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Prophetic Face in the Crowd

David Haven Blake

Frank Capra's film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939) pervades American political culture. For decades, the film's account of an idealistic young senator who battles government corruption has been our gleaming cultural cliché, the standard by which we measure new political personalities.

But the problem with invoking Jefferson Smith-whether for inspiration or irony-is that his story is a poor touchstone for thinking about the workings of democracy. For all of its attention to senate protocol and power blocs, there is nothing in Capra's film that can help us understand the spectacle of candidates trying to win over an electorate.

Mr. Smith, we might remember, was never elected to office; he received a special governor's appointment.

It is time to enter a new film into American political consciousness, one more suited to the spectacle of Fred Thompson announcing his presidential campaign on "The Tonight Show" or Barack Obama boogying with Ellen DeGeneres on daytime TV. My nomination is "A Face in the Crowd" (1957), screenwriter Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan's startling film about the power of media and celebrity. Though the occasion was hardly noticed, the film recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. Could there be a better time to reflect on its continuing relevance?

"A Face in the Crowd" tells the story of Lonesome Rhodes, a drunken roustabout played by a magnetic Andy Griffith. Discovered in a small town jail by an ambitious producer (Patricia O'Neal), Rhodes experiences overnight success as an Arkansas radio personality. He quickly evolves into a television sensation and guitar-picking American icon. With the help of the retired general whose vitamin company sponsors his show, he becomes a wielder of national opinion, a showman eager to comment on public affairs.

With devastating bluntness, Rhodes coaches a presidential candidate how to speak in the folksy, down-home style that his 65 million viewers prefer. (The candidate, a rather priggish senator, demonstrates his newly-acquired skills as a guest on Rhodes' "Cracker Barrel" TV show.) Politicians see Rhodes as being so influential that they talk about giving him a new cabinet position: the Secretary of National Morale. Fueled by a heavy dose of Jack Daniels, the scene in which he responds to his empire's collapse will forever change the way you look at the normally affable Griffith.

The film struggled to find an audience when it was released, but over the years, its portrait of television and demagoguery has attracted an impressive group of admirers. François Truffaut described "A Face in the Crowd" as "a great and beautiful work," comparing its weightiness to the writings of Roland Barthes. Spike Lee cited the film as a major inspiration and dedicated "Bamboozled "(2000) to Schulberg. It is hard to imagine such gems as "Network" (1976), "Bob Roberts" (1992), and "Bulworth" (1998) without the groundbreaking efforts of this underappreciated film.

In Lonesome Rhodes, Schulberg and Kazan showed Americans their own "demagogue in denim." Although he was inspired by Will Rogers, Arthur Godfrey, and Joseph McCarthy, his lineage is less significant than his real-life descendants. We find his DNA in the long tradition of media personalities who have tried to identify themselves with populist power-Pat Robertson, Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rush Limbaugh and his "ditto-heads" among them. Rhodes's rise and fall anticipates the arc of cowboy Don Imus' career, though the speed of his demise makes the Imus departure seem like a slow ride into the sunset.

"A Face in the Crowd" was astonishingly prophetic in understanding the role that television would play in shaping political campaigns. As Kazan presented it, television was the "hypnotic terrible force" that turned celebrities into demagogues and citizens into sheep. "Let us not forget," the general remarks with chilling delight, "that in TV we have the greatest instrument for mass persuasion in the history of the world." The film led Truffaut to conclude that "In America, politics always overlaps show business, as show business always overlaps advertising."

We have learned since the Eisenhower era that viewers play a significant role in transforming celebrities into objects of their own design. The public has grown adept at choosing which aspects of a star they admire.

And as if they were a kind of cultural Silly Putty, public figures must yield to audience distortions and manipulations that give them alternate, even subversive meanings. Spend an hour on YouTube, and you will see the many ways in which personalities from Madonna to Giuliani are re-imagined and re-conceived.

And yet, despite our media savvy, the values of Lonesome Rhodes and his backers continue to thrive in the Internet age. The 50th anniversary is a good occasion to pick up the DVD of "A Face in the Crowd" and appreciate its remarkable achievement. And as the primary season intensifies, let us hope that the film becomes part of our regular political vocabulary and a recognized source of illumination and critique.

David Haven Blake, associate professor of English at the College of New Jersey, is the author of "Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity." He is currently writing a book about democracy and fame in the television age.

© 2007

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