Roanoke fans of The Andy Griffith Show can take a short trip to Griffith’s hometown of Mount Airy, North Carolina and immerse themselves in all things Mayberry. However, those wishing to really see Andy Griffith’s acting chops should be sure to watch his 1957 movie A Face in the Crowd. Griffith made his film debut in this Elia Kazan directed classic and his stunning performance takes his Mayberry familiarity to the dark side and turns it upside down.
Griffith stars as Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes. Rhodes is an Arkansas hobo we first meet as a besotted drunk in a small town jail. Enter Patricia Neal (another actor from our region; see related article) in a devastingly beautiful and tragic performance as Marcia Jeffries, a radio show host looking for interesting characters. Boy does she find one in Rhodes! His straight from the soul songs with his guitar and his homespun humor and personality skyrocket him to fame and ultimately land him his own television show. But Rhodes harbors an ugly, dark, manipulative side capable of destroying all those around him. Marcia, against all her intelligence and better judgement, cannot help falling in love with him. In the end, she painfully realizes she must bring him down in order to save herself.
Andy Griffith is utterly spellbinding in this role that one cannot imagine being played by anyone else. His UNC Chapel Hill degree in Music is fully on display in this film. The first time he bangs out a chord on his guitar and woefully belts out “ten thousand miles from home” rattles the viewer to the very core. His dual personalities as a Hee-Haw style entertainer and a monstrous egomaniac offer a once in a lifetime performance immortalized on film.
Another surprise for classic movie fans is Walter Matthau in the role of Mel Miller. Mel is a fellow journalist and friend of Marcia who also happens to be in love with her. The role gives another opportunity to see Matthau in a serious part (see the related November 22nd article Matthau superb in original Pelham One Two Three). He is low key, charming, and sympathetic. He serves as something of a backseat hero who has the audience pulling for he and Marcia to find happiness together.
Director Elia Kazan, the master of the drama with a resume that includes A Streetcar Named Desire and East of Eden, is at his best here. His film is raw, beautiful, and tragic. He opens his movie with the same wholesome hopeful awe that Marcia experiences when first encountering Rhodes. Yet by the end, he holds no punches as he unmasks Rhodes to expose his true persona.
A Face in the Crowd is available through the Salem branch of our Roanoke County Library. It is a Frankenstein-like drama starring an actor from our region that should not be missed.