Demagogue in Denim
By Rev. Billy C. Wirtz
Damn, I wish I had thought of that title, but then again, I wish I’d thought of almost everything in A Face In the Crowd.
For the past thirty years, I have listed Night Of The Hunter as my all-time favorite movie.
A Face In The Crowd just took that title belt.
When I wrote my column about Andy Griffith, it had been nearly a decade since I had seen the movie.
The parallels between this movie and events as recent as last week continue to move this picture from interesting to lock–your-doors chilling in it’s surreal foreshadowing of July 2012.
Free Man In the Morning
As a instrumental version of “Key To The Highway” plays in the background, we roll up on an idyllic town square in Arkansas. Patricia Neal is a reporter with the local radio station, doing a “man on the street” series of interviews.
When she decides to enter the local drunk tank, we descend from Mayberry to Cape Fear. The hoboes are surly and filthy. The main holding tank is for whites and in the background a cell resembling an animal stall houses the lone black inmate. Her attempts to get some humor out of the men result in an obscene impression of a jackass by real-life southern comic Rod Brasfield.
The sheriff kicks a sleeping form under a blanket and we get our first glimpse of the vile, lecherous drifter named Lonesome Rhodes.
He eyes Neal from head to toe and pulls out his guitar.
Running his hands gently over it, her proceeds to inform her:
“You see, unlike a woman, I can always count on this gui-tar. Yeah, when she get’s out of tune, I just give her a little twist and she straightens right out.”
The word “twist” is delivered with a snarl and a laugh sinister beyond words.
He then proceeds to hit an “E” chord and sing:
“I’m a thousand miles from home..”
This is Hollywood’s first and last use of the blues at it’s most stripped-down, bare-bones honesty.
There’s nothing vicariously romantic (Bessie Smith in Stormy Weather), nor comical (The Blues Brothers) about these blues. They are the dischordant aspirations of an alcoholic parasite whose dreams begin and end with getting out of jail in the morning, so he can buy some booze and some tail and repeat the process.
From his first scene onward, Griffith’s character oozes a slimy, gutter-level sensuality. He’s Elvis with no redeeming value, a white-trash sixty-minute man who derives success and pleasure from his carnal appeal to the wives and secretaries of polite society.
Authority is raked over the coals. The white men of power, the ad agency execs, the media moguls, and even the elected officials, are portrayed as spineless, Janus-faced eunuchs.
Griffith’s first step up the ladder is a TV station in Memphis. His premier act of defiance is to spit in the face of the establishment by mocking his white, impotent sponsor (a mattress company!!) and proceeding to help a black, single mom rebuild a home recently destroyed by fire.
As “Key To the Highway” fades in, we see Griffith heading for New York City.
Before leaving for New York, he collides with one of his writers, played by Walter Matthau. In one of the few moments in movie history (that bothers) to capture the tension between southern gentry and white trash, Griffith takes every opportunity to show his venomous hatred for “Vanderbilt ‘44” as he refers to Matthau’s character.
The product that launches him from local star to national fame is a worthless vitamin supplement known as “Vitajex.”
When Griffith enters a board meeting, the ad execs are arguing over how best to appeal to the public’s intellect. He proceeds to launch into an impromptu speech equating Vitajex with virility and sexual stamina.
In this scene alone, Griffith’s sociopathic personality switches from Hannibal Lechter to Will Rogers no less than three times. He continues to do so, unchecked, for rest of the movie. Griffiths’ absolute brilliance in his portrayal of Rhodes reveals that even his apparent addiction to power is itself only a facade, underneath which lies an insatiable need to crush and humiliate anyone he sees as having been dealt a better hand than himself and his cronies.
The Cracker Barrel
When Brasfield, as “Beanie” introduces a “new-fangled” gadget that proves to be a primitive computer producing canned applause and a laugh track, the movie goes from eerie to unrelentingly dark.
Having now attained national prominence with Vitajex, Griffith’s character begins trying to think of a name for a television show that supports political hacks and spews right-wing dogma disguised as down-home philosophy.
He names his program:
“The Cracker Barrel.”
As his power continues to grow, he is called upon by politicians as an advisor and (I swear) public relations/media consultant.
I sat there dumbfounded as he eviscerated the senatorial candidate (a thinly disguised Estes Kevauver) in front of the his yes men. As Rhodes corrected his speech, I kept waiting to hear the senator say “cheesy grits.”
When Griffith begins to mock the senator, the camera pulls back to reveal a room full of men laughing. The loudest and harshest laugh belongs to the senator’s butler, a black man.
On the next episode of Cracker Barrel we witness the candidate haranguing social security and big government, followed by Griffith singing “What a Friend We Have In Jesus.”
Why MSNBC and those on the left do not show this movie on a twenty-four-hours-a-day loop escapes me.
The final irony occurred courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.
Immediately following A Face, TCM presented No Time For Sergeants.
Gone was the virile, white-trash Lonesome Rhodes replaced by a sexless, idiot savant named Will Stockdale.
In the opening scene, Griffith’s sweat-stained “wife-beater” shirt is now a pair of (ironed and pressed) overalls.
The southern stereotypes are painfully simple-minded but lovable, the very character that Lonesome Roads himself sold to the public.
Once again, cinema foreshadows reality. When the best gag in the movie revolves around latrines, we are witnessing Larry The Cable Guy in a larval state.
A Face in the Crowd presents a threatening, unlikeable character reinforcing every fear of his more successful male peers. Their endowment is financial, but his is of a more desired sort that they can’t buy. He makes them money, but they pay dearly.
I guess I must not have been the only one to notice the not-so-subtle sexual anarchy and the race/class boundaries dissected by A Face In The Crowd.
In No Time For Sergeants there’s also no time for blacks, as Bigger Thomas/ Lonesome Rhodes/Howlin’ Wolf is tamed and demoted to an emasculated simpleton. Mama Guitar’s curves have been replaced by a row of saluting toilet seats, and things are, for the ruling class, back to the way they should be.
A Face In The Crowd is the darkest movie I’ve ever seen; it may have forever spoiled The Andy Griffith Show for me.
There’s not one single moment of comic relief, none.
Forget Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, this is the real post-war South.
I won’t spoil it for you, but check out the scene at the end briefly hinting that Rhodes’ true personality has been hidden the entire time.
The existential theme of “no one leaves unscathed,” the corrupt media figures, and obvious foreshadowing begs the question:
Aren’t these the perfect times and circumstances for a remake of A Face In the Crowd?
Someone must have thought so.
Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is a weekly columnist at BluesWax. Each week he finds artists, albums, and music that you should know about. He also plays piano. His radio show, Rev. Billy’s Rhythm Revival, is available in podcast. To hear the latest, go to Rev. Billy C. Wirtz’ page on Facebook and look for the link.
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