows how Rhodes is quickly able to turn on the populist figure act in order to appeal to the masses. As he begins his performance, the people in the room instantly become engrossed in his pitch. He’s engaging and interesting to his audience. Additionally, he uses slang and a lower vocabulary compared to the college-level vocabulary and diction of the businessmen, which shows his understanding of the populist public. And most importantly, he uses sex appeal to draw his audience in and make them laugh— to make them trust him.
Kazan has Griffith perform to all these aspects because it is relatable to the average man. It’s not an appeal to the businessmen or upper class. Rather it’s an appeal to the common man, the person who would see “Lonesome Rhodes,” someone like them, on TV and be persuaded to buy this product. Critic Thomas Beltzer writes of Rhodes’ act, “we Southerners immediately identify Rhodes as a familiar personality using a well-worn technique” (2004). Additionally, James Wolcott wrote in Vanity Fair that Rhodes “is no innocent buffoon; he's as cynical as his paymasters. He preys upon the yearnings and insecurities of regular folks and plays them for suckers” (2007). Kazan includes this moment in his film to show the audience not only is the whole “Lonesome Rhodes” character a facade but to also show that Rhodes knows how to manipulate his audience.
To tie the scene together, Kazan shows, through the use of counter shots, how Rhodes’ performance is emanating with the populist public. Throughout Rhodes performance, Kazan makes a number of cuts to Marcia, who is eagerly watching the “Lonesome Rhodes’ show.” In these cut, Marcia is wide-eyed and entranced with Rhodes performance. She watches Rhodes with admiration and takes in every word he says; she’s in love the everyman appeal Rhodes exudes. She is drawn in by his charm and charisma and his ability to bring to life the attractiveness of the common man.
Conversely, Kazan also cuts to reaction shots of the elite businessmen in the room. Unlike Marcia’s expressions of admiration and adoration, these men’s expressions are much more cynical. As Rhode’s performance peaks, the businessmen begin laughing and buying into the performance, knowing that this performance is what is going to sell their product to an impressionable public.
Kazan contrasts these two shots to show how people react to the “Lonesome Rhodes” persona. Kazan shows the audience Marcia, who comes from humble roots and represents the average person. She has undoubtedly fallen for the everyman charm of Rhodes (Beltzer 2004). Then he shows the audience the businessmen, who are apart of the corporate machine and are only looking at “Lonesome Rhodes” as a way to increase profit. These men are taking hold of the populist influence of “Lonesome Rhodes” and using it to scam money out of gullible people, who truly believe, as Marcia demonstrates, in the everyman persona Rhodes exudes.
In A Face in the Crowd, Elia Kazan utilizes the themes of populism in a more cynical manner than the works of Frank Capra. In the scene when Lonesome Rhodes first meets with the executives of the Vitajex brand, Kazan shows the audience exactly how marketers and corporate America take advantage of the populist appeal. Kazan dramatizes populist themes through Andy Griffith’s performance and uses counter shots of Marcia and the Vitajex executives to illustrate the commodification of populist ideas.
Beltzer, Thomas. Face in the Crowd. Senses of Cinema. Fredericksburg. Beltzer. 2004. http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/cteq/04/face_in_the_crowd.html (9/5/2013).
Richards, Jeffrey. Frank Capra and the Cinema of Populism. Movies and Methods. Nichols, B. ed. Berkeley. University of California Press. 1976. 0520028902. pp. 65-77.
Wolcott, James. Unforgettable Face. Vanity Fair. Iss. 559. 2007. pp. 228. http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2007/03/wolcott200703?currentPage=all (9/5/2013).