|Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.|
Dr. King was passionate believer in non-violence. He said: “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy, instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate.” The United States remains today a country riddled by violence, with mass shootings a daily occurrence, police beatings of citizens (usually Black) still common and military actions including drone strikes and assassinations perpetrated (always on people of color) in the Middle East.
Dr. King’s message became more radical in the years after the 1963 March on Washington. Today he would be chastised by the right as a socialist as indeed many of the proposals he made for curing what ailed society were straight out of today’s Socialist Democratic playbook. He also became a vocal critic of the Vietnam War and would undoubtedly today be vociferous in his opposition to this country’s military adventures in Third World countries.
Madison Avenue has done a lot to co-opt the image and legacy of Dr. King. They have sanitized him and made him an icon and diluted his message. And part of the proof of it is that his birthday is, for the vast majority of Americans, merely an excuse for a three-day weekend.
Speaking of Madison Avenue….A few days ago I started a task that will take months. I am going through every post I’ve written on this blog in it’s nearly 12 years of existence and cleaning up typos, misspellings and bad punctuation. I am also removing posts that are just plain awful or are heavily reliant on links or videos that are no longer extant. Wish me luck. Anyhoo, one of the old posts I saw today was about the Eliza Kazan film, A Face in the Crowd (1957). I’m sure I haven’t watched it since I wrote the post in July of ’08 and I recall that back then it was my first viewing of the movie. I’d been thinking of revisiting Face and sure enough it’s on the Criterion Channel so I had my second viewing earlier today.
|Andy Griffith in A Face in the Crowd|
A Face in the Crowd is one of those movies that provides endless talking points. It is about a heavy-drinking drifter who is plucked out of an Arkansas jail and given a radio show. He has an exuberant folksy charm and can spin a yarn, make you laugh and — oddly enough — influence you. Larry ‘Lonesome’ Rhodes is endlessly appealing to the masses and wins over so many followers in northeast Arkansas that he is snatched up by a Memphis TV station and is so successful there that he lands a network TV job. It would be a typical rags to riches story if Lonesome didn’t amass so much power and become, as another character calls him, a demagogue in denim. Why he’s even got a national politician who’s running for the presidency under his sway.
While the people love Lonesome he’s not so keen on them. They are the pawns he uses in his efforts to gain increasingly more power and influence.
This larger-than-life character is portrayed by Andy Griffith who in three years would become known to the world as Sheriff Andy Taylor on his eponymous show, The Andy Griffith Show. Andys Taylor and Griffith were nothing like Lonesome being more charming and lovable than charismatic. Griffith is so associated with the Andy Taylor character (and to a lesser degree to the character of Matlock on the show of the same name) that is weird if not down-right unsettling seeing him play a combination of Huey Long, Arthur Godfrey, Will Rogers and Hank Williams. Indeed he calls to mind national figures of more recent times, notably our current president.
Patricia Neal gives a bravura performance — equaling her later Oscar-winning turn in Hud (1963) — as the woman who discovers him and unwittingly helps create the monster he becomes. Anthony Franciosa is the slick Madison Avenue agent who build the Lonesome empire and Walter Matthau is the cynical writer who sees right through him. (I was surprised to discover that not only did Face not win any Oscars, it didn’t even garner a nomination and further that it was not particularly well-received by critics. One can only surmise that its message was well ahead of its time.)
A Face in the Crowd is not a cautionary tale because clearly its message has not been paid the slightest attention to as evidenced by the rise of Trump. But it is a film worth exploring. It has of course a relevance to today but I daresay any sort of remake set in modern times would focus on social media rather than just TV. There’s a lot going on this excellent film including, obviously, populism and demagoguery and a look at American culture, especially as it was in the mid 20th century. Kazan’s direction is, as always, excellent and the cast is wonderful.